The Iditarod on 12,000 calories a day

Battle Dawgs Racing, Alaska’s Healing Hearts and Iditarod benefit wounded warriors

This winter’s record Midwestern freeze made any outdoor activity a real challenge. It also made us appreciate modern housing, heating, transportation, and hydrocarbons – and what our frontline troops have endured in the Aleutians, Korea, and Afghanistan. I’ve been in minus 20°-50° F weather, and it is brutal.

The nasty weather reminded me of the Iditarod racers and spirited sled dogs I met last summer in Alaska. Trekking 1,100 miles from Anchorage to Nome, across Sam McGee’s wilderness in the dead of winter in nine to twelve days, is not for faint-hearted humans or canines. It’s equivalent to jogging from Chicago to Tampa or from Washington, D.C., to Kansas City – with temperatures ranging from a “balmy” 10° or 20°  F (-7° to -12° C) above to a bone-rattling and deadly  -50°  F(-46° C) or lower for the entire trip.

It helps explain why far more people have reached the summit of Mt. Everest than have finished the annual Iditarod race: some 4,000 to Everest’s peak versus around 900 individual dogsledders, many of whom are the same hardy men and women racing year after year. About 2,550 dog teams of 16 dogs each have competed since Dorothy Page and Joe Redington, Sr., launched the Iditarod dogsled race in 1973.

Rick Swenson has entered the race 33 times and won it five times, logging more than 82,000 miles in training and racing. DeeDee Jonrowe has started 27 races and finished 25, including 2003 when she began three weeks after finishing chemotherapy for breast cancer! (Go here for still more Iditarod trivia.)

BattleDawgs“The coldest I’ve ever been in during the Iditarod was -60° F, and I actually camped out on the trail that night with the dogs,” Rick Casillo told me. “It’s by far the coldest I have ever been. I went to sleep after taking care of the dogs, woke up 2 hours later and was starting to get hypothermic. I had to get out of my bag and get moving fast. When you’re dealing with temperatures like that, there is no room for error. You have to plan and execute each step perfectly.” Jack London’s “To build a fire” comes to mind.

Rick and his wife Jennifer operate Battle Dawgs Racing (see photo), Aurora Heli-Expeditions, and the Knik River Lodge west of Palmer. But Battle Dawgs is not just their dog kennel. By partnering withAlaska’s Healing Hearts, they’ve made it a wounded veterans rehabilitation program that enables military personnel and their families and loved ones to experience wild Alaska, restore their souls, and meet kindred spirits through hunting, fishing, mushing, flying, hiking and snowmobiling.

James Hastings, director of operations for AHH and a retired U.S. Army veteran, says their goal with Battle Dawgs is to have a year-round camp with cabins and facilities that can accommodate warriors in wheel chairs. Adds Jennifer, an Air Force veteran and reservist, aircraft mechanic and chopper pilot: “For a wounded veteran, the true battle often begins when they get home.” That’s why the dogs are important. “The healing capabilities of canines are legendary,” Rick says. “You can’t spend time with these men and women, and not want to help out by offering them some life changing experiences.”

Some of warriors will actually be members of Rick’s “pit crew” during dog races. One will be on his sled for the “ceremonial” portion of the 2014 Iditarod, from Anchorage to Eagle River, where the teams regroup and start the actual race. Few can imagine what goes into this race.

Pre-season racing is like pre-season football, Rick says. “You use it to gauge younger dogs and give them valuable racing experience. I’m looking for attitude, recovery time, eating habits, drive, and desire. These dogs are all born to run, but I need dogs that can do these runs over and over, willingly and happily.” Usually he spots these characteristics by opening day, but sometimes there are surprises.

“The toughest situation I was ever in was easily in 2007 when I was going up the Alaska Range from Rainey Pass,” Rick recalls. “The temperature was -30° F, with 40 mph winds – making it feel like -71°  F – and we were climbing in a complete whiteout. My goggles froze up solid and were useless. I was forced to take them off. Minutes later, frostbite set in on my nose, cheeks, and eyelids. Sometimes I had to walk in front of the team to find the trail.”

“All of a sudden, an 18-month-old dog started demanding to be up front, leading. Normally I would never rely on a young dog in a situation like that, but Grisman was jumping 5 feet in the air, howling to go. So I gave him a chance. Once I put Gris in lead, he never balked once. Not only did he take us up and over the range. He continued to be one of best dogs in that race and went on to be the best dog I have ever run.”

