What makes a musher decide to race 1,000 Miles across Alaska and the Yukon in the middle of the winter? What is it actually like out there? These are all questions we had in mind when we reached out to Nathaniel Hamlyn, a former Musher Representative, to get the inside story on how he first became interested in the Yukon Quest, and what his first Yukon Quest experience was like. Enjoy a peak behind the scenes!
The Yukon Quest 1,000 Mile International Sled Dog Race confirms race start in 2022.
After having made the difficult decision to cancel the 2021 Yukon Quest 1,000 Mile International Sled Dog Race due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Boards of Directors are happy to confirm that the next race will start in Fairbanks, Alaska on February 5, 2022.
As humans migrated across the Bering Straight and into North America, fully domesticated dogs accompanied them as far back as 15,000 years ago. It is well known that many northern Native cultures had dogs as prominent aspects of daily life, and there is archaeological evidence of dogs and harnesses in the same locations dating back prior to European contact with North America.
The use of canines as draft and pack animals in North America was a widespread practice in most Native cultures for thousands of years. In the far North, two main types of native dogs were the Eskimo or Inuit dog of coastal cultures, and the Interior Village dogs of Athabascan Indians and other First Nation groups. These two canine groups make up the indigenous genetic base for today's modern Alaskan Husky.
According to some historic accounts, Russian traders followed the Yukon River inland in the mid-1800’s to acquire sled dogs from the interior regions of this waterway as the dogs of this area were reputed to be stronger and better able to haul large, heavy loads than the native Russian sled dogs.
The Gold Rush Era of the late 1800’s and early 1900's saw tens of thousands of adventurers and gold seekers flow into the North. While the rivers provided excellent transportation corridors for half of the year, the extreme weather of the Northern Frontier demanded a more reliable and flexible means of transportation throughout the long winters. This became the era of the sled dog in the North. Everything that moved during the frozen season moved by dog team; prospectors, trappers, doctors, mail, commerce, trade, freighting of supplies…if it needed to move in winter, is was moved by sled dogs.
As airplanes took over the mail routes in the 1920's and 1930's, the sled dogs role in this area of society was diminished. With the coming of the highways and trucking transportation in the 1940's and 1950's, sled dogs lost their prominence in this area. The introduction of the snow machine (or snowmobile) in the 1950's and 1960's sounded the end of sled dogs dominating the traplines of the North, and began the decline of their general place within Northern society.
Recreational ‘mushing' and the advent of sled dog racing became the primary focus of many mushers who wished to maintain their ties to these incredible animals and to a way of life that was disappearing from the Far North. As the need for larger, stronger dogs changed to the desire for greater endurance and running efficiency, lighter breeds of dogs were introduced to the genetic lineage of sled dogs.
Ironically, the Siberian Husky, a lighter, quicker breed from Russia, was a favored breed to introduce to the larger draft sled dog breeds of North America to increase their overall speed. This presents a direct contrast to the idea that Russian traders sought heavier draft-type sled dogs from the Interior regions of Alaska and the Yukon less than a century earlier to increase the hauling capacity of their lighter sled dogs!
'Alaskan Huskies'' are the most commonly used breed of sled dog in the North today. This cross-breed between any of the pure, northern canine breeds and other types of dogs is the result of many generations of genetically purposeful breeding that began in the late 1800's and continues to this day.
These sled dogs can outrun almost anything on four legs over distances greater than 50 or 60 miles. They are well-known for their very tough feet, strong hearts and insulating undercoats are incredibly strong-minded while still being dedicated to the humans who love and care for them, and truly enjoy running in harness with their teammates and their mushers. Their sense of self confidence and individual accomplishment come from their ability to work in a manner similar to how their canine ancestors once worked…and the excitement in their eyes and voices when they are harnessed for a run or a race clearly illustrates this deep seated genetic drive to pull that defines modern Sled Dogs of the North.
The original sled dogs were chosen for their size, brute strength and stamina, but modern sled dogs are generally mixed-breed (‘Alaskan’) huskies who have been bred for generations for their endurance, strength, speed, tough feet, good attitude and appetites, and most importantly their desire to pull in harness and their abilities to run well within a team.
