Dog Words

0201: The Iditarod with Dr. Vern Otte

January 27, 2021 Season 2 Episode 1
Dog Words
0201: The Iditarod with Dr. Vern Otte
Chapters
Dog Words
0201: The Iditarod with Dr. Vern Otte
Jan 27, 2021 Season 2 Episode 1

Today’s guest Dr. Vern Otte shares his tales as a volunteer veterinarian with the last great race: the Iditarod. He also explains how COVID-19 impacts this year’s running. More info is at Iditarod.com.

You can still commission recent guest Ashley Schanz through her Facebook Page Schanz’s Sketchbook to sketch a beautiful memento of your pet with the proceeds benefiting charities. This makes a great gift, especially if you know someone who has lost a pet. Please use the keyword “Rosie” when you contact Ashley if you want Rosie Fund to be the beneficiary charity.

Ashley is now also online at  schanzssketchbook.com.

Celebrate 5 years of Rosie Fund by supporting our campaign to sponsor 50 dogs. You can donate on our website or Facebook page. You can also contribute by making a purchase from the store on our website or buying a t-shirt at Bonfire.com.

Visit RosieFund.org for links to all of our social media, including our free YouTube channel. Please subscribe to our channel to help us secure the Rosie Fund URL.

Music for this episode is provided by alternative string duo, The Wires. Visit them at TheWires.info. Learn fiddle and cello-fiddle online — even if you've never played before — from Laurel Morgan Parks and Sascha Groshang at FiddleLife.com. Also ask them about their Valentine’s specials that include a professionally arranged and recorded love song of your choice for your sweetheart.

Show Notes Transcript

Today’s guest Dr. Vern Otte shares his tales as a volunteer veterinarian with the last great race: the Iditarod. He also explains how COVID-19 impacts this year’s running. More info is at Iditarod.com.

You can still commission recent guest Ashley Schanz through her Facebook Page Schanz’s Sketchbook to sketch a beautiful memento of your pet with the proceeds benefiting charities. This makes a great gift, especially if you know someone who has lost a pet. Please use the keyword “Rosie” when you contact Ashley if you want Rosie Fund to be the beneficiary charity.

Ashley is now also online at  schanzssketchbook.com.

Celebrate 5 years of Rosie Fund by supporting our campaign to sponsor 50 dogs. You can donate on our website or Facebook page. You can also contribute by making a purchase from the store on our website or buying a t-shirt at Bonfire.com.

Visit RosieFund.org for links to all of our social media, including our free YouTube channel. Please subscribe to our channel to help us secure the Rosie Fund URL.

Music for this episode is provided by alternative string duo, The Wires. Visit them at TheWires.info. Learn fiddle and cello-fiddle online — even if you've never played before — from Laurel Morgan Parks and Sascha Groshang at FiddleLife.com. Also ask them about their Valentine’s specials that include a professionally arranged and recorded love song of your choice for your sweetheart.

DR. OTTE  0:01 
I've seen a number of times when they'll bed down their dogs. Get 'em all ready. Get 'em fed. Get 'em taken care of. And then they just maybe put straw down for them. Or they may just lay on the sled and take a nap and be ready to go the next time.

PHIL   0:21 
Today on Dog Words, veterinarian Dr. Vern Otte takes us north to Alaska and shares his experience with the last great race, the Iditarod.

If you're new to this podcast, in each episode we explore the world of dog care and companionship. "We save each other" is the model of Rosie Fund, which simply means the more we do for dogs, the more they do for us. And they already do a lot. If you love dogs, you'll love Dog Words. We welcome your comments, questions and suggestions. Go to the podcast page at RosieFund.org to share your thoughts. We welcome suggestions for topics and guests. The only way we know the ones you like is if you tell us. Then we'll try to deliver more of that. Please download, subscribe, rate, and most importantly, share Dog Words.

Celebrate five years of Rosie Fund by supporting our campaign to sponsor 50 dogs. You can donate on our website or Facebook page. You can also contribute by making a purchase from the store on our website or by buying a t-shirt Bonfire.com. Links are in the description.

Please follow Rosie Fund on social media, especially the free Rosie Fund a YouTube channel that offers great videos of Rosie, Peaches and her friends, and shelter dogs including some exclusive content like trainers, Jason and Sandra Sindeldecker from Missouri Patriot Paws teaching service dogs how to walk in their new boots. We have more videos coming from Missouri Patriot Paws. So subscribe and click the bell to be notified when those are posted.

