It’s daybreak and before anyone else is stirring, Star Valley veterinarian Alan Hallman sneaks away from the pack. His heavy, knee-high boots crunching over the tundra break the frozen silence.
When he reaches the Yukon River, Hallman sits down in the snow and looks back — marveling at the vast, undisturbed wilderness of Alaska and how he managed to make it back another year to one of the world’s greatest races.
Hours later, the small village Hallman and his veterinarian team are shacked up in is shaken awake by dozens of barking mutts.
For weeks, this sight would repeat itself. As head veterinarian for the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, a race that crosses through Alaska and Canada, Hallman would fly, drive and hike across some of the most remote sections of wilderness to keep the stars of the race — the dogs — healthy and happy throughout February 2011.
While the sleepless nights, frigid temperatures and dangerous terrain can test any brawn, Hallman said the beauty of the surroundings and the giving spirit of the people entice him back nearly every year.
Working the 2011 Yukon Quest was Hallman’s 13th time on the trail, and next week he heads back to Alaska to work the other big race, the Iditarod, for the first time.
While races are nothing new for Hallman, each quest presents a new challenge. When the long hours of the race get too much, Alaska presents something so beautiful, he said. The northern lights, an incandescent showering of colors across the night sky, were one sight that captured Hallman’s heart repeatedly.
“It is things like this when you are tired, you are working and haven’t slept in days and you look up and think, ‘Boy, I am blessed, I am really blessed. Look at God’s work,’” Hallman said. “To see something like that, to see how a whole sky dances... you just realize how small you are.”
Sharing the experience with his son, who worked as a veterinarian assistant at the race for the first time, is a memory that still brings Hallman to tears.
On Feb. 16, Hallman spoke about the race at Mountain Bible’s Shoot from the Heart outdoor speaker series. He gave the same talk at the Harvard Travellers Club Dec. 13.
Hallman started his talk at Harvard and in Payson the same way, with a humble thank you and word of caution: the dogs of the Yukon Quest are not abused or forced to run.
“Have you ever tried to push a wet noodle?” he said. “You can’t do it. The dogs run because they love it.”
While some might believe mushers, the guy or gal that rides behind the dog pack on a sled, whip the dogs or abuse them, Hallman said this is far from true.
“No one finishes a race of this magnitude without tremendous, tremendous care of their dogs,” he said. “It is strictly a dog care race.”
And under Hallman and the watch of dozens of other vets, the dogs are taken better care of than the mushers.
Mushers, he said, spend most of the race awake and working for their team. From melting snow for drinking water, preparing food, laying down straw beds and looking over each dog religiously, no need is ignored.
While a musher can do everything right, they only finish and win if they have the “true ability to take care of these dogs emotionally, physically, nutritionally — everything.”
Every team that started in the race began in Whitehorse, Yukon with 14 dogs. Each sled was equipped with supplies, including roughly 2,000 dog booties.
The winner, rookie Dallas Seavey, would finish 10 days and 12 hours later in Fairbanks, Alaska.
The race covers roughly the same distance from Payson to Houston, Texas, but, unlike the southwest, the temperatures can plummet as low as -65 degrees.
It was cold enough that one musher had to have his frozen boots removed with a hammer.
Hallman maintains the Yukon Quest is the toughest dog race in the world and sled dogs, the world’s best athletes.
While race horses are impressive, no animal, either domestic or wild, has the capabilities of a sled dog, he said.
“They can outrun a wolf any day.”
Months before the race, mushers put their teams through intense training. Dogs often cover 1,500 to 3,000 miles leading up to the race pulling a sled weighing up to 700 pounds.
“They are truly bred to run,” he said.
The race is the musher’s time to show what their team can do. Moreover, while a dog’s power is nowhere more apparent, neither is the ‘spirit of the north.’
During the race, mushers receive no outside assistance (except at a mid-race checkpoint). If a musher gets in trouble on the trail, other teams often bail them out.
There are countless stories of a musher helping another even when it threatens their standing. When a ferocious windstorm came through one year, a team’s sled got covered in six feet of snow, trapping the sleeping musher and his dogs.
Luckily, as Brent Sass’ team came through the area, Silver, the lead dog directed Sass away from the course.
“He kept veering off to the side and he couldn’t get it back and he said, ‘I got to trust Silver.’”
Silver led Saas to the trapped musher. Today, the Silver Legacy Award is given to honor dogs for their incredible deeds and feats of bravery.
Alaskan residents also open their doors and hearts for the race. Although some may not have much, they hang posters, cook meals and even offer entertainment, Hallman said.
“It is the spirit of the north that makes this work.”
Roughly 1,000 volunteers work to put the race on and Hallman is just one of many who work around the clock during the race.
However, he gives all the credit to the dogs.
“These dogs will run through a brick wall for their mushers. They have a will to run you can’t believe.”
And they have an appetite you wouldn’t believe. Each dog eats the equivalent of up to 30 Big Macs a day after running consistently at 7 mph.
“It is a tremendous feat of endurance.”
Hallman says he has taken so much away from the race and the dogs, a blessing he cannot describe.
“A lot of wonderful things have happened in my life, especially when I quit being in control — when I said, ‘OK, God, you do what you do with me’ and really good things have happened.”