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."
Not everyone shares his enthusiasm for the Iditarod. Animal rights advocates such as the Friends of Animals and the Humane Society condemn the race as too long, too fast and too harsh. They criticize everything from culling of pups by breeders to alleged abuse by mushers along the trail to death of dogs during the race. They charge dogs literally run themselves to death -- and at least 17 dogs have died over the years.
"These dogs are driven as if they're snowmobiles," says Susan Feral, president of Friends of Animals. "They're not snowmobiles to be discarded when they break down and turned in for a new model."
Opposition from the animal rights people has led corporations including Timberland, Iams and Chrysler to withdraw support from the race. The Iditarod Trail Committee has toughened its rules protecting the dogs, among other things mandating two rest stops of eight hours and one of 24. But calls to ban the race seem about as heretical to Alaskans as banning snow.
"These are different dogs than most people are used to, much tougher mentally and physically than the average dog," says Joe Redington Sr., a founder of the race who raises his own sled dogs. At 80, he'll be racing again this year.
Rogge agrees with Redington, dismissing the criticisms as unfair.
"That's what these dogs are bred for," he says. "It goes back for years. ... It was almost like a natural selection."
Like most defenders of the Iditarod, he attributes dog deaths mainly to "sudden death syndrome," similar to that which strikes young human athletes. The sled dogs get a complete physical, including an EKG, before the race. And a whole pharmacopoeia of drugs is prohibited, including aspirin, which might mask pain.
The Alaskan sled dog is not exactly an American Kennel Club breed. "You can see they're really a cross between a lot of breeds. There certainly looks like some Siberian huskie in there, but there's also ... everything -- German shepherd, Labrador retriever, Irish setter."
And they're smaller than most people expect, averaging just 45 to 50 pounds.
"They're really nice dogs," Rogge says. "But they're truly working sled dogs. Their personalities are great, but they just don't have the range of personalities that the pets do in this area ... [which have] developed personalities as companions and members of HTC the family."
In his hospital, Rogge is a pleasant, personable man with nicely coiffed gray hair and a benevolent bedside manner. He tends to call his canine patients "doggies." He's practiced at the Severna Park Veterinary Hospital 23 years now. He grew up near Philadelphia, went to veterinary school at the University of Pennsylvania and taught for a while in Arizona. Before coming to Severna Park, he practiced in Charlottesville, Va., where he treated lots of horses.
For about a month last summer, he was back in Alaska again, taking over a veterinary practice in Nome. And for the first time he took along his wife, Brenda, and sons Chad, 15, and Kyle, 12. They visited islands in the Bering Sea and hiked through the treeless tundra just below the Arctic Circle.
"I'd never seen tundra before. It's actually like a couple of inches of thick sort of moss with mountain flowers through it. It's absolutely gorgeous.
"And it's just these big mountains and that's all there is and you really don't see any other person. It's really amazing."
Amazing is a word he uses frequently to describe Alaska, and its sled dogs.
"I did surgery on some of the dogs up there," Rogge says. "I enjoy doing surgery. And these dogs, because there is not one ounce of fat in their abdomen, I mean, it was really difficult. ... It was just like wire, everything really tight, really strong. It makes surgery much more challenging.
"I guess it was like a marathon runner would be for a person," Rogge says. "Just everything is sort of like rocks."
At his Severna Park hospital, the challenges are a little different. On this day, Rogge's just come out of surgery, where he's "altered" two little toy poodles, brothers named Too Too Much and Murphy.
When you do surgery in the suburbs, he says "there's lots of fat and everything is sort of soft and stretchy and all."
And he sees lots of bone and knee injuries common to contemporary lifestyles. Aging pets, like aging weekend warriors, get out of shape.
"The dogs have the same kind of happy lives and they get the same kind of injuries," he says. "The doggies get a lot of anterior cruciate ligament injuries, ACL repairs to their knees."
It was his interest in orthopedic surgery, repairing athletic injuries in horses and dogs, that helped him first get to the Iditarod. In 1988, he saw an article in a professional journal and applied to the race's head veterinarian. More than 200 vets applied, and just 16 were accepted.
"Well, I guess I was very naive before the first time I went up there," Rogge says. "I thought they stopped racing in the evening and you'd go to the hotel and have dinner and everything else. But the race goes 24 hours a day. And it's a 1,200-mile race through the total wilderness of Alaska.
"And there are absolutely no hotels along the way. You sort of sleep in little houses or little community centers or out in tents. There are no hot tubs or happy hours or hotels."
The Iditarod is a tough race -- even for the veterinarians.
Pub Date: 3/01/97