Some kennels still concentrate solely on pure-bred sled dogs, typically Siberian Huskies, Alaskan Malamutes or Canadian or American Inuit Dogs, but the majority of modern sled dogs found in long-distance races are truthfully 'genetic mutts' and the name that is most commonly used to refer to them as a group today is 'Alaskan Huskies'.
Theses modern sled dogs come in many different shapes (or conformations), sizes and a wide variety of colorings; from as small as 35 pounds up to 70 pounds or more. Typically, the modern long-distance Alaskan Huskies weigh between 45 and 60 pounds. Mushers strive for a well balanced dog team that matches all dogs for both size (approximately the same) and gait (the walking, trotting or running speeds of the dogs as well as the 'transition speed' where a dog will switch from one gait to another) so that the entire dog team moves in similar a fashion which increases overall team efficiency. Mismatched teams (large and smaller dogs, different running styles and gaits) can also perform well in long-distance sled dog races, but usually mushers will try to build their teams from sled dogs of similar size, structure and gaits.
Modern Sled Dogs must have good feet. Good canine feet for long-distance sled dogs are typically closely spaced (i.e. toes not spread out or ‘splayed’) and tough (i.e. resistant to both wear and injury). While good feet can be bred for, all sled dogs competing in long-distance races must also be provided with excellent foot care by their mushers. Booties are often worn as a protective covering, this helps the dogs naturally tough feet to cover long distances without difficulties. Extreme cold and new snow can lead to trail conditions that are abrasive to the dogs’ feet and also add more friction to the trail, preventing the sleds from gliding easily. Booties for the dogs are a necessity under these kinds of trail conditions.
Dogs sweat only through the mouths (panting) and feet, and not through pores of their skin like humans, so there is a constant need for mushers to balance the use of booties for protection with the dogs’ requirements for thermoregulation, or controlling their body temperatures, so mushers remove their dogs’ booties upon arrival at rest stops and when trail condition are good, teams may run without booties to allow their feet to have some breathing room.
Mushers are constantly inspecting their dogs feet all year long and throughout the race, and as a well known mushing expression says, “As go their feet, so go the dogs” meaning that everything rides on the feet of the dogs and even minor issues will lead to trouble if they are not dealt with quickly and effectively by the musher.
Modern sled dogs are canine athletes, and must be very fit to participate in races as demanding as the Yukon Quest. Any dogs that are even somewhat overweight will likely lead to unnecessary soreness as their joints and muscles cannot support the extra strain and effort the additional weight creates. Typically, the early pre-season training runs are very short distances and designed to get the sled dogs back into ‘running shape’ before the more serious training season begins.
Because these sled dogs are so athletic, many people seeing long-distance sled dogs for the first time are amazed by how small or thin they look; but in fact they are in excellent physical condition much like an Olympic marathon runner would ‘appear thin’ the day before their main race and compared to someone who never exercises, they would appear ‘too small’ at any time of year!
Modern sled dogs must also possess good fur, with an undercoat that insulates them from the cold temperatures where they live and run and an overcoat (also called a ‘guard hair coat’) that prevents the build-up of ice and snow in windy and cold conditions. With changing climatic conditions in the North, some years’ warmer weather can present challenges to these well-coated dogs, and mushers must take extra measures to prevent their heavier-coated dogs from overheating on warmer winter days.
Another important quality that musher looks for in their sled dog is how well they eat. From a young age, when the dogs are still pups, mushers will try to impart good eating habits with their dogs. Picky eaters tend to become more picky out on the trail or when weather conditions turn colder. Mushers look for dogs that eat with enthusiasm all the time, regardless of weather conditions of if they are tired. This way, their dogs eat well during training and on the race so that they can consume a sufficient amount of calories to be able to keep themselves warm while running and resting, even at extremely cold temperatures, and also be able to perform to their maximum abilities during the race. Just like people, if you are hungry, it’s more difficult to do what you can do than if you are well fed.
Finally, mushers look for sled dogs that love to run in harness, work well in a team with other sled dogs, and who get along well with the musher and have that ‘special bond’ that is at the core of great dog teams and their mushers. Although all the physical traits are necessary for sled dogs to be able to complete at the level of the Yukon Quest, it is often said that, “Attitude is Everything” and some dogs with lesser physical abilities, just like some less-talented human athletes, can often become superstars because of their tough mental attitude towards both life and the world of competition. The best modern sled dogs are well-bred, raised with care and love and are energetic and eager to please their musher.
