Iditarod — the name alone conjures images of the bitter cold wilderness of Alaska. Man and beast fighting the worst of Mother Nature, covering more than 900 miles to prove they are the fastest.
But for a local veterinarian, the bond between man and the “extreme athlete” he calls his best friend became the experience of a lifetime at the “Last Great Race.”
Gunnison’s Seth Nienhueser recently returned from Alaska, where he volunteered to serve as a race veterinarian. The Iditarod is an eight- to 15-day dog sled race held in early March which begins in Anchorage and ends in Nome, Alaska.
Nienhueser learned of the volunteer opportunity from his former boss in North Dakota. He applied and met all the criteria for a race veterinarian, and learned that he was accepted last year.
‘Energy of the moment’
The race begins with a celebratory start in Anchorage and then moves to Wasilla for the official start. Nienhueser recalled the moment the quiet Main Street filled with dogs and their mushers preparing for the start.
“The energy of the moment was incredible,” he said. “They get all their dogs out of their trucks, and the dogs are super excited. It’s 50 teams with 14 dogs a piece — it was really cool to see.”
From Anchorage, Nienhueser traveled to the first checkpoint — Yentna — just 53 miles from the start.
“It’s below zero and we’re in the middle of nowhere,” said Nienhueser, who chose to sleep outside with a moose bedded down nearby. “There are 15 people in a tiny bunkhouse — five vets, four communications personnel and check point people.”
At this check point, he said, some teams “blow in and out,” while others take time to rest their dogs. Nienhueser said it’s according to how the musher trains his team.
Care for ‘extreme athletes’
The next stop for the Gunnison vet was in McGrath, about a third of the way into the race at 311 miles from the start.
“That was the first time I got to see how the mushers care for the dogs in the race,” he said. “They bed the dogs down in straw, feed them multiple times and even heat their food for them. They put blankets over them.”
Niehueser called the dogs “extreme athletes” because of their ability to recover so quickly when it was time to rest. With just a half a minute of rest, their heart rates would return to normal.
Niehueser observed how well the mushers had trained their dogs. After running hard for miles upon miles, when it’s time to bed down, the dogs do so dutifully. At those times, he examined the furry athletes and saw the sweetness in their attitude and behavior.
“You can tell they were a changed dog during the race,” he said. “They knew their purpose, but had just ran 700 miles through some of the worst terrain. Then they lay down and look at you … like they knew you were there to care for them. I have the utmost respect for their abilities and what they do.”
‘That’s their life’
Controversy has followed the Iditarod race. Animal rights activists insist the race is unethical and deadly to the sled dogs. Nienhueser disagrees, saying he observed dogs who loved what they did and were excited to compete.
“To take that away from the dogs? That’s their life,” he said.
From McGrath, Nienhueser moved on to Kaltag — a little village on the Yukon River — where he met many of the tribal people of Alaska, and had snowball fights with the village children.
This check point followed some of the worst trail conditions experienced by the competitors. Nienhueser said he saw mushers who were drained from the experience of traveling through open flood waters and deep slush. One man cried when he reached the checkpoint.
Nineteen animals were labeled “return dogs” at this checkpoint. Those are dogs which become injured or ill and are left by their owners in the care of the veterinarians. The vets feed and care for the animals and treat their conditions. The dogs are eventually reunited with the mushers following the race.
Nienhueser’s last checkpoint landed him in a fishing village on the banks of the Bering Sea. At this point, another 100 dogs were returned for care — he watched one musher cry when he had to give up his dog, even though it was temporary.
In the small village, Nienhueser witnessed a sense of community — people who brought food to the mushers, supporting their one big event of the year.
Nienhueser also spent time with the mushers and heard their stories from the trail. They shared with him their addiction to the sport of sled dog racing, and how they got started. He gained the perspective of bonding with his fellow man whom he barely knew over an extreme sport with extreme conditions. And he formed similar connections with the many volunteers who come back each year to support the race, like a family reunion.
“I want to do it again,” Nienhueser said. “If you put in a little time, you’ll support this. There’s nothing negative I saw about this race. I want to help to maintain that trail and race into the future.”
(Chris Rourke can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.)