Our day started with a delicious breakfast hosted by Exxon Mobile, who sponsors the Iditarod Winter Conference for Educators. Exxon Mobile is very much vested in supporting programs that are rich in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) to generate interest in these career fields.
After breakfast, we moved to the Millenium Hotel, the official headquarters of the Iditarod race. Several speakers were scheduled to present, and I had also signed up for a Dog Handler’s class so I could help handle dogs at the start of the race. It was another chilly morning as you can tell by the ice!
One of the best speakers we had was Dr. Stu Nelson, the chief veterinarian for the Iditarod. Dr. Nelson spoke about how the dogs are the true athletes in this race, and described the thorough care the dogs receive before and during the race. As mentioned in an earlier post, all dogs participating in the race are seen by an Iditarod vet within two weeks of the race. All of the dogs have diagnostic blood work done and an electocardiogram (ECG) test. They are also all microchipped (if not already) so that number can be used to identify dogs during the race. During the exam, the vets check for HAWL: H for heart and hydration, A for appetite and attitude, W for weight and L for lungs. The vets also check their gums, paws, legs and their temperature. During the race the vets record any concerns in the vet book (a mandatory item that must be carried by each musher in their sled bag). Dr. Nelson explained that the dogs also have urine tests to make sure they have not been given any meds to enhance performance. It was quite interesting to note that while there are veterinarians constantly checking on the dogs, there are no physicians checking on the health of the mushers!
After Dr. Nelson’s section I headed to Dog Handling 101 to learn how to handle dogs. This was a fairly intense class! Rae DeLey was our instructor, and she I remember her saying, “Dog Handling is a lot of fun; Dog Handling is a lot of work!” and boy was she right! If you do handle during the Iditarod race, your primary responsibilities are to run with the musher from their parking spot to the starting chute while holding on to a dog. Different mushers have different requirements – some mushers prefer for you to hold on to a dog’s harness, some will attach a short leash to the dog, and still others want you to hold on to the gangline, which is the big, heavy line that runs down the middle of the entire length of dogs connecting them to the sled. You need to match your gait to that of the dog, and be extremely careful not to get anywhere near the dogs’ feet. Just think – if you step on a dog’s paw you could totally ruin a musher’s chance of doing well in the race or making it to Nome! After listening to the presentation, we went outside to the parking lot and took turns practicing running with the dogs. One handler (usually a musher’s personal handler) is the lead handler at the front of the line. This handler will watch the musher (back on the sled) and make hand signals for the other mushers to follow. A hand up in the air means stop, while a hand dropping down quickly means go. We followed the lead handler’s signals as we mushed around the marking lot!
After completing the training I received my “official” Dog Handler’s card 🙂 Rae told us to meet her early Saturday morning at 7:15 for instructions and assignments to various mushers. Woohoo!
Back at the conference, mushers Pat Moon and Ed Stielstra came by to share stories of their adventures on the Iditarod Trail in previous years. We also heard from several volunteers who help with communications and a woman who works with the “Iditarod Air Force.” Over 1500 people volunteer each year to help make the Iditarod happen. You can read more about the various Iditarod volunteer positions here.
With the conference finished a few other teachers and I decided to walk around Anchorage a bit and check out the preparations for the race in the morning. The race begins right in the middle of the street in downtown Anchorage. Typically they have to ship in snow from other parts of Alaska, but this year snow was definitely plentiful! Below is a picture of a bench – in the second picture I’m standing on the bench to reach the street sign. Finally, the third picture shows a roll of fencing which would later be unrolled and assembled to keep the fans out of the way when the mushers race down the street!
After dinner, we went back to 4th street to see what progress had been made in preparation for the race, and the banner was now up! Of all the photos I’ve taken so far, I think I like this one best. It captures the statue of Balto in the front, with the banner behind commemorating the race Balto, Togo and many mushers ran to deliver the much-needed Diptheria serum to Nome, saving the lives of so many children.