By Melanie Donofro, DVM
Imagine a busy day Christmas shopping from store to store, or attending a favorite sporting event and having to park a long way from the venue. Once home, the first thing one tends to do is listen to their feet saying, "Take off these shoes!" Can you imagine what a sled dog's feet must say every time they get to a checkpoint?
Sometimes, if the sled dogs are wearing booties to protect their feet from the ice and snow, one can observe them lying in the straw, nibbling away at the Velcro bindings to remove their booties. That is why when a dog team arrives at a checkpoint, one of the very first things a musher does is remove his sled dogs' booties.
Sled dog veterinarians and mushers pay close attention to the dog teams' foot care. What are they looking for when they inspect each dog's feet for several minutes? At every mandatory checkpoint, the veterinarians spend considerable time checking each toe and joint for any soreness; toenails for damage that may need to be addressed; pads on the soles of the feet for any blisters; areas where the booties may have rubbed under the dewclaw and caused soreness; and finally, the webbing between the feet for swelling, redness, or cracks that can occur on a wet trail.
If the musher and veterinarian monitor the team's feet carefully and use preventive procedures, the dogs will finish the race with feet that are in as good or better condition than when they started the race. Proper foot care can heal a dog's sore feet from one checkpoint to the next.
Good dog mushers will take the time to massage different ointments into the dogs' feet after every run. This allows the healing effects of the salves to reverse the problems that occurred while running. There are various products formulated for different foot conditions. Some foot ointments keep the foot dry, some have antibiotics to prevent infection, and others contain herbals to decrease swelling. Mushers also put booties on their dogs' feet when there is cold, sharp snow or wet snow that will pack between the toes. This prevents "snowballs" from building up and causing a bruise between the dogs' toes. The booties also protect the pads from wear and tear on icy trails.
When I began working with sled dogs long ago, I thought they looked very fashionable in their matching harnesses and booties. It didn't long for me to learn that booties and good foot care play a vital role in keeping a team sound and healthy enough to run a 1000 miles. "No feet, no dog!"
Dr. Donofro has been a Yukon Quest trail veterinarian five times. Her experience also includes serving as a trail veterinarian for the Iditarod, Can-Am Crown, and Great Trail Sled Dog Races, and she has worked with racing greyhounds. She owns a small animal hospital in Florida, where she practices traditional veterinary medicine in conjunction with acupuncture, traditional chinese medicine, physical therapy, and spinal manipulation. In addition to her practice, she is active with Auburn University and the Florida Board of Veterinary Medicine.
Dawson City in Canada’s Yukon Territory, the halfway point in the Yukon Quest race, is one of the three mandatory vet checks during this epic journey.
Each member of every dog team arriving at the Yukon Quest’s Dawson City checkpoint is thoroughly examined by the Yukon Quest trail veterinarians. A musher cannot leave this checkpoint in the race without having had a complete physical exam on each of his or her dogs. This requires a veterinary assessment of each dog's circulatory system, including heart rates and sounds; hydration status and body weight; respiratory sounds; gastrointestinal tract; attitude and appetite; and last but not least, a thorough orthopedic exam.
This is not the first time in the race that the sled dog teams are examined. At the first checkpoint in the race, another mandatory vet check takes place and, after Dawson City, a third mandatory examination will be held at the final checkpoint before the finish line.
Not only are there Yukon Quest veterinarians available at every checkpoint, but also at the dog drops, which are available for a musher to leave a dog which is injured, ill, or tired in the care of volunteers.
Veterinarians at Dawson City, and the other checkpoints, also examine each dog to address the musher's observations of the dogs' performance on the trail, and to offer advice or a second opinion on medical concerns which require attention. Mushers and veterinarians use these opportunities to learn from each other, and have done so from the Quest's beginnings. With every passing Quest, the teamwork and collaboration of mushers and veterinarians grows. As a consequence, even the "mandatory" exams are not mandatory to the mushers, who always want the veterinarians to examine the dogs.
Dawson City also is the only checkpoint where the dog-handlers are allowed to take care of the dogs (and the mushers). The 36-hour layover in Dawson gives each handling team the time to massage any muscle stiffness in their canine athletes, and to provide plenty of food and water with lots of tender loving care to each resting animal. Here, the handlers serve as an integral link between the resting mushers and the attending veterinarians as the dogs enjoy their extended recuperation, rest, and relaxation.
