Severna Park Vet Answers The Call Of The Wild At Iditarod

March 19, 1992|By Angela Gambill | Angela Gambill,Staff writer

More than 1,000 barking huskies; 55-below-zero temperatures; an old gold-mining town filled with Eskimos.

For Severna Park veterinarian Carl Rogge, the last few weeks in Alaska had all the drama of a Jack London novel.

Rogge traveled to Nome as one of about 30 veterinarians chosen totend 76 teams in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

The dogs racedalmost 1,200 miles from Anchorage to Nome, the winning team in a record 10 days and 19 hours.

When the survivors reached Nome on the shores of the Bering Sea, Rogge was there to examine the dogs, checking gums and paws and dehydration levels.

"There are a lot more dangers and risks than I imagined," says Rogge. "Plane crashes and frost-bite and people being lost. But they call it the last great race, andit is."

The silver-haired animal doctor stands in his warm, safe Severna Park office and speaks excitedly of the world he just left behind, a place of frozen rivers and inhospitable weather, with names like Nulato and Unalakleet.

First there is the cold -- snow and biting wind and the constant threat of becoming disoriented or freezing your fingers or toes in ferocious blizzards. Rogge wore a $400 Thinsulate-lined parka with a fur ruff that fell around his face and a bottom that makes a tent he could camp under if stranded.

Checking teams of dogs as they crossed the finish line hour by hour, a task that didn't cease for three days straight, was exhausting work for the 49-year-old.

"We got maybe two hours sleep a night," he says.

For the mushers, who drove the dog sleds, life was even harder.

"I don't think there's any other sport where you're in constant control of the whole race," says Rogge. "There is constant feeding of the dogs and repairing sleds. They get about half an hour of sleep a night. It's a tremendous endurance race for everybody involved."

The endurance test includes the dangers of travel by plane, which is the only way to get around in Alaska this time of year, Rogge says. No one has ever died in the race, but the small planes transporting mushers, doctors and journalists often get caught in storms. One cameraman was severely injured in a crash this year, Rogge says.

To the locals, however, non-lethal crashes and frostbite are "about as upsetting as a traffic jam on Ritchie Highway is to us," he says.

The doctor, who owns the Severna Park Veterinary Hospital, became interested in the race after reading accounts of it in magazines.

Four years ago he attended the opening of the race as one of the veterinarians to be stationed at a checkpoint and then flown to other checkpoints throughoutthe race. But he broke his foot a few days into the event and had toreturn home.

This year also got off to a bad start when Rogge hadstomach surgery a few weeks before the race. Unable to work the checkpoints and be flown around for two weeks, he found a place as one ofthe veterinarians stationed at the finish line.

While the hardships of the race aren't fun at all, Rogge says, a certain romance remains. A poster on his office wall summarizes it: "More than a race -- adiscovery of self."

"Lots of times you're so exhausted you literally don't have time to think," says Rogge. "But sometimes you're waiting for the teams, and it's below zero and the middle of the night, and you're out in the dark by yourself, and it's a chance to reflect on your whole life."

The place exudes a drama all its own. Nome, anoutpost of civilization where companies still dredge for gold, seemsa jump backward in time.

"It's like 150 years ago," Rogge says. "You know the TV show about Alaska, 'Northern Exposure'? That show is about one-fifth of what it's really like, the unusualness of the characters."

Rogge stayed with a Nome family who took him fishing fivemiles out on the Bering Sea to bring in fresh Alaskan king crabs, which they ate for dinner. He also tasted whale blubber -- "not the greatest; it tastes like rubber," the doctor says.

He picked up the history of dog sled racing, first popular during the Yukon gold rush of the 1890s. The Iditarod race tradition dates to a 1925 outbreak of diphtheria in Nome, when serum was brought by dog-sled from Anchorage. The race became official in 1973. A woman first won the event in 1985.

Originally, the dogs were Siberian huskies. Since then, huskies have been selectively mated, sometimes with Afghans and greyhounds,for faster, stronger dogs. Nowadays the ideal dog is thought to havebroad shoulders and almost-white eyes, but mushers and townspeople argue constantly about the best breeding techniques, Rogge says.

The doctor admits he's drawn to adventure, adding that his wife would probably be happier if he'd take a vacation on some pleasant island.

For the mushers, the lures include a grand prize of $50,000, although the cost of the entry fee plus race preparation can cost nearly $40,000. The bigger lure is finishing a race that crosses two mountain ranges and skirts 20,320-foot Mount McKinley.

Rogge returned with souvenirs: a pair of felt booties worn by one of the dogs crossing the finish line; postcards; an advertisement with a picture of a sled dog: "Great athletes train year-round, perform under pressure and scratch themselves in public."

But his most valuable mementos are memories -- moments like 4:17 a.m. on March 11, when Martin Buser's winning team of 13 dogs crossed the finish line to the cheers of about 600spectators. And Rogge.

"Probably a handful of vets in the world will experience this opportunity," says Rogge. "I'll remember it for the rest of my life."

Or at least until he gets to next year's race.

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