Remember you can commission recent Dog Words Guest Ashley Schanz through her Facebook page, Schanz's Sketchbook to sketch a beautiful memento of your pet with the proceeds benefiting charities. This makes a great gift especially if you know someone who has lost a pet. Use the keyword "Rosie" when you contact Ashley if you want Rosie Fund to be the beneficiary charity.

Next time on Dog Words, author Emily Anthes talks about her nonfiction books The Great Indoors and Frankenstein's Cat.

The mission of Rosie Fund is to provide humans with the resources and education they need to give senior and harder-to-adopt dogs a better life. We thank you for joining our mission.

Today on Dog Words, we welcome veterinarian Dr. Vern Otte to the show. Dr. Otte, thank you for joining us.

DR. OTTE  2:38 
Thank you for having me on.

PHIL   2:40 
In Kansas City we are in the throes of winter as much as we ever are in Kansas City. But nothing compared to winter in Alaska. Yet in a couple months they're going to be running the Iditarod and you have some experience with that event, Dr. Otte. But before we get your insight on the Iditarod, tell us what led you to becoming a veterinarian.

DR. OTTE  3:06 
Well, first of all, I grew up on a farm and loved animals. Took care of 'em. Caught the cats. Tamed the stray cats that came around and enjoyed working with the dogs. And then the military drafted me and they put me in the medical field and I decided that I liked medicine. I like to work with people. I liked working with animals. So veterinary school was the ideal thing to do.

PHIL   3:31 
So you've had a long career as a veterinarian. Have you always been in Kansas City or practiced elsewhere?

DR. OTTE  3:38 
I was two years in New Jersey with the rest of 40-some years have been Kansas City.

PHIL   3:46 
Somewhere along the way, you ended up working as a veterinarian for the Iditarod in Alaska. How did that happen?

DR. OTTE  3:56 
I stayed in the reserves after I got off active duty in the military. And as part of that we did medical missions in South Central America, Africa. And then when I retired from military reserves I was kind of bored and missed those exciting adventures. And it was suggested I try Iditarod. And so I signed up for that and I've gone 11 times now.

PHIL   4:23 
Wow. That's a commitment that you tried it and obviously liked it because you could have tried it once and said, "Okay, I'll do it one more time. And okay, this is enough for me," but 11 times, obviously you're invested in the event. What kept you coming back?

DR. OTTE  4:40 
The dogs for one thing. They're fantastic. The beautiful scenery out there. Being out in the wilderness in places where people go to Alaska never go because we're out in the middle of essentially nowhere where vehicles can't get to. That people have to fly in and out to get to it.

PHIL   4:58 
Yeah, there's a reason they're using dogs.

DR. OTTE  5:00 
And then the camaraderie — Yeah, the camaraderie of the trail personnel. That's the only time I see 'em and see 'em once a year and come back next year when we catch up with what we've been doing for the last year.

PHIL   5:13 
For people who aren't familiar with the Iditarod — or who have what my perception was of it long ago — that it was kind of like a Sturgis for mushers, and that people just show up with their sleds and dogs and we pile on our sleds and, and head up the trail. It's not that at all. It's a exclusive event for the best mushers. And I just saw this stat recently, more people have summited Everest than have completed the Iditarod.

DR. OTTE  5:43 
That's correct. There's fewer than 900 have completed the Iditarod.

PHIL   5:48 
And that the people who've completed it, most of them are mushers who have done it more than once. You've got to know what you're doing.

DR. OTTE  5:56 
Very few of them do it one time and quit. There are a few who do but for the most part, they get hooked on it, and they keep going.

PHIL   6:05 
The setup is, again, not just a bunch of gold rush people charging up the trail. It's a very organized, structured race. And there's way stations along the way. And as you indicated, these are remote waystations, not resort destinations on the coast where people are coming in on a cruise ship and watching the Iditarod go by. So you end up at a waystation along the way or you at the start? Where are you along the trail?

DR. OTTE  6:32 
Depends on what they need at the moment. There are 21 checkpoints approximately. Some years, it's different because there's two different routes. But approximately 21 checkpoints. And so they will have veterinarians at each of the checkpoints to check the doors when they come in. And then when they're no longer needed at that checkpoint we'll be moved to another checkpoint. So we may do 2, 3, 4, or 5 checkpoints in a race hop skipping in the checkpoints going where we're needed the most.