Veterinary oversight and support are integral parts of the race, not just at Dawson, but from before the start, when the pre-race exams are performed, to after the finish line. Each musher carries a Veterinary Diary throughout the race, in which the medical history of each dog is maintained. Although different veterinarians may observe the dogs from checkpoint to checkpoint, the Veterinary Diaries offer a seamless way for the veterinary team as a whole to monitor each dog from start to finish.
The Yukon Quest is renowned as a race where dog care is of primary importance. The teamwork between mushers and veterinarians assures the well-being of the canine athletes. It is amazing to see these outstanding animals coming into the Dawson checkpoint after more than 500 miles on the trail, sometimes in harsh conditions with severe cold, and looking around curiously, wagging their tails happily, barking at other dogs, and simply being the wonderful canine athletes that they are.
One often hears the phrase, "dropping dogs," at sled dog races. The term actually has two different meanings.
First, sled dogs are "dropped" when a musher lifts them out of their traveling compartments for feeding and exercise.
When mushers journey from race to race, or from their homes to distant training trails more desirable than their own, the dogs ride in trucks or trailers housed in snug little compartments. The compartments, or boxes, are large enough for the dogs to reposition themselves comfortably while small enough to retain their body heat in the cold and to act as the dogs' seat belts and air bags in the unfortunate event of an auto accident.
Every musher sets a routine schedule whereby they drop the dogs every few hours by lifting them out of their compartments and setting them on the ground. Once on the ground, the dogs will relieve themselves, eat, drink, shake, stretch, play, mark territory by claiming the truck's tires as their own, and occasionally growl at an annoying kennel-mate.
After the dogs have been sufficiently exercised they are lifted back into their travel berths to continue their journey.
When the dog truck is parked at a motel for the night, the dogs also are dropped before bedtime and again first thing in the morning. At the race site they are dropped at least once before being hitched up for the competition.
The term "dropping dogs" is so common in the mushing vernacular that it is even used around the home and kennel when the dogs are fed or their kennels cleaned: "Honey, if you wash the dishes, I'll go drop dogs."
The term "dropping dogs" has a second, different meaning, as well. Sled dogs are dropped along the race trail when the musher no longer feels it is in the best interest of the dog to remain with the team.
When a racing sled dog is removed from the team during the Yukon Quest, it is immediately placed into the care of the Yukon Quest Veterinary Team to be cared for by the Trail Veterinarians and Veterinary Assistants prior to being presented to the mushers' handlers for further care until the dog is reunited with its owners and kennel mates.
Misconceptions abound about why dogs are dropped from competition. Sled dogs are not always dropped from the team because they have suffered a major injury or illness. While such things occasionally happen, there are many more reasons why dogs are dropped from competition.
Some dogs occasionally suffer minor injuries or illnesses that, while not serious, could become serious if the dog continued to race. These dogs are dropped from the team for their own good and to recuperate for future races.
Sometimes the dog is older, but very experienced. He may not be fast, but he can still contribute maturity and poise to his younger teammates. The musher will harness up the older animal for the first portion of the race with plans to drop the veteran along the way after the team has settled down. This semi-retiree can strut back to the kennel having showed those young whipper-snappers how it's done.
A similar strategy applies to a young dog that the musher wants to familiarize with the trail and race excitement, but who isn't ready to pull for a full thousand miles. These youngsters’ eagerness comes in handy for the first part of the race, but as they begin to grow bored or tired they are dropped while they still have enthusiasm.
There also is the issue of time management. The Yukon Quest is a race, after all. Fourteen dogs require 56 booties and 28 wrist wraps and 56 massaged feet and 28 massaged wrists at every checkpoint, dog drop and rest stop. And then there are the blankets, food, straw, water to heat, and backs and necks to rub. The mushers seldom sleep while caring for 14 dogs.
A good musher takes between 15 and 30 seconds to put a bootie on each foot. That adds up to 14 to 28 minutes to bootie a 14-dog team. Over ten checkpoints during a 10-day race, that’s four and a half hours of just putting on booties! Now, if the race is lost by less than four hours...?
