Cold Weather on the Quest

Matt Hall, a Quest veteran from Eagle, Alaska, and his dogs race over the Yukon River to the Carmacks checkpoint during the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race on Sunday, February 8, 2015 in Carmacks, Yukon. Twenty-six mushers are competing in the 32nd running of the 1,000-mile trail between Whitehorse, Yukon and Fairbanks, Alaska. Carmacks is the second checkpoint in the race and is about 177 trail miles from the start in Whitehorse, Yukon. Matt Hall, a Quest veteran from Eagle, Alaska, and his dogs race over the Yukon River to the Carmacks checkpoint during the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race on Sunday, February 8, 2015 in Carmacks, Yukon. Twenty-six mushers are competing in the 32nd running of the 1,000-mile trail between Whitehorse, Yukon and Fairbanks, Alaska. Carmacks is the second checkpoint in the race and is about 177 trail miles from the start in Whitehorse, Yukon.

CARMACKS, Yukon — Not much works well at 40 below zero, a fact that’s no different on the Yukon Quest.

As the Yukon experiences an extreme cold spell, mushers and race officials say their concerns go beyond simple discomfort. Equipment grows brittle, dogs need more attention and it becomes harder for mushers to keep up. 

Markus Barth, a longtime member of the Quest veterinary team, said dogs have the same problems as people in extreme cold, and vet checks are tweaked accordingly. Lungs have more trouble breathing frigid air, skin is vulnerable to frostbite and dogs have a tougher time maintaining their weight.

“Overall, it takes its toll,” he said. “It’s not different for them than it is for us.”

“Male parts,” in particular, are susceptible to snow and cold, Barth said. Some mushers, such as Allen Moore, equip their dogs with fur belts on their bellies for protection. Hugh Neff said the task of chipping frozen urine off his team’s anatomy becomes an unpleasant but necessary routine.

Sometimes, it’s the people who need reminders to stay healthy. A message board in Carmacks warned handlers and race volunteers to stay hydrated and check each other for signs of frostbite, such as white spots and numbness.

Barth said vets have their problems, such as stethoscopes that occasionally shatter after a long stretch outside.

Race Marshal Doug Grilliot said a person's basic body maintenance becomes more difficult.

“Water for drinking freezes faster, it takes more to take care of the dogs," he said.

Dogs’ diets are also adjusted to include more fat, a necessity for staying warm on the trail. Grilliot said fatty additives like chicken skins or lamb are often added for richer, more calorie-laden meals.

Tok musher Neff lives in one of the coldest regions in Alaska, but he said he’s feeding his team every 90 minutes and giving them plenty of fat. 

“It’s really not a speed game,” Neff said of racing in the cold. “It’s a maintenance game.”

Follow staff writer Jeff Richardson on Twitter: @FDNMquest.

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