PHIL   7:05 
Another comparison I think people make to the Iditarod is the Tour de France, where each stage the event moves from one location to the next location. With the Iditarod, you have people who complete it in 9 or 10 days and people who take much longer. So it's not like you're just at a checkpoint, everyone comes blowing into town and you check those dogs over the course of a couple hours. And then move on to the next spot. You could have somebody showing up, I'm assuming at two in the afternoon or two in the morning.

DR. OTTE  7:42 
Right. The race starts and finishes in Nome. And it's a continuous 24 hour a day operation. As compared to the Tour de France, they have people there to help them recuperate, fix their bikes and so on. On the Iditarod, no one's allowed to help the mushers do anything at all. If we help one musher do something as in bring their supplies to them, we have to do it for every one of the mushers along that checkpoint. So one checkpoint might bring night bags to them, the next checkpoint won't. But we do everything the same for each of the mushers.

PHIL   8:18 
It's not a big corporate crew, again, like the Tour de France, where you have your support vans and the whole team of people and or the 24 Hours of Le Mans where you're changing drivers, you know, every hour or two. This is one musher going the whole way with his dog team. And if a dog is evaluated by a veterinarian, do you make the call that, "No, you're out of the race or you have to take this dog off your team?" How does that work?

DR. OTTE  8:49 
Team comes into a checkpoint several things happen. One is that they're going to stay for that checkpoint. And they may stay there for 15 minutes. They may stay there for an hour or 24 hours. But at that point, veterinarians will check all the dogs that are coming in and decide whether or not they're suitable to continue racing. If they're not, we take them off the team. And we keep them until we can get them back to a checkpoint. As in back to Anchorage or to one of the hubs. So, yes, we decided if the dogs can continue on.

PHIL   9:27 
Something that's going to come up with any discussion of the Iditarod is the well-being of the dogs. And we had an interview a few weeks ago with Rebecca Stern, who directed a documentary about dog groomers who do competitive grooming. And it has a scene in there where someone is objecting to the treatment of these dogs. And as the competitive groomer explained, "You couldn't do this with a dog who didn't love it." And in the documentary, you can see the dogs were being dyed and primped and blown out with blow dryers and on display absolutely love it. Anyone who's seen a documentary on the Iditarod can tell these dogs are not being whipped down the trail. They want to go. They are loving life. Is that your experience? Or is that just me having some romanticized vision from documentaries which may or may not be biased?

DR. OTTE  10:22 
No, that's my experience, too. These dogs love to run. You see pictures of the mushers or the teams that come into Nome. And they don't realize they're through for the most part, some of the veterans never realize it. But the other dogs are just sitting there bouncing, bouncing, bouncing, bouncing. I was at Safety one year, which is 22 miles from the finish line 55 miles from the previous checkpoint. And these dogs came in there and all we're really doing there is just giving them a real quick check over. And these dogs are just bouncing. "I just rode 55 miles!" And they're just charged up, bro. "Let's keep going! That's 55 miles is nothing. Yeah, we've already come 900 miles."

PHIL   11:06 
Yeah, the human needs the brake more than the dogs probably. Dog just refuel ready to go. Another thing that surprised me in seeing docs about the Iditarod is I'd always thought of big sled dogs, almost like draft horses. But these aren't big, bulky dogs. These are more like stagecoach horses are built for speed and endurance.

DR. OTTE  11:33 
Right. They are about 40 to 50 pounds and dogs is what the average dog will weigh. 45 pounds is about right. There are a few teams — and I haven't seen a team over the last few years but — of Siberian Huskies.The beautiful dogs that everybody thinks about for being sled dogs. But those teams are at the end of the race every year and never the front. There are good solid dogs. Most of them are gonna make it through the end. But they're not gonna win a race.

PHIL   12:06 
And it might be handy to have that kind of sled dog for the short haul. If you got to get up some steep terrain or something. But to go 1000 miles, you need a dog that isn't carrying extra weight.

DR. OTTE  12:19 
Right.

PHIL   12:20 
Talk about how much the dogs love the race. I don't think you can overstate how much the mushers love their dogs. There's no way that they would put their dog in harm's way or jeopardize their dog's well-being as much as they love those dogs.

DR. OTTE  12:36 
Oh, yes. I've had several occasions where we've had to take dogs off the team and the mushers won't continue on without the dog, so. It's sad to have to take one off. But mushers understand it's for the well-being and the dog.