As the race progresses, good dog care mandates that rookie and older veteran dogs will be dropped before they get tired or injured, while the core of the team, with their better endurance and physical abilities, gets more of the musher’s time and attention as they run the final legs to the finish.
As often as not, sled dogs are dropped from a marathon team either as part of a long-thought-out race strategy, or to prevent a minor injury from escalating into a major one, and not because of a major injury, illness, or accident.
"Dropping" healthy dogs into the waiting arms of the Yukon Quest Veterinary Team and then on to that team's handlers can lift the remainder of the team into the winner’s circle, and prevents injuries among the less able team mates.
Dr. Jerry Vanek has been a musher or sled dog race veterinarian for the past 30 years, including five Yukon Quests. He is a former officer of the ISDVMA and he continues to write and speak widely on the subject of sled dog medicine.
The veterinary care that sled dogs receive from their drivers and the veterinary team has changed dramatically for the Yukon Quest the years.
Musher dog care goals have evolved beyond just getting the team across the finish line to incorporating the musher's driving, strategy, and preparedness skills with their ability to detect subtle health and attitude abnormalities in each dog, to develop a sound nutritional program, and to provide foot care, massage therapy, and psychological support to each individual dog as well as to the team as a whole.
At the same time, the International Sled Dog Veterinary Medical Association (ISDVMA), to which all Quest veterinarians belong, provides a venue to share research findings and general information on topics of interest to both mushers and veterinarians throughout the international sled dog community. The ISDVMA's official publication, "The Musher & Veterinary Handbook," is used to supplement the veterinary policies of every sled dog race event, including the Quest.
The Quest veterinary staff uses this handbook as a training tool for all rookie vets. The handbook addresses such topics as nutrition, orthopedics, checkpoint protocols, athletic heart syndrome, sled dog myopathy, gastric ulcers, diarrhea, foot care, heat stress, hydration, frostbite, physical therapy, and sleep deprivation (the musher's). The handbook is supplemented periodically with updates on new research findings, treatment protocols, and other topics guided by musher concerns, interests, and problems encountered on the trail.
Today, veterinarians treat these amazing canines as athletes, not just pet dogs in a sled dog team. Research revealed that these dogs require 8,000 to 10,000 calories of food per day during a long distance race. Sled dog nutrition evolved to accommodate those findings. Research also demonstrated that Vitamin E supplementation was needed for these working dogs and the dog changed again. Diarrhea treatment protocols were broken down into categories of mild, persistent, and severe, with different treatment modalities developed for each.
Mushers developed better dog botties through trial and error. Foot ointments were adapted for different trail conditions and foot problems. Novel, anti-inflammatory massage ointments have come into widespread use to address both sore feet and sore muscles. New, injury-preventing harnesses and wrist and shoulder wraps were co-designed by mushers and veterinarians and are now in common use. Massage techniques have been adapted to provide therapy for sore and tired canine muscles.
As each new problem has been identified and teased apart and treatments developed, dog care techniques have changed to meet the challenge.
Research and interest continues in areas such as exercise-induced asthma, vaccination protocols, wilderness critical care, medically-necessary supplies, hypothyroidism, and the ever-expanding fields of physical therapy, chiropractic manipulation, acupuncture, massage therapy, and holistic medicine. Coupled with traditional veterinary medicine, mushers and veterinarians are working together to not only help individual dogs but to bring the dog team to its full athletic potential.
This partnership between musher and veterinarian will continue to foster future innovations throughout sled dog medicine for many years. There is an ever-expanding body of information that will require both the musher and the veterinarian to stay current on the newest training techniques, harness and sled designs, field medicine advances, nutrition, and the like.
To that end, many of the trail veterinarians on the Yukon Quest have hands-on experience, not only with sled dog medicine, but with training sled dogs, driving teams, and competing. Trail veterinarians travel from as far away as Australia and Germany, to join the North American veterinarians on the Yukon Quest trail. They all bring their interest, experience, and enthusiasm for the sport of sled dog racing. And, they all share a deep respect for the relationship between the musher and that amazing endurance athlete we call, the Racing Sled Dog.
