Call Of The Wild

Dog teams draw animal doctor to frozen wilderness

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Most people head to warmer climates when they take their mid-winter breaks from the dog-eat-dog world.

Dr. Alan Hallman, however, heads north to Alaska, where for the past five years, he's served on a crew of 10 veterinarians that oversees the health and welfare of the Yukon Quest sled dogs.

Each year, dog sled teams competing in the Yukon Quest push off in Whitehorse, Yukon and follow the river Yukon for 1,000 miles until they reach the finish line at Fairbanks, Alaska.

After 16 days caring for the animals in the frozen tundra, Hallman talked Wednesday from the warmth of his Star Valley practice about the event that keeps him captivated with the Alaskan wilderness.

"It's considered to be the toughest dog sled race in the world," Hallman said. "Compared to the Iditarod, there's about 28 checkpoints along that race. In the Yukon Quest, there's only nine. They've got stretches as long as 225 miles where there's no help in between."

During the race, which is held in early February, temperatures in the region can range from 80 degrees below zero to 30 degrees above. The course takes the driver, called a musher, and his dogs over hard-packed snow, rough gravel, frozen rivers, icy open water and mountainous terrain.

Hallman first heard about the dog-sled race from a former Kansas State University classmate, Clint Crusberg -- a veterinarian who has been practicing in Delta Junction, Alaska.

"He invited me up in 1994 to help with the race, and I've been going back ever since," Hallman said.

That first year, the Rim country doctor endured a brutal introduction to the chilly north.

"The average temperature for 12 days was 55 degrees below zero," he said. "We saw frostbite on the dog's feet, but very little other problems."

The doctors travel from checkpoint to checkpoint by car, by snowmobile, and even by plane, staying in hotels, cabins, gymnasiums and in some places, tents.

"I was in an 8-foot-by-10-foot cabin for five days that first year," he said. Hallman said it was so cold that he burned two cords of wood in five days.

Throughout the Quest, the musher will run for four hours, then rest for four hours. When they're running, the musher will stop every two hours to "snack" his dogs, and every four hours, he'll cook up a hot broth for the pooches.

Mushers -- who are likely to be trappers, fishermen, doctors and even homemakers -- start the race with no more than 14 dogs and have to finish with at least six. Each musher carries a sleeping bag, an ax, food and their veterinary book to keep notes on the dogs' health.

"There's no outside assistance allowed for the mushers," Hallman said. "They have to carry their own food -- they can pick up extra food at checkpoints -- but they can't get any help from their handlers. They can't have any help from anybody except an official or a veterinarian."

The one exception is a mandatory 36-hour layover in Dawson City, roughly the halfway point of the race.

Rules of the race, he said, prohibit the use of outside medications on the dogs, such as anti-inflammatory drugs or pain relievers. "Say you have a dog with a sprained shoulder, and used pain relievers," he said. "It would probably get worse because they wouldn't feel it and use it more."

Along the route, veterinarians can prescribe antibiotics and other drugs for symptoms like diarrhea, and they also can hand out creams and ointments for injuries.

For dogs that become lame or sick along the route, the musher can stop at one of the dog drops and leave the dog for more extensive medical treatment. As for the mushers, Hallman said there are no "people" doctors to provide aid. If there's an emergency, the veterinarians provide care.

"A few years ago, one of the guys in the race stuck an ax in his knee at a checkpoint, and I sewed him up," he said.

With sub-zero temperatures, less than lavish sleeping quarters and a hectic non-stop schedule, what is it that makes Hallman return to the Yukon each winter?

It's a change of pace, he said. The medical needs of the animals along the race are much different than those suffered by Rim country pets, he said.

"The main problems we see from a veterinary standpoint at the Yukon Quest is orthopedic injuries -- shoulder sprains, wrist sprains, back sprains -- pretty much what you'd see in any athlete," he said. "When you have a team of 14 dogs, you're only going to go as fast as your slowest dog."

It's also the athletic qualities that are bred into the sled dogs -- mostly Alaskan huskies -- that fascinates the doctor.

"I really like sports medicine and the physiology of endurance," he said. "I used to think that the race horse was the best athlete in the world. Since I've been working with sled dogs, I now think the sled dog is the best in the world."

The typical sled dog, he said, has a good coat, good mind, excellent cardiovascular system, good feet, and a will to run. On average, sled dogs weigh about 50 pounds. In sub-zero temperatures, the dog consumes an estimated 15,000 calories per day, of which 60 percent is pure fat.

"He's like an engine," Hallman said. "You put the food in, and he burns it up. And a good sled dog, if you watch him move, you can literally put a champagne glass on his shoulders, and it won't fall off. They truly are incredible athletes."

While some may argue that pushing a dog to such extremes in the cruelest of conditions is nothing short of inhumane, the 14-year pet doctor said nothing could be further from the truth.

"In the long-distance races, whether it's the Iditarod or the Yukon Quest, usually every year there are several dog deaths," he said. "This year, we lost one dog, which died of an acute liver failure.

"Most mushers, when they lose a dog, will scrap the race right away because it's such a mental blow to them. They spent months and months, and years and years raising these dogs and training these dogs.

"In my years of doing this, I've never seen a death that could be attributed to inhumane treatment. It just doesn't happen."

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