PHIL   12:52 
How long are you at the Iditarod? The winner is only in the Iditarod, again, for nine or 10 days. How long is your obligation to be there?

DR. OTTE  13:02 
We're obligated to be there at least a week. Generally, we're there 10 to 14 days. I'm usually out there eight or nine days. And again, it depends on the year and where I happen to be.

PHIL   13:14 
Have you ever been trapped at a checkpoint based on the weather or travel?

DR. OTTE  13:21 
Oh, see, when was it? Three years ago? Three years ago I was at a checkpoint called Eagle Island, which there's nothing there. It's just a place where a little slough runs into the river. And we were finished with all the dogs two or three days before they were able to get us out of there. So I was really concerned about getting back home because it was my day to leave. Fly out of Anchorage and I am a long way away from Anchorage. And I can hear the planes flying above us trying to come in to get us but they can't get in. Can't break through the clouds.

PHIL   13:56 
You needed a dog sled team!

DR. OTTE  13:58 
We did! Yeah.

PHIL   14:00 
To get you out of there. When we set up this interview I talked a little bit about Lance Mackey because I had just watched the documentary The Great alone. And the Mackey family is sort of, I don't know if the royal family is the right word? But they're well known in Iditarod circles. That Lance Mackey's father was one of the founders of Iditarod. Won the race. His brother had won the race. He's won it four times. He was like the first person to win it like four times in a row. His daughter has since run the race. Really anyone who wants to know more about the Iditarod if you just Google "Lance Mackey" and watch YouTube videos, it gives you a lot of insight into the race, the culture. One of the many surprises in watching the documentary was him getting to a checkpoint, feeding his dogs and then laying down for a nap. The room he's in, it's exposed like OSB plywood. And it's people just laying on the floor on a pile of blankets. The lights are on, because again, people are arriving at any given time. So it's not like this is your room and you turn out the lights and go to bed. They take a nap or they stay there for a day, however long. Those might not be the accommodations at every station, but I'm guessing it's pretty much the norm that there's not going to be a Holiday Inn Express at any of these locations. What were your accommodations?

DR. OTTE  15:34 
Our accommodations were about the same thing. Very similar. So we might be in tents. We might be in a school house. If we're lucky, we're inside. But many of the places we're outside having a tent. It can be pretty austere for you. But the mushers come in. They're really tired. They'll just flp down on the floor someplace and be out for an hour and be out for three hours. Go out and take care of the dogs and get ready to go again.

PHIL   16:04 
Yeah, that was another thing that surprised me is at the check stations the musher has a big pile of straw, some straw bales and just throws it down and the dogs just kind of burrow in and take their nap and they're fine. They're built for that.

DR. OTTE  16:17 
Oftentimes mushers will sleep outside with the dogs. It's less noisy, less confusion. They can sleep more solidly.

PHIL   16:25 
Mm hmm.

DR. OTTE  16:28 
I've seen a number of times when they'll bed down their dogs. Get 'em all ready. Get 'em fed. Get 'em taken care of. And then they just maybe put straw down for them. Or they may just lay on the sled and take a nap and be ready to go the next time.

PHIL   16:46 
That was another scene in The Great Alone documentary. It shows Lance Mackey laying down and his lead dog just curls up next to him. Lays his head on his neck and they go to sleep.

DR. OTTE  16:58 
Yep. They have quite a connection there. They really like their dogs. The dogs are part of the family.

PHIL   17:05 
Is there anything that you learn from working on the Iditarod that either surprised you about dogs or veterinary care or changed the way that you practiced veterinary medicine?

DR. OTTE  17:20 
Well, one big difference between sled dog racing and private practice, in private practice, we see lots of leg injuries, but they're all rear leg injuries. And in the sled dogs, almost all of them are front leg injuries, because they're they're out there pulling themselves. And obviously they're not overweight like the pet dogs are. So there's less stress on the back legs. But rarely do we see any rear leg injuries and sled dogs that I see lots of shoulder injuries and in private practice, when I did see a shoulder injury it was like, "Hey, I know how to do this. And I've done this many, many times."

PHIL   18:03 
Are there any mushers that you're regularly in contact with? Or do you really not have an opportunity to develop a relationship with them because one, you're focusing on their dogs and two, they're in and out of your life in a matter of hours?