That experience underscores what are perhaps the six most important factors in Iditarod racing. (1) Bond and trust. “If you don’t have the dogs’ trust, you have nothing,” Rick emphasizes. (2) Mental and physical toughness, for dogs and musher alike. By the end of the race, each musher is tired, battered, and cut up – attesting to the difficulty of the trail and weather, and to the need to just keep going, no matter what. (3) Logistics. More on that in a minute. (4-6) “Dog care, dog care, dog care. As the dogs go, you go.”

For UPS and Amazon, logistics are vital. “Brown” even has a jingle about logistics, and Amazon.com hires numerous veterans because of their logistical skills. But for the military and Iditarod racers, logistics mean the difference between success and failure, life or death. “We’re on our own out there,” Rick told me. “No cell phones, no communications. Careful planning and preparation are critical.”

Each dog burns 12,000 calories a day during the Iditarod, Rick points out. That’s what Olympic swimming champion Michael Phelps reportedly consumes on racing days. Rick’s dogs eat a combination of beef, horse, fish and chicken; beef fat and turkey and chicken skins; tripe and high-grade dry dog food; salmon oil and natural supplements. They wear booties to protect their feet from the cold and bruising.

Mushers are required to carry a sleeping bag, ax, snow shoes, extra dog booties, a veterinary care book, a dog food cooker, and sufficient food for the dogs, in their sleds at all times. So they are hauling about 60 pounds of food and gear in sleds similar to what Inupiaq and Yup’ik Natives used for centuries. For each musher, some 3,000 pairs of booties and 2,000 pounds of food and personal gear are divided up and airlifted by volunteer flyers two weeks before the race to each of 20 check points along the route.

“We cover 125 to 150 miles a day. Our average runs are 60 miles, followed by a 4- to 5-hour break to eat, rest, massage, and care for the dogs – and then we iditaroddogsdo it again, and again, until we reach Nome,” Rick explains. Mushers are also required to shut down completely for two 8-hour and one 24-hour rest periods.

Tough hills, rocks, swollen creeks, high winds, frigid temperatures, storms, whiteout conditions, accidents and injuries to dogs or mushers, and other adventures can slow that pace down. But somehow they need to make it to the next check point, where volunteer veterinarians examine the dogs and they can replenish their supplies. More volunteers fly any injured dogs from the nearest checkpoint back to Eagle River, where Hiland Mountain Correctional Center inmates care for them until the mushers finish the race.

The hard training and careful preparation pay off. Rick has entered and finished four Iditarod races and is now preparing for his fifth. He’s also competed in many other dogsled races. This year he plans to run at a slower pace that requires less exertion and less rest – and results in less fatigue and healthier dogs that can chew up miles. That’s a bit different from a musher who “ran” all 188 miles to Rohn with minimal breaks in the first race of the 2013-14 season. It will be fascinating to watch all the mushers’ strategies in action.

They’re all straining, sweating, and freezing for the $50,000 first place prize – and smaller cash prizes for the next 30 top finishers, plus the joys and thrills of just being in this premier race. But competing in the Iditarod costs $30,000 or more in fees, supplies, dog care, preparation, training, and prelims.

So follow Rick Casillo on BattleDawgsRacing.com and all the mushers, preparations, history, and thrills of this amazing race at Iditarod.com. Buy some gear and DVDs. Support your favorite mushers and dogs with donations or by volunteering. And watch the race on television. It starts March 1 – and now you know enough to really understand and appreciate “the last great race,” the Iditarod.

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About the Author: Paul Driessen

Paul Driessen

Paul Driessen is senior policy advisor for CFACT and author of Cracking Big Green and Eco-Imperialism: Green Power - Black Death.

