Our local newspaper, the Idaho Press-Tribune, wrote this article about our own intrepid Dr. Calhoun and his frigid adventures on the Iditarod trail. The original may be found here along with pictures!
Diary of the Iditarod
Sunday, March 30th, 2008
NAMPA — Nampa veterinarian John Calhoun spent the last three weeks braving the Alaskan wilderness to chase his passion — literally.
Calhoun acted as a volunteer dog doctor during the famous 1,150-mile sled dog competition, the Iditarod, held in the breathtaking and perilous wild between Anchorage and Nome, Alaska. Now back in Nampa, Calhoun recalled his adventures as he watched man and beast alike battle the frozen elements.
The doctor arrived in the snowy state on Feb. 24, when he and 40 other trained dog specialists from all over the globe immediately dove into an intense four-day training session to prepare for what lay ahead.
“We talked about what are common sled dog problems, diseases and protocol on the trails,” Calhoun said.
After the orientation, he and the others spent a full 12-hour day giving all the four-legged athletes physicals to make sure they were healthy and legal.
“They got full blood work, EKGs, and they were drug-tested,” he said.
And even with a sizable number of volunteers, it was hard work.
“We looked at close to 1,000 dogs that day,” the vet recalled.
Local veterinarian tells of his days and nights in the wild
NAMPA — The Iditarod began on March 1.
While the mushers and dogs bounded through the first few miles of their journey with thousands of eager fans cheering them on, Nampa veterinarian John Calhoun said the adrenaline-filled start “was kind of a down time” for him and the other dog medical specialists.
But the lull didn’t last long. They were soon shuttled by planes to their first checkpoints to wait for the dogs and mushers to complete the first stages of the race. Four to six doctors were stationed per checkpoint, along with judges, trackers, pilots, a logistics team — including a food prep crew — and communications staff.
Because dogs race better in colder temperatures (it prevents them from overheating), the teams would often come through the checkpoints, located in remote and isolated areas of the Alaskan tundra, in the dead of night. That left Calhoun and the other volunteers no choice but to become nocturnal creatures and sleep in the day when time permitted.
For the first few days of the grueling race, the checkpoints were hectic and congested while all the teams stayed fairly close together. But eventually as the leaders pulled away, Calhoun said the pace grew more even.
Tending to the athletes
Just like with humans, the canine athletes suffered the same kind of strain as one would expect for marathon runners: fatigue, pulled muscles and sore joints. On occasion, some injuries were more serious.
Calhoun said one dog broke a leg stepping into a large hole left in the snow-packed trail by a passing moose. Another dog was hit and killed by a snowmobile during the race. But considering the sheer number of dogs competing in the race, the Nampa doctor said there were a low number of major injuries.
“I had a dog who cut himself on a branch, but nothing too big; nothing newsworthy,” he said.
When dogs are injured, they are pulled from the race and flown back to Anchorage. In fact, Calhoun said he never once had to initiate a conversation with a musher advising him or her to pull a dog from a sledding team.
“These weren’t disposable (animals),” he said. “I never had to ask anyone to drop a dog. They came to me with that.”
Life in an ice cave
Spending days at a time in solitary, snowy locations, eating and sleeping conditions reflected the Alaskan wild. Calhoun spent most of his days or nights snow-camping: sleeping in a tent in the snow.
And sometimes, Calhoun skipped the tent altogether.
“One night our tent got so crowded I went outside and built a snow cave,” he said. “I just dug a hole in the snow, took my sleeping bag and hopped in. It was pretty nice.”
Calhoun did get to spend a few nights indoors on his three-week excursion.
“It varied from camping in a tent and no running water and an outhouse to staying in some villages. We’d stay in a church or a community center.”
Once, the crew got to bunk in what comparatively seemed to be “five-star lodging.”
“A gym we used one night… We probably had 100 people sleeping on the floor, and that was probably the nicest place I stayed,” he said.
After his nights in the sub-zero weather, Calhoun said Nampa felt “like the tropics” on his return.
“I think being inside is kind of weird for me,” he said, adding that he had to readjust to working and living within four walls.
From the initial start to the point when the last musher came across the finish line, the race lasted more than two weeks. The winning race time was just under 9 1/2 days while the final competitor crossed the finish line at a little over 15 days.
