Mushers preparing drop bags for unknown

Posted: Friday, February 19, 2010

While the Iditarod is still two weeks away, one of the first major challenges of the race has been met: drops bags are done.

Mushers across the state were scrambling this week to prepare all the supplies they and their dogs will need to survive every conceivable situation and any weather condition encountered over the 1,000-mile journey.

This may not sound like such a big deal to those outside the sport, so let me put it into terms everyone can understand, so that the hard work already achieved by mushers can truly by appreciated.

First, think of going on vacation and how long it typically takes you to pack you suitcase or bags. Now add to that enough clean underwear, socks, toiletries and other clothing and necessities to last anywhere from nine days to two weeks -- the average length of time it take to complete the Iditarod.

For those with children, also consider the added time it takes to get their stuff ready too. Now picture doing it for 16 children, because in a sense, that's what it is like for mushers.

They dogs require coats for cold weather, windbreakers for blowing weather, and blankets for when they sleep.

The mushers also have to send out protective footwear for the dogs, which like children's socks, must get changed at least daily, although changes more often than once a day are typical on the trail to Nome.

In addition, like a vacation where children are taken hiking, a diversity of ointments and medicines must be brought for the dogs to contend with everything from diarrhea to the doggy equivalent of blisters.

Then there's the food, which is by far the biggest challenge to overcome in the packing process, because on this vacation mushers have to bring every meal they and their 16 dogs are going to eat.

Studies have shown that during the race the dogs will burn roughly 10,000 calories a day, so before the race mushers must cut hundreds, up to more than a thousand pounds of meat into bite-sized pieces, and then bag them into sealable bags. This takes hours of standing at a band saw with cold hands and ringing ears.

Also, like children, the dogs can get picky about their meals as they get tired and cranky, so mushers must make sure they have a variety of meals on hand, from fish or fat, to beef or beaver. Some mushers even send out cat food in case one of their huskies becomes particularly finicky.

Hopefully by now a clearer picture is starting to emerge of the fraction of work mushers have done this past week to get ready for the big race. And for those like my wife -- who work full-time jobs and don't have a handler -- much of this work was done around their already busy schedule of making a living and still training the dogs for hours each night to get them in shape for the big event.

So as the Iditarod begins and the mushers take to trail, consider for a moment the months of effort that already occurred prior to the race. The mushers aren't just putting in a week-and-a-half of work, they are just putting in the last week-and-a-half for the season.

Joseph Robertia can be reached at joseph.robertia@peninsulaclarion.com.



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