  • jameshrust

    Great article. The timing for this article could not be better. I have been depressed being in Atlanta, GA with day after day of low temperatures of 20 degrees(one day the low was 6 degrees) and thinking there will be no end to this dismal winter. Seeing people existing in the hardships of the Iditarod makes my worries seem silly.
    I do have a heated house with cheap natural gas at $5.00 per million BTU and no problem staying warm inside. Gasoline is $3.10 a gallon and it is easy traveling in a warm car when going outside. My hat is off to the mushers and the courageous dogs that accompany them.
    It is too bad the present energy policies of the nation are trying to drive us back to living conditions encountered by native Americans centuries ago.
    James H. Rust

  • Margery Glickman

    From the Sled Dog Action Coalition, http://helpsleddogs.org

    Iditarod dogs suffer horrendous cruelty every day of their lives. Mushers
    have drowned, shot, bludgeoned and dragged many dogs to death. For example,
    Iditarod musher Dave Olesen drowned a litter of newborn puppies. Another musher
    got rid of unwanted puppies by tying them in a bag and tossing the bag in a
    creek. Mushers even have a saying about not breeding dogs unless they can drown them: “Those who cannot drown should not breed.”

    Terrible things happen to dogs during the Iditarod. This includes: death, bloody diarrhea, paralysis, frostbite (where it hurts the most!), bleeding ulcers, lung damage, pneumonia, ruptured discs, viral diseases, kennel cough, broken bones, torn muscles and extreme stress. At least 143 dogs have died in the race, including four dogs who froze to death in the brutal cold.

    Veterinary care during the Iditarod is poor. In the 2012 race, one of Lance Mackey’s male dogs ripped out all of his 16 toenails trying to get to a female who was in heat. This type of broken toenail is extremely painful. Mackey, a four-time Iditarod winner, said he was too stubborn to leave this dog at a checkpoint and veterinarians allowed Mackey to continue to race him. Imagine the agony the dog was forced to endure.

    Here’s another example: Veterinarians have allowed dogs with kennel cough to race in the Iditarod even though dogs with this disease should be kept warm and given lots of rest. Strenuous exercise can cause lung damage, pneumonia and even death. To make matters worse, kennel cough is a highly contagious disease that normally lasts from 10 to 21 days.

    Iditarod dogs endure brutal training. Jeanne Olson, who has been a veterinarian in Alaska since 1988, confirmed the brutality used by mushers training dogs for the Iditarod. She talked about dogs having cracked ribs, broken jaws or skulls from mushers using two-by-fours for punishment. In an article published by the University of Alaska, Dr. Olson said, “There are mushers out there whose philosophy is…that if that dog acts up I will hit that dog to the point where it would rather die than do what it did, ’cause the next time it is gonna die.'”

    Jane Stevens, a former Iditarod dog handler, describes a dog beating in her letter published by the Whitehorse Star (Feb. 23, 2011). She wrote: “I witnessed the extremely violent beating of an Iditarod racing dog by one of the racing industry’s most high-profile top 10 mushers. Be assured the beating was clearly not within an ‘acceptable range’ of ‘discipline’. Indeed, the scene left me appalled, sick and shocked. After viewing an individual sled dog repeatedly booted with full force, the male person doing the beating jumping back and forth like a pendulum with his full body weight to gain full momentum and impact. He then alternated his beating technique with full-ranging, hard and fast, closed-fist punches like a piston to the dog as it was held by its harness splayed onto the ground. He then staggeringly lifted the dog by the harness with two arms above waist height, then slammed the dog into the ground with full force, again repeatedly, all of this repeatedly.”

    During the 2007 race, eyewitnesses reported that musher Ramy Brooks kicked, punched and beat his dogs with a ski pole and a chain. Jon Saraceno wrote in his column in USA Today, “He [Colonel Tom Classen] confirmed dog beatings and far worse. Like starving dogs to maintain their most advantageous racing weight. Skinning them to make mittens. Or dragging them to their death.”

    Jim Welch says in his book Speed Mushing Manual, “Nagging a dog team is cruel and ineffective…A training device such as a whip is not cruel at all but is effective.” He also said, “It is a common training device in use among dog mushers…” Former Iditarod dog handler Mike Cranford wrote in Alaska’s Bush Blade Newspaper:
    “Dogs are clubbed with baseball bats and if they don’t pull are dragged to death
    in harnesses…..”

    FOR MORE FACTS: Sled Dog Action Coalition, http://helpsleddogs.org

  • Eckenhuijsen Smit

    Referring to Margery Glickman’s comment on Iditarod races with respect to the incredible brutal treatment of the sledge dogs, I think those perpetrators are punishable by law.
    Apart from that, I think it is absolutely unacceptable ‒physically and psychologically‒
    for a human being to behave as reported.
    I’m not at all faint hearted, but to treat an animal ‒often called: man’s best friend‒
    in such horrendous ways, is absolutely despicable; it is nazi-style torture, period.