Veterinarian ready for challenge of dog race


March 02, 2000|By Joni Guhne | Joni Guhne,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

AT THIS TIME of the year, many of us would jump at the chance to travel somewhere warm, like Florida or the Caribbean. But destinations offering an early taste of spring or summer hold little appeal for Severna Park veterinarian Carl Rogge.

His idea of a perfect winter getaway requires temperatures of 34 below zero, sleeping in a tent pitched on a frozen riverbed and eating dehydrated food -- when he can't find anything better in the trash bin.

Rogge can't wait for Saturday, when he begins volunteer work at the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Alaska.

The Iditarod commemorates a major event in Alaskan history -- the 1923 relay of sled dog teams that carried life-saving serum to Eskimos during as diphtheria epidemic in Nome.

Like the original run, the race covers more than 1,200 miles in a dozen days across the frozen tundra, the mountain range that includes Mount McKinley and the frozen Bering Sea.

Rogge explains why a man accustomed to a good life in the lower 48 states subject himself to such extreme weather and living conditions.

"When I first got involved with this, I thought it would be fun," says the Pennsylvania native who has called Severna Park home for 27 years. " `No,' I was told, `it's not going to be fun. It's going to be an experience.'

"I don't do it for financial reasons," says the vet, who earned his veterinary degree at the University of Pennsylvania. "It's just a challenge. Alaska itself is a fascinating place. It's like 100 years ago in the Wild West."

It's the dogs that attract Rogge, who has always loved working with sporting animals. His first job after college was in Charlottesville, Va., in a practice that specialized in surgery on thoroughbred horses.

"This year there will be about 88 teams with 16 dogs each," Rogge says. "The dogs are in wonderful condition, with muscles like rocks. The first time I gave one an injection, it was like putting it into a table.

"These dogs are trained to race, and they're so excited that volunteers are needed to hold onto them before the race begins."

Rogge compares the animals' excitement to the feeling football players must have when they run onto the field at the start of the Super Bowl. "This is the Super Bowl of dog sled racing, and we have about 1,500 dogs who know what they're getting ready to do."

Before the race, the dogs are given physicals -- including blood tests and an electrocardiogram. During the race, they are examined at least once a day.

"This is more care than a marathoner receives," notes Rogge, whose pets include a golden retriever, a Boston terrier and two cats.

Being asked to participate in the race has become a sought-after invitation among veterinarians, and it's highly competitive. Rogge says treating sled dogs is becoming a new specialty.

Besides strenuous weather and living conditions, the human support team faces other challenges. "The food the vets have to eat is really bad," Rogge confides.

But the doctors have become resourceful.

Before the race, the sled drivers -- called "mushers," after their command to the dogs to "mush" -- deliver supplies of food, toilet paper and batteries by air to 27 drop points along the course. During the race, they stop at these points and leave behind the supplies they don't use. That's when the veterinary gourmets spring into action.

The first time Rogge heard the term "Dumpster diving" from a fellow vet, he couldn't believe it. Then he ate one of the thick steaks retrieved frozen from the "Dumpster." After it was cooked, he was a convert. The vets pick through the leftovers and dine like royalty.

"It beats powdered Tang any day," says the tundra-wise vet.

"The mushers are a breed apart," he says respectfully. "They are rugged, courageous animal lovers who really care about their dogs.

"Once the race begins, the drivers have no help except in emergency situations," he says.

While the average person might be willing to check out the Iditarod once, Rogge is about to make his sixth trip. He leaves behind his wife, Brenda, and their three sons at home -- although they joined him once for a monthlong summer practice in Nome in July 1996.

During that month, he also visited four-legged patients in barren outposts.

One site was a Coast Guard station in Port Clarence, where people stay for a year at a time, and he says he felt imprisoned after six hours. Another was St. Lawrence Island, three miles from the International Date Line, and close to Siberia.

His favorite was the island of Gambrills, where residents lived off the whales they harpooned from little boats made of walrus hide. The shore was littered with ancient whale carcasses.

Instead of moving from one checkpoint to another this year, Rogge has earned the right to stay at the finish line.

He and three co-workers will select the recipient of the Leonard Seppalo Award, a prestigious humanitarian prize named for a musher in the 1923 run. The award is given to one of the first 20 teams to cross the finish line. The dogs are evaluated on their condition at that point, along with how well they were handled during the race.

"At the end of the race, the mushers don't look so good," says Rogge, "but the dogs come in with their tails wagging, like they're ready for another 300 miles."

Rogge says being part of the Iditarod has been the experience of a lifetime. "Everything up there is exciting," he says, "like being in a tiny airplane too small to fly over the mountains, and flying through them."

He has no fear of flying, it seems -- or, for that matter, of falling through the ice.

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