DR. OTTE  18:18 
The only one of them that we had much contact with and unfortunately, he died of cancer a couple of years ago. My wife went to Alaska as an Iditarider which is someone who rides in the ceremonial start on the — in downtown Anchorage. And she rode with him and we got to know him and his wife and I worked with him as a judge before. And anyway, we became friends and so we kept in contact but unfortunately died a few years ago. So I haven't kept in touch with any other mushers.

PHIL   18:53 
Are you planning to head up to Alaska this March or are you done volunteering with the Iditarod?

DR. OTTE  19:02 
I am. I just recently told him I was not coming this year. I've got some back injuries problems. Working on the sled dogs requires a strong back, picking up the dogs and getting them all examined and it's um — so I decided I'd better not do it this year.

PHIL   19:21 
I'm guessing it probably doesn't feel too good bouncing in on a little puddle jumper plane with ski landing gear, either. Doesn't feel good on the back.

DR. OTTE  19:31 
Oh, that's not a big problem, though. But if the dogs are sleeping and they need to be examined, I've got to pick 'em up. I'll wake 'em up, pick 'em up, stand 'em up. And some of 'em don't do that. So it's just almost like dead weight picking up these dogs. And you do that for a team of 16. And while they have 14 teams now. And you have maybe 20 or 30 teams in there...

PHIL   19:53 
Which I was gonna do the math on that.

DR. OTTE  19:56 
Yeah.

PHIL   19:56 
20 or 30 teams. 10, 12, 14 dogs on a team. That's hundreds of dogs that you're examining. Does it just become a blur? Do you recognize a particular dog from one year to the next? Do dogs remember you?

DR. OTTE  20:11 
I don't think the dogs remember me. I remember some of the dogs, particularly the lead dogs, but most of them, no they're just a blur. The most memorable one I had was, I was at a checkpoint where, where was the year when they had 96 mushers. 96 teams and 16 in there, and it was a place where we couldn't get any...

PHIL   20:34 
That's over a thousand dogs!

DR. OTTE  20:36 
Yeah, and there were four of us vets in there. And at six o'clock in the morning where they start coming in at four o'clock the night before. Six the next morning I just decided I need to take a nap. I slept for two hours. And then when I got up the other three were sleeping. And so we had 96 teams come in there in 24 hours. It was, uh — I was tired. You can do the math on that.

PHIL   21:01 
Yeah.

DR. OTTE  21:02 
96 teams. 16 dogs to a team.

PHIL   21:05 
In 24 hours.

DR. OTTE  21:06 
In 24 hours.

PHIL   21:07 
Yeah, there were probably years where you didn't see that many dogs in your private practice. That would be a sort of trial by fire for a veterinarian. Do you see younger vets? Rookie vets at Iditarod or is it all or mostly retired vets?

DR. OTTE  21:27 
No, not a lot of new young vets. One of the requirements is you have to be in practice for at least five years. So we don't get the ones right out of school.

PHIL   21:36 
Yeah, you don't want them learning on a sled dog in the middle of a race.

DR. OTTE  21:41 
Prior to becoming a trail vet you have to do a class. So they have a week seminar for preceding the race that we're required to go to before we can go out on the trail, showing the nuances of, for example, shoulder injuries. Knowing how to do the exam of which muscles are involved there and what's going on with it. And knowing which drugs you can use which drugs you cannot use. For example, you can't use any of the non-steroidal anti inflammatories on the race dogs if they're gonna continue running. Which if they came into your private practice that'd be what you'd put 'em on. If they're coming and they're limping, we put them on some kind of a drug to take that inflammation that way. But out on the trail if they're going to continue going, you can't do that. So you need to find other alternative ways to do that. Maybe ice packs or massaging and so on.

PHIL   22:37 
Have there been any developments in veterinary care based on the Iditarod? Kind of like orthopedics has made advances based on treating professional athletes? You know, like Tommy john surgery and knee repair and stuff? Has there been any of that, that you're aware of from either sled dogs in general or the Iditarod in particular?

DR. OTTE  23:00 
They do a lot of research, metabolic research. But when I found out for example, by giving certain drugs, like pepcid type drugs, to them, that they're gonna have less gastric irritation. These dogs are eating 10,000 calories a day. So that's a tremendous amount of inflammation or stuff that's going through the GI tract. But what we found if we gave him pepcid or omeprazole ahead of time, that the incidence of gastric problems was way down. So there's been a lot of things like that that take place research. But as far as surgery goes, I'm not sure. Probably there is but I'm just not aware of it.

