Part II of a series
Who was first to put a coat on a short-haired dog in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race appears unclear. If you know, feel free to weigh in here because what is certain now is that Iditarod dog coats are trending.
They are arguably the most obvious and visible difference between the old Iditarod and the Iditarod of today.
Iditarod dogs in jackets are these days as common as Alaska women in pants. It wasn’t that way at the Iditarod beginning or for years afterward. Nobody saw a need for dog coats until they did.
The history here is strange and interesting.
Dog coats came about, it could be said, because of over-heating dogs. The sled dogs of the early Iditarod had the thick, double coat fur of the classic Siberian husky and an innate ability to deal with cold.
They were not so good at dealing with heat, be it that generated by the weather or strenuous, long-distance running.
When the Iditarod raced from Anchorage to Eagle River (all that happens now in the state’s largest city is a ceremonial start) in warm years, there were inevitably problems with huskies overheating and suffering heat stroke. Veterinarians in Eagle River used to keep a pool of ice water handy for cooling hot and suffering dogs.
“….Maintaining a low body temperature and losing heat are the overriding concerns of a dog during exercise,” veterinarian Richard Hill notes in a study of the nutritional needs of exercising dogs.
Alaska mushers figured this out long before modern-day geneticists began to pin down the genes for “heat tolerance” that separate “elite and poor performing sled dogs,” as reported in Mammalian Genome in 2012.
Cool-running dogs, mushers first observed, ran longer and faster. Thus began increased efforts to breed dogs for shorter natural coats and better heat tolerance.
The downside of the breeding program was that the increased heat tolerance generally meant decreased cold tolerance. Dogs that could maintain a relatively low body temperature to maximize performance, especially in warm weather, had trouble maintaining an adequately high body temperature in extreme cold weather.
Dressed to win
Burt Bomhoff, a former chairman of the Iditarod Trial Committee board of directors, a retired musher and an Iditarod author, is confident that these jackets first appeared sometime in the mid-1980s. There was a coat on a thinly furred dogs here and there, but not on whole teams as sometimes seen today.
Bob Sept, also a former board chair and one-time chief veterinarian for the Iditarod, believes future four-time champ Martin Buser first showed up with dog coats in the late 1980s.
At the start of that decade, Buser had begun to breed German short-haired pointers into his line and experiment with sprint dogs in distance races.
“Martin began to believe that the sprint dogs raised and raced by prominent sprint mushers Gareth Wright and George Attla could be trained for long distance,” the BuserDog.com website notes. He bred their dogs with his “hounds.”
“They were termed hounds due to a relatively shorter hair, sloping back and sharply angulated front shoulders. Many well established Iditarod mushers laughed at Martin’s experiment, said the dogs would never survive the rigors of the Norton Sound coastal winds, would lose their appetite and would have to be babied all the way to Nome. Indeed, they did require some babying and still do today but they fought through one of the Iditarod’s most dangerous storms in 1991 to arrive second in Nome.”
Sept said he might have first seen a coats on a Buser dog on the Bering Sea coast in the mid-80s.
“He was one of the first ones to do it,” Sept said. “You never saw (jackets) on double-coated huskies and even when (John) Suter ran those poodles, he didn’t use coats.”
“Poodle-man” Suter ran Iditarod from 1988 to 1991. Then the Iditarod wrote a rule limiting the race to “northern breed” dogs. The rule was later amended to say what it says today:
“Only dogs suitable for Arctic travel will be permitted to enter the race. Suitability will be determined by race officials.”
Suter was unpopular with some other mushers who thought his poodles nothing but an attention-getting gimmick. The issue came to a head when the hair on one of Suter’s dogs froze to Bering Sea ice while a TV crew was filming. Suter pulled the dog free of the ice, and there were no indications it suffered any real harm. But the hair it left frozen to the ice after Suter pulled it free was enough.
Suter would have benefited from dog coats.
Not your grandpa’s huskies
Rod Perry, a musher in the first Iditarod, just chuckles when asked about dog coats. He spent his time in Alaska with dogs that seemed happy to dive into a snow bank, curl up in a ball and sleep there.
“The race has changed a lot,” he said. “It’s not that the race is bad. It’s just different.”
The trail got better over the years. The dogs got houndier and faster. And the equipment was adapted to suit the race. It’s evolution.
The musher of yesteryear traveled at night, if he traveled at night, in the beam of a dim headlamp with an incandescent bulb prone to breakage. The musher of today can don a nearly indestructible LED headlamp that lights up the trail like the headlights on a car.
The musher of yesteryear seemed always to be dealing with dogs suffering from bad feet. The musher of today has durable, Velcro-strapped booties to slap onto the feet of those dogs to minimize most foot problems.
The musher of yesteryear spent endless hours on his feet at the handlebar of a Tim White toboggan, a dogsled with low runners and a full plastic bottom for sliding over the accumulations of snow that regularly covered the trail. The musher of today rides a sit-sled or “tail dragger” sled that sits inches above trail on runners designed to slide efficiently down better trails with little new snow atop them.
“…Sit down sled and trailers…,” Perry said. “That junk would have fallen apart in the first few miles the trails were so rough.”
It would be easy to say those early mushers and dogs were tougher than the people on the trail today, but Perry would argue that point.
“We weren’t tougher,” he said. “We simply had a different skill set.”
The Iditarod mushers of the ’70s, ’80s and maybe even the ’90s were what would have once been called “woodsman.” They took pride in their Bush skills. They would have died before calling for a rescue. If there was trouble, they rescued each other and sometimes others.
They were self-sufficient and at home in the wild. Bobby Vent, an Alaska Native musher from Huslia, trained on the trap line, Perry remembered. Vent would leave his home in the fall with a dog team, come back at Christmas with a load of furs and to spend the holidays with the family, resupply and then head back out onto the trap line for several more months.
“Totally self-sufficient,” Perry said.
But an Iditarod musher couldn’t do what Vent did today and have any hope of competing in the modern Iditarod, Perry added. It’s a different race. It’s NASCAR not the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic, a race so hard, so wild and so potentially dangerous most people are afraid to enter.
The Classic is also more of an adventure than a race. That is what the Iditarod once was. That is not what it is now. The Iditarod is today a race for racers.
“And if you’re going to win NASCAR, you have to spend everyday being a NASCAR driver,” Perry said. That doesn’t leave much time for anything else.