Mild-mannered Star Valley veterinarian Alan Hallman will tell you he isn’t into extreme sports, but look around his Star Valley office and you’ll think twice.
In one, he’s bungee jumping in New Zealand with his daughter.
In another, he’s posing with a massive Louisiana alligator with his son.
In a third, he’s fishing with Aborigines in Australia.
But the annual adventure that remains closest to his heart is a harrowing, 1,000-mile Yukon dog sled race, where he has tended to these elite, furry athletes — and their tough-as-iron mushers for three decades.
On Jan. 21, this Star Valley veterinarian headed to Alaska and the arduous Yukon Quest for the 31st time, joining dozens of mushers and hundreds of dogs for the international race.
Hallman will serve as head vet for the two-week race, overseeing dog sled teams as they weave between Whitehorse, Yukon and Fairbanks, Alaska. Teams follow old mail routes and mining trails, which once served as the transportation highways of the northern frontier, according to the Yukon Quest Web site.
“The trail now only comes alive during February when the frosty breath and haunting howls of hundreds of sled dogs return to these historic routes.”
Hallman heads up a team of 13 veterinarians from around the world charged with caring for the 378 canine athletes as they run in some of the most extreme winter weather conditions.
While there will be plenty of vets for the dogs’ care, mushers are on their own.
No doctors are scheduled to serve on the race, although Hallman admits he has helped stitch up a few mushers through the years.
The biggest obstacle facing Hallman and the dog race teams is exhaustion.
Mushers often go days without sleeping as they continually check on their team of dogs, putting the animals’ welfare well before their own.
Hallman himself often only gets a few hours of sleep as he jets across the race field from team to team in both a vehicle and private plane at his disposal.
“I live in my parka,” he joked. “But I feel very humble to be a part of the race.”
Hallman traveled to Alaska, along with his son Rand Hallman, who will serve as a vet tech. Hallman is planning to stay in Alaska until Feb. 22, enduring days of below zero temperatures.
“Stepping out at 30 below, it just takes your breath away,” he said.
One year on the race, Hallman said he even thinks his windpipe got frostbite from all the talking he did.
“I plan on keeping my mouth shut this year,” he joked.
When he arrived, the expected high was a balmy 15 degrees, well above the high of 59 below several weeks ago.
Hallman said he eventually gets used to the cool temperatures to a point where he thinks it is warm.
“This is the toughest dog race in the world,” Hallman said, “but I love it up there.”
Because of the bitter cold temperatures and severe terrain, the dogs need constant care — which is where Hallman and his team come in.
Whenever a dog is in distress, a member of the vet team meets the musher and the dog at one of 10 checkpoints to offer first aid — or take the dog out of the race.
The most frequent issues encountered are foot troubles and weight loss for dogs. Each dog can eat their way through 11,500 calories a day and wear out hundreds of paw booties over the course of the race.
“We are working with endurance runners so orthopedic injuries are common,” he said.
When a dog is injured or exhausted they are removed from the race. Canine care is of the utmost importance, he said.
While every musher starts with eight to 14 dogs, none finish with a whole team. However, in order to finish they must have at least six dogs still able to pull. When a dog drops out, mushers cannot replace it.
Furthermore, mushers cannot accept any outside assistance during the race. If someone so much as hands them a knife, for example, they are penalized. The only place a musher can get help is at the halfway point in Dawson City.
“The race is harder on the musher than the dogs,” Hallman said.
After watching thousands of dogs compete in the race, Hallman is convinced these canines are the finest racing animals in the world.
“I used to think the racehorse was the finest athlete,” he said, “but just the metabolism on a sled dog is amazing.”
A study of 48 dogs that ran in the 1992 Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race found that 35 percent had developed an enlarged heart due to heavy training and long distance running.
“These dogs have a lot more endurance than even a wolf,” he said.
At the race’s starting line, Hallman said dogs are so eager to run they bark incessantly, creating an electric atmosphere among spectators.
“It is pure bedlam,” he said. “Anyone who thinks this is inhumane should look at how happy they are.”
At the end of the race, prizes and money go to the top teams, however, the most coveted award is the “Vets Choice” award given to the musher who takes the best care of their dogs.
“Yukon Quest mushers are coaches, cooks, cheerleaders and companions to their dogs and Yukon Quest sled dogs are elite, marathon athletes.”
One musher has especially impressed Hallman. Lance Mackey won the veterinarian’s choice award in 2008 along with winning the Yukon Quest from 2005 to 2008, the only four-time champion in history. Mackey has also won the Iditarod in 2007, 2008 and 2009.
Mackey did all this even after battling throat cancer in 2001.
Classmate and friend Clint Crusberg, who served as head vet for some years in the early ’90s, first introduced Hallman to the race. Crusberg invited Hallman to serve on the vet team for the 1994 Yukon Quest with Hallman returning for 12 more races.
Hallman is passing the tradition on to his son Rand who is participating in the Feb. 5 race for the first time. Rand graduated from Payson High School and went on to get his undergraduate degree from Arizona State University. Although Rand does not plan to become a veterinarian, Hallman cherishes sharing the experience with his son.
Asked if he ever thought Rand would become a veterinarian, Hallman said “I don’t know if he is that crazy.”
Judging from his own photo album, Hallman and his family are crazy enough to take on just about any challenge.
This year’s race across frozen rivers, up mountain ranges and through remote villages is just one more adventure added to Hallman’s collection.