When veterinarian Carl E. Rogge takes his March vacation, he goes north. Far, far north, to where the temperatures might climb to 10 degrees, glaciers loom over the landscape and the dogs look nothing like the suburban canines he leaves behind.
He likes to golf, fly-fish and sail, but this is his other hobby: He is part of an army of volunteers at the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, the grueling 1,200-mile race through the Arctic wilderness, checking the physical condition of the 45-pound racers.
"I was used to the dogs of Severna Park," Rogge, 63, said. "But there's not one ounce of fat on them. They're real athletes. All they live for is the run. At the starting line, they're howling and hopping."
That's 1,400 sled dogs on a main street in Anchorage, divided into 45 teams. Sixteen teams officially complete the 10-to 15-day competition course that crosses tundra and cuts close to the Bering Sea, Siberia and Mount McKinley. The sled dogs' human companions, who ride and run along, are called "mushers."
The race, which begins tomorrow, has drawn Rogge north toward the top of the planet eight times. When he makes his ninth journey next week, his assignment will be at the finish line.
Rogge will be stationed there to examine the marathon sled dogs for possible lameness, dehydration and injuries. Moose attacks can happen out there in the white wild.
There he will judge the best-kept team, he said.
Rogge, a native of Philadelphia, says he and 24 veterinary doctors operate under clear ground rules. First among them is the sled dogs, when they get a physical exam at each of 26 checkpoints, cannot receive painkillers or any kind of medication. If they need medicine or surgery, they are treated and dropped from the race.
"I never had to drop a dog myself," he said. "The mushers usually do it."
Rogge, a married father of three, pays his own travel expenses and receives an honorarium for his services. He and his wife, Brenda, have two dogs and a cat.
At the Severna Park Veterinary Hospital, where he has practiced for 30 years, Rogge's gentle voice hardly skips a beat when he describes extraordinary experiences that, he noted dryly, not many would go so far to find. Sleeping in canvas tents on frozen lakes and flying on "little crazy bush planes" - vintage Cessnas - are just the beginning.
There was a memorable scoop of Eskimo ice cream, which, at first sight, looked like a white fluffy delight. A villager made it especially for Rogge. When he tasted it, the sensation was fishy.
Somewhere in the ice cream was boiled fish meat and moose renal fat, coming from the kidneys, he later learned.
Over the years - his first Iditarod race was in 1988 - Rogge has given community lectures and amassed a collection of photos and diary notes he'd like to cull into a book.
Communicating the desolate sights, bitter cold and starry skies in Alaska - the utter absence of human imprints in a lunar landscape - it's worth a try. Preserved lifetime memories are what he brings home in a suitcase.
"The Northern lights were most memorable," Rogge said. "Millions of gorgeous stars, crackling in the sky with a mountain horizon."
Never mind that it was minus35 degrees Fahrenheit. And sleep deprivation - two hours a night, when the veterinarian's off-shift - goes with the terrain.
The origin of the race came from the overland route that a relay team of sled dogs traveled to deliver serum to treat a diphtheria outbreak near the Arctic Circle in 1923.
At the end of this year's route is Nome. There are no roads into the city, close to the Arctic Circle.
"They say there's no place like Nome Rogge said.
For more information about the Iditarod, visit www.iditarod.com.