Sunday, June 24, 2007

Camels on the Tundra 

In school most of us learned that camels are able to store water in their humps, thus enabling them to traverse long stretches of desert without liquid intake. Saturday, we experienced our third encounter with dogsled training locations. What we learned was absolutely fascinating.

There are two premier dogsled races: The Yukon Quest run from Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada to Fairbanks, Alaska (AK), USA; and the Iditarod, run from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska, USA. These races challenge mushers and their dogs and are a reminder of the strength of the human spirit exhibited by pioneering people of the past.

We absorbed the sights, sounds, and stories of three dog training teams: Susan Butcher, a multi-year Iditarod winner; Jessie, a musher and trainer from the Riverboat Discovery Tour; and Jeff King of Husky Homestead, a consistent top 10 finisher and multiple time winner of the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest.

These dogs love to run. You can feel it in the air: when they are hitched to ATVs for practice runs, when their trainers unhook them from their private dog territory. At the Susan Butcher training home, the ATV was parked with a dog team relaxing in place in front of the ATV. After we were told some of the basics, one of the trainers walked to the front of the dog line - they became exuberant, jumping up and down, pawing at the ground! The trainers hitched each dog to its respective place on the team line. The musher returned to the ATV and these dogs were raring to go. All others not hitched were excited, too. "Take me, take me," each seemed to be saying. Once the command to "go" was given, they shot out of the compound.

We learned from each meeting with a musher. These lean dogs weigh 40-70 pounds, think of marathon runners, not sprinters. They love to train. They consume about 1500 calories on a regular non-racing season day. When they start winter race-training, their consumption increases to 4000-5000 calories per day. On the trail during a big race, they can consume up to 10,000 calories a day! Their needs come first, period.

We asked about water - these dogs have a biological process whereby they convert the mushy race meals (comprised of dog food, protein, fat, water, etc.) into a "liquid" that can be drawn down during their running between the checkpoints on the racing trail. Hence, the title, "Camels on the Tundra."