PHIL   23:50 
Have there been any emergency situations that you've had to deal with at a checkpoint? Or is it just general fatigue or minor injuries?

DR. OTTE  23:59 
Yeah, one that comes to mind was one dog that came in on a checkpoint that was just not doing right. Just kind of borderline type outright. So the vet pulled it off, off there. I went to look at it, probably 20 minutes later, and this dog was barely able to stand up. And I was at a checkpoint where there was a village health center. Went over to see what kind of diagnostic equipment they had. The only thing they had was a glucometer. So okay, I'll check that. And the glucose was way down where it wouldn't even read. So it was down to less than 30. So the problem with this dog was hypoglycemia. So we hooked up the IVs and start glucose treatment on it. And then they flew in a plane to pick it up. So if we have a dog like that they send in a special plane just to pick up that dog just to get it out of there. But the dog turned out okay once we got their glucose going.

PHIL   24:59 
Oh, thank goodness. Flying that dog out is an accommodation that Iditarod organizers have to make on a small scale. On a larger scale, what steps did I did ride organizers take in response to COVID this past March? And do you know what steps are being taken for this year's race?

DR. OTTE  25:17 
So 2020, the race started before the pandemic hit. And the decision was made just to continue on the race. But some of the villages got nervous because they had heard stories about the Spanish flu pandemic 1918, 1919. Where some of the villages of the ninety percent of people died during that pandemic. And so this year, one village in particular, Shaktoolik, which is just before you cross the northern sound, decided they wanted to be safe. And they blocked off the village and moved the checkpoint about two miles down. So that no one came into their village. And with that in mind, this year, they have decided to change the plans and do different things so that those villages will not be affected. And one of the ways they're gonna do that is change the route from the regular north and south route to they'll go up to the point where those two routes split at Ophir and go south to Iditarod. And from there, they'll go to a deserted ghost town mining town called Flap and loop around and go back to where they started from. So what they'll end up doing is having these same checkpoints be hit twice, but those past that like Nome and Shaktoolik and Unakleet and Kaltag and so on, no one will go there. And the volunteers will stay as a team or a pod. And they will stay there for longer. Or in the case of the very first ones like Skwentna and Yentna, those teams will have come, gone. There'll probably be a week in between and then they'll get new teams in there to take care of this for mushers coming back through. So it'll be a completely different route this time and one, you know, at least one that's never been done before. And the difficulty and probably is greater than the regular route because they'll be going back over the Alaskan range. And there's some steppes in there where they're going up hills. Normally they're going down hills. They'll be going up those this time. So it'll be a big challenge this time. It will be a little shorter but it'll be a more difficult route.

PHIL   27:46 
It'll be interesting to see what that does to the finishing order. If it favors a different kind of musher than has won in the past or if the experienced Iditarod mushers won't have the advantage of having done the route so many times by reversing maybe someone who's newer to this might have an advantage. It'll be interesting to see what this does to the results.

DR. OTTE  28:11 
It'll be interesting to see what the dogs do because they know the route. The veteran dogs know the route. And it's like this isn't the way we do this.

PHIL   28:20 
It's kind of like when you go to a dude ranch and you ride the horse and they send you out on a trail and it turns out it's almost like a carnival ride that the horse just sticks to the trail and knows where to go. It's not like you're just riding on the open range. And that's an interesting thing about the Iditarod. When you see the aerial views of it, you can see mushers following another mushers track. They know the trail but it's still so treacherous. Just 'cause you know where you're going doesn't mean it's easy.

DR. OTTE  28:49 
Oh, yeah. Yeah. Well, I heard stories about Safety, which is 22 miles from Nome, there's a peninsula there and they used to go out to the corner to the cape, and then head north and then one year they decided to change it and cut across and so they just cut across that strip. And one of the lead dogs for two years in a row did not want to make that turn. "This isn't the way we do this. We go on out to the cape and then we go up."

PHIL   29:18 
"Trust me. I've been here before."

DR. OTTE  29:21 
It took him three years before he decided, "Okay, that's the way we're gonna do this now."

PHIL   29:25 
They're smart and they're stubborn.

DR. OTTE  29:27 
Yep.

PHIL   29:28 
Which is part of why they're so good at that.

DR. OTTE  29:31 
Yep. That's why they're the lead dog,

PHIL   29:33 
Even though the Iditarod is either roughly the same route each year — or in this case it's being rerouted for COVID — I can't imagine the logistics that go into setting up a race of this scale, and then the added layer of mitigating against the spread of COVID 19. Is there a special medical team that addresses that or is there a team that does that every year, regardless of what else is going on in the world?