On March 18, the day after the race officially ended, Calhoun returned to Nampa, changed and inspired by his sled dog adventures.
“If you took away that fact that you didn’t get any sleep, it was awesome,” he said. “It was a lot of work, but very rewarding. I think I could go back eight different times and have eight different experiences. The reason I’d do it again is that I think I’d get a different experience each time I went.”
And the Nampa vet said he is definitely going back.
Mushers, dogs share bond
NAMPA — John Calhoun has always adored dogs, which obviously influenced his career path to become a veterinarian specializing in canine care.
With that in mind, it’s no surprise that what he enjoyed most about his recent stint as a volunteer doctor for the famous Iditarod sled dog race was watching the human and animal teams during the demanding competition.
“I saw three kinds of teams: I saw the very competitive ones who loved their dogs but were still competitive. They led the dogs incredibly well and knew when they needed to rest and to be pushed. I saw a second group, they were learning about them. When they got tired and frustrated, the dogs picked up on negative energy and stopped. I saw other ones who were trying to figure it out and were fine with that.”
But in all three groups, Calhoun saw love and respect between the dogs and the mushers.
“Everyone loves the dogs,” he said. “It was an amazing thing to watch.”
Calhoun said after the leaders in the race went through various checkpoints, there was a middle group, in it for the love of the ride, who would come through at a more leisurely pace. These were Calhoun’s favorite mushers.
“They were developing their teams; they just wanted to do well,” he said. “And they were likely to sit down with you and chit-chat over a cup of coffee with you.”
Calhoun was fascinated by his conversations with the cold-weather athletes.
“One guy told me it was a spiritual experience with his dogs,” he said. “And (for me) just to watch the psychology of the mushers — the mushers had to have leadership (and) the energy, knowing how to read the dogs, knowing how to get them energized and keep their interest, keep them entertained.”
The experience left the Nampa man with a heightened interest in the sport and a deeper appreciation for the commitment of those who do compete.
“A lot of these mushers have anywhere from 30 to 70 dogs. It’s a huge, huge amount of work. They have two teams training at a time for six hours a day. It’s a big undertaking,” he said. “It might be fun (for me) to have a few dogs, but it’s a lot of work.”
Fans trek to Alaska to follow favorite teams
NAMPA — While the Iditarod may not mean much to those in the lower 48 states, John Calhoun, a Nampa veterinarian who recently volunteered at the 2008 Iditarod sled dog race, said this is one of the biggest events north of the U.S.-Canadian border.
“This is their World Series, their Super Bowl. and their NASCAR all in one,” Calhoun said.
Many fans travel from all over the world at great financial expense to secure a prime spectator’s view of the legendary frozen marathon.
“People rent private planes,” he said. “For $10,000, people hire a pilot for 10 days to watch the race,” Calhoun said, describing how fans fly from checkpoint to checkpoint ahead of the racers to catch highlights of the race firsthand.
Calhoun, who worked at the checkpoints, said you could always tell when the lead mushers were getting close.
“About six hours before the first racers got there,” he recalled, “you’d see the TV cameras, helicopters, and planes come in.”
Even those who can’t afford to hire private planes turn out by the thousands for the start and finish of the race. Crowds gathered on foot and on snowmobiles to root for their favorite teams.
People in remote villages along the race’s path also turn out to show their support for the mushers and dogs.
“It was a big social event for them too, so when the race comes through their town it’s a huge deal,” he said, describing how one village held a pie social for the volunteers at the checkpoint near their town.
The fans and volunteers also get joy out of seeing familiar faces at the Iditarod.
“A lot of people have done this for several years, so it’s a big reunion for people,” Calhoun said. “There were several vets from Australia, New Zealand and England, and many mushers (came) from Norway, Italy, England, Germany, and of course several from Canada.”
The race, always heavily covered by local media, received special televised attention this year.
“The Discovery (Channel) did a documentary on it, and they’ll air that in October,” Calhoun said. “I got interviewed a few times; whether they’ll use that or not, I don’t know.”
The media hype surrounding the event caught Calhoun off guard.
“I knew it was kind of a (big deal) up there. There was a lot of local TV; they’re really only interested in the first six to eight racers. But I wasn’t expecting quite the mass media that I saw,” he said. “There have been sled dog races all season long up there, but this is the Super Bowl race for them.”