CASSELTON, N.D. - The first weekend of March, John Reichert will depart for an Alaskan adventure that perfectly ties together his professional career and a childhood obsession.
For the 18th straight year, he'll volunteer his services at the grueling Iditarod sled dog race from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska.
Reichert will be one of about two dozen volunteer veterinarians from all over the country staged at checkpoints along the 1,000-mile wilderness course that traverses two mountain ranges.
They'll monitor the dogs for injury or illness, and, if necessary, pull dogs off the course if they're in need of more intensive help.
Reichert has a special affinity for the sled dogs, which he said are bred for their desire, drive and stamina.
"They love their job. They love to run, they love to pull," Reichert said in a recent interview at Casselton Veterinary Service, where he works.
Reconnecting with fellow veterinarians and the strong attachment visible between the dogs and the mushers keeps him going back to the Iditarod year after year.
"They have a very mutual respect and care that goes back and forth," Reichert said.
TV show sparks interest
Reichert's interest in sled dogs began as a child, watching the black and white television program "Sergeant Preston of the Yukon," which featured a Canadian Mountie policing the wilds during the Yukon gold rush of the 1890s.
He thought the star Husky named "Yukon King" was a typical example of a sled dog, only to learn later that most sled dogs are much smaller, weighing around 50 pounds at most.
"They're very staunch, very sturdy athletes," Reichert said.
In 2001, he found out about and took a short course on taking care of sled dogs.
He applied and was accepted as a volunteer vet at the Iditarod, and has been going back since.
The work involves monitoring the teams of dogs that come through each checkpoint.
The vets are transported in small planes flown by volunteer pilots, out ahead of the 60 or so mushers and their teams.
Occasionally, if the weather is really tough, they get on snowmobiles, or 'snow machines' as they're referred to in Alaska.
Conditions can be brutal, requiring the vets to pack clothing and gear good for temperatures as cold as 20 below. Most often, they sleep in tents at night.
"The distance between you and the outside is typically a piece of canvas, or maybe a board floor or straw on the ground below the tent," Reichert said.
Committed to the dogs
Sled dogs need a high calorie, high fat diet to stay fueled on the course, typically consuming 10,000 to 12,000 calories a day.
"It would be like you or I trying to eat 12 or 15 or 18 Big Macs and then running," Reichert joked.
Once the dogs have eaten and bedded down in straw at a checkpoint, the mushers change out the flexible, canvas-like booties the dogs wear, and veterinarians begin their rounds.
They check the dogs' front and rear legs and paws, and monitor their heart and lungs, hydration, appetite, attitude and weight.
If they find a problem, they fill out a 'dropped dog' form, which ultimately means the end of the race for that animal.
Dogs can be dropped for injury or illness, or simply for being tired, sore and looking like they don't want to run anymore. They're flown back to Anchorage for more intensive veterinary care.
The Iditarod pays homage to a special place in history for sled dogs.
It commemorates a 1925 event, when a diphtheria outbreak threatened the town of Nome.
With no rail or air service available, teams of dogs and mushers braved blizzards and 50 below temperatures to deliver life-saving serum from Anchorage to the people of Nome.
The dogs have a special place in Reichert's heart, as well.
"You get kind of committed to the welfare and betterness of the sport and the dogs themselves when you see what they've done for that part of the world in the past," he said.