Dr. McGill is the former owner of two small animal hospitals near Columbus, Ohio. At the 2000 Iditarod she was one of five veterinarians awarded the Golden Stethoscope by the mushers for her role in saving an injured dog's life. Dr. McGill has served as a trail veterinarian multiple times since 1997 on the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, the UP 200 Sled Dog Race, the Grand Portage Passage Sled Dog Marathon, the Iditarod Trail, the Eagle Cap, and six times on the the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, including three as Head Veterinarian. She is a member of the International Sled Dog Veterinary Medical Association and the International Sled Dog Racing Association.
"Establishing and maintaining high standards of care and promoting and rewarding excellence in canine care are core values of the Yukon Quest," explains Tania Simpson, Managing Director of the Alaska office of the Yukon Quest. "We pride ourselves on our veterinary team and in the care they are able to provide on the trail and throughout the race. The cooperative relationship between the Yukon Quest Veterinary Team and the mushers towards that goal is a priority throughout the 1,000-mile race."
Led by a highly experience Head Veterinarian, the Yukon Quest Veterinary Team works closely with Race Officials and the mushers to ensure that only the highest standards of care are met for the entire length of the race.
Dr Vern Starks, Head Veterinarian in 2007 & 2008 shows his pride in the Yukon Quest Veterinary Team, "Veterinarians vie for a position on this highly-qualified team. We have extremely high standards," says Starks. The Veterinary Team "represents an untold number of hours caring for sled dogs in a variety of racing situations. The dogs competing in the Yukon Quest receive the best care available to ensure they finish the race happy and healthy."
When a dog team enters a checkpoint, the veterinarian on duty is responsible for examining the sled dogs for their health and welfare. Sometimes many dog teams arrive close together and they don’t plan on staying long enough for each sled dog to receive a thorough physical examination. In these cases, the trail veterinarian uses a rapid medical assessment method to evaluate the dogs' status quickly.
The rapid medical assessment used by veterinarians is very similar to that used by human paramedics, Emergency Medical Technicians, emergency room nurses, and physicians. Only the names are different.
Sled dog veterinarians use an assessment mnemonic called: "HAW-L/GEE-R" and they apply it using a technique called "OPQ" or "LAF-ing" at a dog team. These mnemonics, or letter formulas translating to various words, help the veterinarian remember what to do when there are lots of dogs to examine rapidly and it’s late at night, cold and dark, and everybody’s tired.
To "LAF" at a dog team means to Look at and Listen to the dogs (L); to Ask questions of the mushers (A) and to Feel the dogs (F). OPQ means the same thing: To Observe (O) and Palpate the dogs (P) and to Question the musher (Q). This is exactly what a human physician does in the examine room with a patient.
"HAW" in mushing lingo means to turn left, while "GEE" means to turn right. For a veterinarian’s rapid medical assessment, these letters stand for: Heart and Hydration; Attitude and Appetite; Weight; Lungs; GastroEnteric system, Extremities (legs and spine); and uRine and Rate of Recovery.
When a team enters a checkpoint, the veterinarian is immediately Looking at (or Observing) the dogs for signs of depression, lack of interest in food or water, weight loss, etc. These signs often can be seen within moments of arrival.
With her hands, the veterinarian Feels (or Palpates) for an abnormal pulse, hydration, weight loss, a tense or painful abdomen, or swelling, heat, or pain in the legs or back If there’s time or concern, the veterinarian uses his stethoscope and Listens to (Observes) the heart, lungs, and abdomen.
The veterinarian also consults with the musher, Asking (Questioning) the driver if the dogs have had any medical problems on the trail that need to be addressed. This is what a human physician would do to cover all the major body systems and organs to insure that the athlete remains in good condition.
The majority of racing sled dogs suffer few, if any, major problems and the rapid medical and trauma assessment known as HAW-L/GEE-R, when applied with the OPQ or LAF-ing technique, insures that every dog receives the attention it needs and deserves without using undue time and resources which could be better spent on those few dogs who do, occasionally, need more intensive medical attention.
When you see a veterinarian at the starting line or finish line or in a checkpoint, and from a distance they appear to be just watching the dogs or petting them or merely shooting the breeze with the musher, they are actually working hard LAF-ing at the dog team!
Dr. Jerry Vanek has been a musher or sled dog race veterinarian for the past 30 years, including five Yukon Quests. He is a former officer of the ISDVMA and he continues to write and speak widely on the subject of sled dog medicine.