DR. OTTE  30:02 
There's no special team for that. This year, they've done a lot of planning. My daughter's an epidemiologist professor at Emory. And she's been in charge of planning the health safety aspect of this and has put together teams rather than individuals going to a checkpoint and then one at a time being moved from one place to another. Everybody will be in pods or teams and keep it so that reduce the chances of infection. And when they get to Alaska, they'll be checked in at the hotel. You will have to have a negative test before they get there. They'll be tested when they get there. They'll be tested two days later, I think. And then when they go out on the trail, when they come back, they'll be tested again. So being many, many tests done, but it's going to be very intense and make it a whole different type of thing. But my daughter has been a volunteer on the Iditarod around for about 11 or 12 years. She's been doing logistics rather than epidemiology. But this year, she got tapped to do that because she's the only epidemiologist out there.

PHIL   31:12 
I'm sure the organizers for the Iditarod are thrilled that not only do they have access to an epidemiologist, but one who isn't just someone they pulled from the CDC or from a research facility. This is someone who actually understands the Iditarod so they don't have to get her up to speed. She understands the logistics and then has that additional expertise of epidemiology instead of having to coach her up on the Iditarod.

DR. OTTE  31:41 
Right. She's very familiar with all of the people, the judges, the director, and so on. And she has been the logistics coordinator for a number of years. And so she would coordinate all the planes flying from one place to another, picking up dogs that have been dropped or picking up volunteers and moving from one place to the other.

PHIL   32:02 
That spared them a lot of conversations that would have come from bringing an outsider and telling them, "Here's what you got to do," and them responding with, "Well, here's why we can't do that. Here's why that doesn't work in Alaska or for the Iditarod.

DR. OTTE  32:17 
Yeah, it really is a big help that she'd been there for 11 or 12 years. And so perfect fit for that.

PHIL   32:26 
I keep thinking about the misconceptions that people have about the Iditarod that guessing some of our listeners may have done a sleigh ride at some point or met a sled dog or done skijoring. This is a whole different sort of activity. I don't think people can imagine the ruggedness, the endurance that's required not only of the dogs but of the mushers. Is that something you witnessed?

DR. OTTE  32:54 
Oh, yes. It's just amazing to see what happens to these mushers out there. I've seen them come in and they barely know — There was one checkpoint I went to, and we're waiting for actually Lance Mackey to come in. And he didn't come and he didn't come and he didn't come. And he showed up like maybe four hours later. "What happened?" "I went to sleep. The dogs made our own turn. Once I woke up and realized what where we were, I didn't want to turn around because the dogs don't like to backtrack, they lose faith in me." So then he had to go to the checkpoint where we were, he took that rest there, an eight hour rest that he wasn't plan on doing only to allow the dogs to kind of recharge and say, "Okay, I guess you're okay that you can lead us again." The dogs are, they have to have two eight hour breaks in along the way. One on the river and one at White Mountain. And then there's a 24 hour rest someplace else. But anyway, White Mountain, usually, in fact, every year the person who leaves White Mountain first wins the race. It's only 77 miles ago. One year, Jeff King was in the lead. First one in White Mountain, obviously the first one to leave. He gets about seven miles from the checkpoint at Safety, and the wind comes and blows him off the trail, knocks his sled out from him. He's totally disoriented. He can't find anything. It's a white out. He ends up not being able to finish the race. He would have been the first or one of the five time winners, but by the end, the next person coming in, made it past him. She gets to the White — to Safety. Decides it's too dangerous to keep going. Then the next person that comes in, they don't stop and so Allie doesn't win the race only because she stopped and waited. You never know what's gonna happen. These mushers are fantastic people.

PHIL   35:02 
When you talk about Jeff King getting blown off the trail and Lance Mackey falling asleep and his dogs taking a wrong turn. These are both iconic mushers. These aren't just some rookies who've never done this before. These are guys who are icons in the sport. Again, it's not like the Tour de France where you have people lining the race from beginning to end with just a few pockets of no sight line, so no one's lined up there. They really are alone, that you can get off the trail for four hours if you fall asleep. No one's gonna know. If you get — you could wreck and go down a ravine and other mushers could go by and have no idea you're down there with your dogs.

