Having run a recreational team of Siberian Huskies for over 10 years, with some sprint racing experience in the mid 1990s (I know, it sounds funny to say sprint racing and Siberians in the same sentence, but hey, if someone didn’t finish last, no one could finish first), and having worked only as a veterinary assistant/technician for some mid-distance races, I was not sure of what to expect of the Yukon Quest. The following are a few things I observed, learned, or experienced on my first year as an official Yukon Quest trail veterinarian:
I get searched completely at the airport in Anchorage. Apparently a stethoscope, pen-light, and rectal thermometer are "suspicious" items. With my having black hair, a beard, and a darker complexion, the security guard keeps referring to me as "Ahkbar."
The guy that picks me up at the airport in Fairbanks laughs at how much gear I have and makes a prediction about how little of it actually will reach Whitehorse when I do.
At the Angel Creek mandatory vet check, I spend 15-20 minutes going over a team with one of the mushers only to be told by the handler that this musher doesn’t understand a damned thing I say. "Not everyone speaks English (you fool)!" Thankfully, German veterinarian, Dr. Annette Kriller, often acts as a translator for me. Also at Angel Creek, some dogs already have pad abrasions and splits between their toes. These same dogs will make it to Whitehorse, and the sores will be healed due to the diligent foot care of the mushers. I make the mistake of putting my head down on the table in the roadside café at Angel Creek. There's still a bump on the back of my head from when the owner reminds me, "There's no sleeping in here!" I won't make the same mistake on my second Quest.
I was born and raised in northern Minnesota. It's cold there, but it's DAMNED cold at the Mile 101 dog drop. The wind blows right through my clothes, not to mention the cracks in the walls of the outhouse. At this point many of the dogs are wearing protective coats to protect their undersides. There are some creative designs to protect those parts of a dog that you can’t imagine becoming frost-bitten. So far all my gear is with me.
By the time I reach the Central checkpoint, the dogs have already come a long way, but the mushers are beginning to walk the walk of the dead. The dogs are experiencing sore wrists and shoulders. Some of them are limping when they come in, but following massage, wrist-wrapping, rest (the dogs, not the mushers), more massage, and walking, they are not limping when they leave.
Circle brings the coldest weather yet. Fifty-below with wind blowing so hard you have to yell to communicate with the person you’re standing next to. We spend three days in Circle because it’s too cold to fly to Eagle. We drive back to Fairbanks because it’s warm enough for the planes to take off. My feet are continuously cold for three days. Before flying out of Fairbanks, I stop at "Big Ray's" and pick up my first pair of bunny boots. Thank God for bunny boots. I finally am on my way to Eagle when I look down on the runway only to see all of my gear being left behind. The pilot quips, "Hey, it's either you or your gear, and Dr. McGill says you have to be on this plane." During the flight, the scenery is the most beautiful I’ve seen. At one point the pilot elbows me in the ribs and says, "You’ve got to stop saying 'Wow,' its starting to bug me."
I could live in Eagle. There's nothing like seeing the mushers come in up the river and the Aurora Borealis there are the absolute best. I don't mind taking the overnight shift, just so I can watch the Northern Lights. It's here that I notice that, in this race, organization is key. The mushers who are the most organized, are the ones in the lead and in the best physical condition. The efficiency with which they pack and unpack their sled bags and tend to the needs of their dogs determines how much rest both they and the dogs will receive at each checkpoint. The organized mushers have no wasted movements, while others wander back and forth, retracing their steps, forgetting to do things, or repeating steps. It's not hard to see who is organized and who is not. Some sleds have food, dishes, coolers, harnesses, and blankets neatly lined up or stacked, while others look like a bomb was set off in them.
Dawson City comes next. The dogs really improve with their 36-hour mandatory rest. Feet that come in looking rough will heal to an acceptable degree. Protected by the elements, frost-bite becomes quiet, and the swelling of the wrists and ankles subsides. The dogs get well-hydrated and actually gain weight. With the handlers able to care for the dogs, the mushers get some much needed rest so they are better able to care for their dogs for the remaining days of the race. My gear is still missing, but I'm able to get a toothbrush here.
After a breakfast of eggs and moose steak at the McCabe's Creek dog drop, I decide to follow the trail down to the Yukon River. There, in the fresh snow, I see some dog foot prints. "That's one huge dog," I think to myself. But wait. Where are the marks from the sled runners? There aren’t any. Those aren’t dog tracks, they’re wolf tracks! I place my foot next to the track and take a picture. I suddenly realize that fresh snow = fresh tracks. And, I'm alone. Holy *@^#! You’ve never seen a vet move so fast in bunny boots.
By Carmacks, I'm walking the walk of the dead. Thankfully, the teams are spread out enough for me to get some rest. My gear catches up with me, but I'm almost too tired to clean up and change. After riding in a van with me for three days, Dr. Warren Webber insists that I do.
By the time I get to Braeburn Lodge, I think I'm starting to hallucinate. I’ve never seen hamburgers and cinnamon rolls that huge. Of course, I don’t think I've ever seen a biker that big either.
When I arrive in Whitehorse, Hans Gatt has long since won the race, but it feels good to stay awake and greet the remaining mushers and dogs that brave the 1000-mile journey between Fairbanks and Whitehorse. I am amazed that even after 1000 miles, some of the dogs are still hammerin' into their harnesses, bucking to go on, as the officials check the sleds for mandatory gear, and the media surround the mushers. Anyone who believes that mushers "make" these dogs run against their will have never seen a sight like this.
When I was invited to work the Yukon Quest, I was told to be careful. "It will change your life," said Dr. Jerry Vanek. It has. I’ll return to work it as long as they’ll have me. Because of this race, I now consider the year to have only two seasons: Yukon Quest time, and the rest of the year that is not the Yukon Quest. I’m looking forward to another great Quest experience this year (with much less gear).
Dr.Phillips lives with his family and a team of "senior citizen" Siberian Huskies in Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota. He practices companion animal medicnine at Shamrock Animal Hospital in Rosemount, Minnesota. He has been involved with sled dogs for over 15 years as a recreational "urban" musher, and it was his dogs that inspired him to pursue veterinary medicine. While in school, Gregg worked as a veterinary assistant for the 2004 Empire 130 and the 2004 Yukon Quest. He has been a trail veterinarian for the Quest ever since, and he always looks forward to working with the mushers, their dogs, and his veterinary colleagues from around the world.