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What do the Mushers on the Iditarod Trail Do?

By: Dr. Tim Hunt
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​It is quite an experience to stand behind a sled and watch 6 hard-working athletic specimens (the dogs) run through the Alaskan wilderness. As a musher on the Iditarod Trail, you have to always be attentive to anything developing as to health issues, orthopedic or soreness problems, equipment staying together, what is ahead on the trail, how long you have been traveling, what to do at the next stop, what you did at the last stop, when did I drink last, bathroom breaks and much more.

Watching the dogs is obviously a huge deal and there are clues as to problems developing. The way the dog normally carries itself is burned into your brain so you know their gait for each individual dog and each foot. How they carry their ears will tell you if something is starting to develop as if they start to hurt, have a sore belly, or the like -- their ear set will change. How they carry their tail is also a “flag” to an impending issue, be it minor or major. You can over analyze this but these are good hints as to what “pupil” is raising their “hand” (ear or tail) in class to more or less ask the teacher a question. At least that is how I anthropomorphize it. Catch it early and sometimes you can head it off at the pass, more or less.

When it comes to lameness identification, think of the dog/person wanting to go away from the pain. So, if you put your leg down you tend to wince away from it. Same with a dog. They put their left front leg down and if it hurts the head bobs up. Head goes up on placing the sore front leg. If it is a back leg they will go away from the pain as well, but with the head bobbing down. Level line along the dog and the head bob up or down tends to tell you which leg is sore. Make sense? 

Besides watching the dogs' gait and mannerisms, you are always on poop duty to see what is coming out. This can give you indications of feeding success, gastrointestinal disturbances, stress and the like. A scale of stool quality is subjective but you get the drift.

The trail ahead is a good thing to stay aware of as long as you can stay awake on the sled. After hours of working on the dogs, being on the runners and very little sleep at a checkpoint it is easy to doze off only to find yourself being dragged behind your sled with a rope connecting you to the sled so they don’t go off with out you after you fell off asleep. It's quite an alarm clock. We try to avoid that with lots of coffee and 5 hour energy drinks. You need to be on your toes in many stretches of the trail as it does require some skillful maneuvering of your sled to avoid trees that are very hard in the winter, rocks, open water and the occasional other team that needs to be passed.

In between these moments of excitement can be hours of thinking and pondering about life. That can be good and bad; it depends on your psyche as there will be huge emotional ups and downs in this race. Many will listen to music, some listen to audio books.

Eating is another part of being a musher that gets lost in translation with those that don't immerse themselves in this sport. At anything below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, everything freezes -- including food. Candy bars are solid metal, meals are encased in ice, water becomes icebergs all very quickly. So, keeping or getting these warm can be a challenge. Good thermoses, putting hot water in first to warm them up and then the important stuff. Heck, toothpaste freezes solid. Often, with the food we will vacuum pack our pre-cooked meals (shepherds pie, lasagna and beef roast are some of my favorites) so they can be placed into the water boiling for the dogs meal and get thawed so I can eat after the dogs are fed. The other food items need to be in pockets in my parka to stay thawed or I break my teeth. Nuts, raisins or anything easy and as fatty as possible are all looked on favorably. I may go through 5,000-6,000 calories per day when it is very cold. Keeping human weight on is a real challenge and once I lost 13 pounds in one race.

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Voted America's Favorite Veterinarian in 2014, Dr. Tim Hunt provides expert content to Voyce. His role with Voyce is one example of the many terrific expert partners that have dog-specific content featured in the Voyce member portal. To join the Voyce Experience, click here.