Rim Country veterinarian Alan Hallman leaves little doubt a guest speaking appearance at the prestigious and exclusive Harvard Travellers Club was both humbling and awe-inspiring.
“To be there, at a podium, speaking under a picture of John F. Kennedy and knowing so many great men, like Theodore Roosevelt and most of the world’s most famous explorers had spoken (there), was unbelievable,” he said. “It was amazing, something you never forget.”
Hallman made his presentation, entitled “The Yukon Quest,” to about 200 members of the 104-year-old club Dec. 13 in the Massachusetts Room of the Harvard Club located in historic downtown Boston.
“I spoke on long distance dog racing, focusing on the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, which I have been a part of since 1994,” said Hallman. “The presentation focused on the historic route the race follows, the special love that exists between the mushers and their dogs and the tremendous terrain and weather conditions that they face on the trail.”
In the 2011 race held in February, temperatures dropped to 60 degrees below zero prompting Hallman to declare, “No musher finishes this grueling race without world class dog care.”
Which is one of the reasons Hallman and a band of 12 veterinarians were on hand at the 1,000-mile race that begins in Whitehorse, Yukon and follows the Yukon River to the finish line at Fairbanks, Alaska.
“The trail runs across frozen rivers, climbs four mountain ranges and passes through isolated northern villages. The Yukon Quest is a true test of the capacity of humans and canines, and a tribute to the strength of the ancient bond that unites them,” said Hallman.
He calls the Yukon Quest the toughest sled dog race in the world; even tougher than the Iditarod because it has 28 checkpoints and the Quest has just nine.
Also on the Quest, Hallman says, there are stretches as long as 200-plus miles where there is no help for the dogs or mushers and it is held in the much colder month of February. The Iditarod is held in March.
During the about two weeks it takes the teams to traverse the route, the bevy of veterinarians’ responsibility is to care for the dogs, which Hallman glowingly calls, “Elite marathon athletes bred from stock that survived and thrived during the Klondike Gold Rush.”
The average sled dog weights 50-plus pounds and in sub-zero temperatures can consume as much as 15,000 calories a day.
The Rim veterinarian is convinced by his years of working the race there is no other animal species that can equal the sled dogs’ endurance, dedication and ability to perform under extreme conditions.
Hallman has served as the head veterinarian on three occasions, most recently in 2011. He is also a lifetime member of the International Sled Dog Veterinary Medical Association and was coaxed into working the race in 1994 by an Alaska veterinarian who was a classmate at Kansas State University.
A grueling race
During the race, the veterinarians follow the mushers and their dogs from checkpoint to checkpoint in snowmobiles and sometimes by airplane.
During their travels, the veterinarians stay in a variety of places including tents, motels, cabins and schools.
In the days of the race, dogs run for four hours and then mushers allow them to rest for fours hours before resuming.
The dogs receive snacks every few hours and during the four-hour stop, the mushers prepare hot broth for them.
Also, the mushers — who are a diverse bunch usually made up of fishermen, hunters, trappers and even teachers and lawyers — must carry with them a veterinary journal to document the dogs’ health during the demanding trip.
Mushers may begin the journey with a maximum of 14 dogs and must have at least six at the finish line.
If a dog should be injured or turn up ill, the musher can leave him or her at pre-designated stops along the route to receive advanced medical treatment from the veterinarians.
Frostbite on the feet is among the most common ailments the dogs suffer, but there are some rare cases of dog deaths.
In Hallman’s tenure, however, he has never seen a death be attributed to a lack of care.
“The race is known for excellence in canine care,” said Hallman
As for the mushers, life on the trail is even more rugged than it is for the sled dogs.
There are no doctors to provide medical aid, they have to carry their own food, sleeping bag and tools and can’t receive any assistance other than what they get from the veterinarians.
Working the Iditarod
While spending two weeks each year in sub-zero temperatures and less than ideal working and living conditions might be enough of a challenge for most veterinarians, Hallman is looking forward to even more.
“I’m going to work the Iditarod for the first time,” he said. “It’s the first three weeks in March.”
Hallman completed his undergraduate work at the University of Wyoming before attending the Kansas State College of Veterinary Medicine.
From his office in Star Valley he works with the Humane Society of Central Arizona and the Arizona Game and Fish Department.
In 2010, he and his staff were named the Top Healthcare Team in Arizona.