Dogs: Seasoned race doctor from Severna Park gets positively mushy over Alaska's big sled competition.


March 01, 1997|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

When Dr. Carl E. Rogge got to Alaska for his first Iditarod race in 1988, he found the rough-and-tumble sled dogs weren't much like the nice little doggies he was treating back home in Severna Park.

"The first time I went to give one of these dogs an injection, it felt like the needle was going into a piece of wood," says the 54-year-old veterinarian, still amazed. "I mean, it is so hard. These dogs are so muscular, there's just not any soft tissue."

Today, 54 mushers -- the people who drive the sleds -- and up to 864 dogs will push off from Anchorage for Nome, nearly 1,200 miles away, in the 25th running of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. And Rogge will be back for his third tour as an official Iditarod veterinarian.

It's a role he's come to cherish since he first went north. Alaskans like to call the Iditarod "the last great race on earth." It's the longest sled dog race in the world, the most famous -- "the ultimate," Rogge says.

They also sometimes call it "Mardi Gras in the Arctic -- with dogs." As Rogge tells it, the dogs act happy, and the people act crazy. Even before the race starts.

"At the start of the race they had what I thought was a big parking lot where they bring all the cars in and it's just like a big tailgate party at the Ravens. They're all partying, and I suddenly realized that this big parking lot wasn't a parking lot but actually a frozen lake.

"And with all the weight of these cars and everything the ice is going under and the water is getting higher and these people just keep partying and partying and they don't really care about anything. They have a good time up there."

The race, along the old Iditarod Trail, commemorates the great relay dash of 1925 when mushers and sled dogs delivered serum to Nome to quell an outbreak of diphtheria.

These days, though, the goal is prize money, about $400,000 worth, including $50,000 for first place.

"The first day is the most exciting thing," the veteran veterinarian says, "because there are about a thousand dogs lined up down the main street one team after another and they start every two minutes. They literally have one volunteer for every two dogs, holding the dogs steady because they are so excited to go. I mean, they really want to do it. They are happy.

"Did you watch the Super Bowl the other week? Remember when they were introducing the players? And they were sort of banging their heads and jumping up and down and all because they were so excited? I thought that's exactly what these dogs look like."

Not really banging their heads, of course. Dogs are smarter than that.

Then the teams push out into the mountains in earnest.

"That's when they go by themselves," Rogge says. "And from then on there's nobody. And there's a big difference from the first jovial day."

'Far, distant place'

The competitors mush 10 to 12 days through rugged, snow-covered Alaska wilderness, through spruce and birch forests, across a dozen rivers, threading the passes of a succession of mountain ranges, traversing miles of tundra, weathering withering blizzard winds and temperatures that can drop to 60 below.

They stop at 27 checkpoints, at places whose names evoke the Alaskan ethnic mix -- Eskimo, American Indian, Russian, emigrants from "the lower 48": Knik, Skwenta, Rainy Pass, Nikolai, McGrath, Anvik, Poorman, Unalakleet, Shaktoolik, Eagle Island, Safety and Iditarod, the village whose name means "a far, distant place."

"I haven't been the whole 1,200 miles," Rogge says, "but I have been at the start of the route, I've been in the middle and I have been at the end of the race."

He's examined dogs before the race and after they've finished.

"The dogs come prancing in," he says. "Their tails are wagging. Their heads are up. And they look like they could run another three to four hundred miles. They really do.

"Now the mushers, they're the ones who look abused. They are exhausted. They have frostbite. They go through a lot. But the dogs look great."

At the checkpoints along the way, he treats aches, pains, bruises, leg and paw injuries, dehydration, diarrhea. A broken leg is the worst injury he's seen.

"You stay at each checkpoint three to four days," he says, "until all the mushers have gone through. Then they take you by air to the next checkpoint."

The flights are provided by the volunteer Iditarod Air Force: bush pilots flying tiny Piper Cubs, looking for "holes" in weather people in the lower 48 don't even go up in.

"The veterinarians serve for the welfare of the dogs," Rogges says. "That's what we're there for, for treating them, and making sure that they're being taken care of properly. And to make sure they aren't abused. And if they need to be dropped out of the race, they can be dropped out at one of the checkpoints."

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