DR. OTTE  35:48 
One thing they've added, during the time I've been there is GPS. And initially, when I first went there, GPS was outlawed and then mushers finally decided that it was okay. But now, they have not only GPS where you can track 'em, but there's a signal on there they can push it – an SOS signal — and if you're really in trouble you can push that. Once you push that you're out of the race, regardless of you know, they get you safe, and I can go ahead and finish now, the race is over for you. But occasionally they do that. In fact, I think it was last year, four of them got caught just outside going into White Mountain in a blowhole and never got to White Mountain.

PHIL   36:36 
I encourage people to check out the documentary The Great alone about Lance Mackey. But it details one year where he broke a runner on his sled. So he's going on one runner, which of course makes it hard to steer and to navigate slopes and turns. And he finally gets to a checkpoint on his one runner sled. And he's looking for a replacement sled because again, not like the Tour de France, you don't have somebody who just swaps out a runner for you or hands you a new bike. He's got to find somebody who's dropping out of the race who's willing to give him a sled. And as he said, "I found out who my friends were" because there are people who either wouldn't give him a sled or we're going to charge him an outrageous sum. Before he finally found somebody who said, "Hey, yeah, if my sled wins the race, even if I'm not on it, you know, go for it, Lance." But to be on there alone on a one runner sled. It's tough enough on two runners.

DR. OTTE  37:34 
It's real tough on two runners! It's amazing to watch some of these guys come in. And I've seen 'em coming in with broken arms, wrists and broken collarbone. And I couldn't believe this guy kept on going with a broken collarbone. If you've ever broken a collarbone you know it's very painful.

PHIL   37:54 
Yeah, I've had a collarbone injury and you can't dress yourself.

DR. OTTE  38:01 
Yeah.

PHIL   38:02 
Let alone ride a dog sled.

DR. OTTE  38:05 
He still had 800 miles to go.

PHIL   38:07 
Wow.

DR. OTTE  38:08 
And he finished the race. They're tough people.

PHIL   38:12 
It's a harsh environment up there and you're isolated. And outside of the Iditarod, you don't always have access to transportation, which again, is why they have sled dogs. And in the incident you described earlier where you were trapped for a few days 'cause plane couldn't get in. I'm sure there's times where the residents are trapped for weeks or more. So I'm impressed by anybody who can survive in those conditions. And it's hearty stock, not just that mushers, but the dogs and the people who just live their lives there that not everyone's a musher. But there's people who live in Alaska in these remote places because that's the lifestyle they want to lead. So more power to them.

DR. OTTE  38:54 
They now move around a lot on snow machines, what we would call snowmobile, but they'll go from village to village on the snow machine. But as far as going long distance, they're going to go anyplace they've got to get on a plane to get out of there. No roads between the places.

PHIL   39:11 
Yeah, my niece used to teach in Wainwright, Alaska, which is way way north. And the story she tells and the people who lived up there. She was there for about seven years as a school teacher but was not interested in making that her permanent residence. With your 11 visits in the beautiful scenery. Were you ever tempted to say, "Hey, I'm retired, I might want to move up here." Or was that something your wife would veto? Or the other way around? Maybe she was thinking, "Hey, let's let's stay here for..."

DR. OTTE  39:47 
I was never tempted. Never tempted.

PHIL   39:50 
A couple weeks was enough.

DR. OTTE  39:51 
A couple weeks was wonderful. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed being in the villages and meeting with people and but as far as was wanting to live there, no, that was not a concern.

PHIL   40:03 
Well, I'm glad you're able to share your story with us. And I encourage our listeners to check in on the Iditarod when it happens this March and certainly take a deep dive on the documentaries and do some YouTube video searches on the Iditarod and Lance Mackey and the other mushers. Dr. Otte, thank you for joining us today and I look forward to talking to you again soon.

DR. OTTE  40:29 
Thank you for having me on. Have a good day.

PHIL   40:36 
I'm Phil Hatterman and you've been listening to Dog Words presented by Rosie Fund. Thank you to Dr. Vern Otte for sharing his insight on the Iditarod. A link to the Iditarod's official page is in the description.

Next time on Dog Words author Emily Anthes talks about her nonfiction books The Great Indoors and Frankenstein's Cat.

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DISCLAIMER: This document is a transcription obtained through a third party. There is no claim to accuracy on the content provided in this document and divergence from the audio file is to be expected. Some content may be omitted, particularly when there is crosstalk.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai