The packing list included a pocketknife, sleeping bag for use down to -20°F, and snow boots for use down to at least -50°F.
Goggles also turned out to be essential.
“My friend told me not to bother, but I went ahead and brought them anyway and, of course, I had a four-hour snowmobile ride. So I was glad I had those,” says Laura White, who had never ridden on a snowmobile before volunteering at the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. “They tell you exactly what to bring right down to the cold rating. I actually think I was pretty well prepared.”
Not only did the 2020 Iditarod mark White’s first time on a snowmobile, it was also her first trip to Alaska. A clinical assistant professor and pathologist at the Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Lab at Washington State University, White served as one of the iconic race’s approximately 50 veterinarians. Last year, she was also the only pathologist.
The race kicked off March 7, four days before the global coronavirus pandemic was declared. The mushers’ awards banquet was canceled, and spectators were asked not to attend the finish. A couple of checkpoints were relocated farther outside of towns to help reduce the risk of exposure. And the second pathologist—slated to take over for White—was unable to make it. Despite those developments, she says, “there wasn’t much talk about (the virus) on the trail.”
The 975-mile northern route crosses two mountain ranges, runs along the Yukon River, and stops at 24 checkpoints. Sled dogs run about 100 miles and require ten to twelve thousand or more calories per day.
“It’s pretty intensive,” says White, who attended a three-day training and studied sled dogs and musher terminology for two months leading up to her arrival in Alaska. “There are very specific things that happen to dogs during a race like this. One of the biggest things we worry about is the dogs developing pneumonia.”
Mushers are ultimately responsible for their animals’ health and are required to carry a book that must be signed by veterinarians at each checkpoint attesting to their dogs’ well-being. Working in six- to twelve-hour and sometimes overnight shifts, White checked animals for four main concerns: dehydration, weight loss, respiratory issues, and muscular and skeletal injuries. She was also on call to cover pathology duties, if needed. Thankfully, no dogs died during the 2020 race, and she was able to focus on examinations.
Each sled is pulled by 14 dogs, but “mushers don’t finish the race with all of the dogs they start with,” White says. Dogs that are returned from the race are flown back to Anchorage and cared for at clinics, kennels, or a women’s prison, where select inmates watch over them until their owners or handlers can pick them up. The Dog Project started in 1974, a year after the first Iditarod.
The race traces its roots further back, though, to a historic emergency serum run from Anchorage to Nome. In 1925, mushers and their dogs braved blizzards and temperatures of -50°F to deliver medication to the town, which was suffering from a diphtheria outbreak. Today, the Iditarod, known as “The Last Great Race on Earth,” holds a celebratory start in Anchorage, then moves to Willow for the actual beginning.
Checkpoints are spaced about 30 to 60 miles apart. Early on, teams come in close together, making it hectic for veterinarians, who are paid a stipend based on their length of service. Lodging and meals are provided, but volunteers pay their own travel expenses.
A friend and former colleague recommended the experience to White, who was intrigued by the opportunity and applied online. “It was a way to get to use my degrees in a way I don’t normally get to,” says White, originally from North Sandwich, New Hampshire. She’s worked at WSU Pullman for three years. Lecture is 25 percent of her appointment. Most of her responsibility lies in the diagnostic lab.
White plans to volunteer for the 2021 race, noting, “I will be going for the entire race this year, which I’m super excited about. There will obviously be some major organizational adjustments due to COVID, but the details are yet to be determined.”
Last year, White worked at two checkpoints at the Iditarod: Yentna Station Roadhouse, a wilderness lodge, and McGrath, an important transportation and economic hub in southwest Alaska with a population of 401.
“It was a whirlwind,” she says. “I was just sort of in awe of everything. There was no time to be a tourist.”
The plan was to take a small plane to Yentna, but conditions were too inclement to fly. That’s how White ended up on the snowmobile. “The trail was bumpy the entire way,” she says, noting, “It was snowing and dark by the time we got in.”
The first mushers started arriving around seven the next night and “were all gone by 3:00 a.m.,” White says. “They’re hardcore. The men who have beards come in just caked with icicles hanging from their faces. One of the things that’s really amazing is how, in those conditions, they still put the dogs first. They haven’t slept in who knows how long, and the first thing they do is make sure their dogs are fed and have water and straw for them to lie down on.”
That first shift, she says, “I hadn’t figured it out. I hadn’t layered appropriately. Even though it wasn’t that cold out—it was like zero degrees—I was exhausted and sore and couldn’t fall asleep. You don’t realize how tense you are. It’s not just your fingers and toes; it’s your entire body. I thought, ‘My, oh, my, what did I get myself into?’”
From then on, White says, “I wore two layers of long underwear at all times, and there were foot warmers and hand warmers, and, yep, I was still cold. I pulled an all-nighter in negative thirty, and it was the coldest I’ve ever experienced. I did not realize this: your stethoscope will freeze.”