Listening to barking dogs, working outdoors all night in frigid temperatures, sleeping on the floor and experiencing outhouses and unusual native cuisine constituted the dream vacation of a lifetime for Westminster veterinarian Nicholas Herrick.
Dr. Herrick returned at the end of March from Alaska, where he was one of 20 trail veterinarians for the 21st Iditarod Sled Dog Race.
"This was something Nick always wanted to do," said his wife, Becky, 37, at their Bond Street home.
"Last winter we heard Dr. Al Townsend, a Chestertown, Md., veterinarian, speak about his experiences being a trail vet and it planted a seed," she said. "So, I wrote for an application from the Iditarod Committee. We filled it out and Nick was accepted. We were so excited."
The couple began reading everything they could about Alaska, survival and the race. Mrs. Herrick packed her husband's survival kit.
"Because of the survival guides I had read, I had a good idea what Nick would need in his," she said.
"So I packed flint, waterproof matches, a Bic lighter, a reflector blanket, a stainless steel bowl in which he could melt snow for water, knives, food, a mirror, a compass, a St. Christopher's medal which I pinned to his clothes and a copy of the Book of Common Prayer. I had read somewhere that survivors have to also feed the inner spirit, so that's why I included that."
Dr. Herrick left Baltimore-Washington International Airport for Anchorage March 2. "We were all very excited and we watched Nick's plane become a speck in the sky. I had mixed emotions," Mrs. Herrick recalled. "If anything happened, would the girls ever forgive me?"
Mrs. Herrick remained home with their daughters -- Natalie, 11, and Holly, 10 -- both students at the Garrison Forest School, and 7-month-old Susanna. They followed Dr. Herrick's progress across Alaska through his phone calls. A map and pins still adorn the kitchen wall, along with a huge "Welcome Home Dad" banner.
The Iditarod Trail began as a mail and supply route from the costal towns of Seward and Knik to the interior. On return runs, mushers carried out gold. In 1925, the trail became a life-saving ,, route when a diphtheria epidemic threatened Nome and vital serum was shipped to the city by dog sled.
In 1973, the route, now a National Historic Trail, became the site of the first official Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race as mushers and their teams traveled 1,049 miles from Anchorage to Nome. The race has become an annual event, with teams from all over the world competing for the first-place prize of $50,000.
"Our job is to make sure that the dogs are healthy and in good shape," Dr. Herrick said. "My first assignment was at Wasilla, where I did pre-race exams of roughly 40 teams, which means about 800 dogs."
Among this year's entrants were 12 female mushers, including Susan Butcher, who is the winning-est woman racer in Iditarod history. She has raced every year since 1978 and won some $300,000 in prize money.
Dr. Herrick missed the start of the race because he was being flown to Rainy Pass by the Iditarod Air Force, a nickname for the volunteer professional pilots who use their planes to airlift veterinarians and supplies to checkpoints on the trail. Rainy Pass boasts a population of two: a couple who maintain a hunting lodge.
"When a sled dog team comes in, you observe the animals and see if they're lame or stressed," Dr. Herrick said. "The major problems are dehydration, diarrhea, muscle strain or sore feet.
"We talk with the mushers and, since they are in touch with their animals, there really isn't a confrontation if there is a problem with a particular dog."
According to Dr. Herrick, every musher breeds his own dogs from Alaskan and Siberian huskies. The dogs are bred for speed and endurance. They weigh 35 pounds to 60 pounds and, while looking fairly ferocious, have a gentle disposition and tend toward shyness.
"Martin Buser, last year's winner, actually talks to each dog and he is famous for his pep talks with his team," he said. "The dogs are so excited that all they want to do is go."
Each musher feeds his team his own mixture of food, frozen and distributed in advance of the race at check-points. Because of the stamina required, a high-protein and fatty diet is needed and the food often consists of chicken, lamb or salmon.
Mushers begin the race with 20 dogs because the first leg, through the Alaska Range, is the most brutal and demanding. Dogs pulled from a team for any reason are sent back to Anchorage. Seriously injured dogs are airlifted out for emergency treatment. Because teams are required by the rules to make one 30-hour and one 12-hour stop, they come and go at all hours and are scattered along the trail. So veterinarians and checkers work all hours.
"People were stepping over each other all night long, but no one really cares because everyone is just so tired," Dr. Herrick said. "One of the highlights of the trip was at Rainy, where after eating, we sat around listening to stories and the lodge was crammed with mushers, radio operators, checkers, judges, people asleep in chairs, all snoring," he laughed. "Now I know why they suggested bringing ear plugs."
Dr. Townsend, participating this year in his third Iditarod, said, "You really work your butt off, but I think Nick really enjoyed himself and caught the spirit."
Dr. Herrick came to enjoy some of the exotic foods in the wild -- except the beans.
"We had lots and lots of beans," he said with a laugh. "We dined on beaver, which is a dark, tender meat and when roasted is sweet-tasting. We also ate moose stew and lots of my favorite, smoked salmon, which the Indians prepared. But basically the cooking is pretty bland."
They drank lots of hot coffee, tea and cocoa. Alcohol is banned from the race, and alcohol consumption in that climate can be fatal, he said.
He concedes that his first beer back in Anchorage, after the race, tasted pretty good. He missed fresh vegetables, which are rare in the interior.
Dr. Oswald "Sunny" King Jr., a fellow vet from Spartanburg, S.C., described an encounter with a forgotten salmon. "We came up to this lodge, opened the door, and there by the stove was a headless salmon," said Dr. King. "We never did get that stench out of the place."
"When you volunteer to work on this race, it is under primitive conditions, but I could tell very quickly that Nick was dedicated and really enjoyed it," he said. "This really isn't work, it's fun and fellowship and that's what counts."
L Who are these people who race day and night for 1,000 miles?
"I don't have a good answer for that," Dr. Herrick said. "They are physically very strong, individualistic, free-spirited and very competitive. They prepare all year for this race, and it's nothing for a musher practicing with his team to do a 100-mile training run in a day."
He wasn't there at the finish, when veteran musher Jeff King crossed the finish line but that didn't really bother him.
"This has been one the most unforgettable experiences of my life. I enjoyed flying through the interior of Alaska by bush plane and seeing vast areas of uninhabited land. It's so unbelievably beautiful," he said.
He returned home March 24 to find his family waiting at BWI in a white limousine that Mrs. Herrick had rented for the occasion.