Lessons from Copper Basin 300 Dogsled Race from a local veterinarian perspective

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[March 27, 2016]  LINCOLN - The 2016 Ag Scholarship Breakfast was held on March 24, 2016 at Lincoln Christian University's Laughlin Center with former scholarship recipient Jason Wrage as the guest speaker.

Chamber Ag Committee Chairman Betsy Pech introduced now Dr. Wrage, who was her student at Hartsburg-Emden, a graduate and recipient of a 1999 Logan County Ag Day Scholarship. Pech said in high school, Wrage was on the first Hartem Ag Issues team that went to the State Competition and was a Silver Emblem Team at the National FFA Convention.

Pech said, "Wrage earned his Bachelor of Science and DVM degrees from the University of Illinois where his activities included serving as President of the agriculture fraternity Alpha Gamma Rho and founding the Fighting Illini Bass Fishing Club."
Since graduating in 2007, Dr. Wrage has worked in a mixed animal practice in western Illinois and a small animal practice in Edwardsville. In 2013, he and his wife Elizabeth returned to the Logan County area where he is an associate veterinarian at Greenhaven Animal Clinic and Best Friends Animal Hospital.

Wrage began his presentation by congratulating this year's scholarship recipients and thanking the board for the opportunity to address the scholarship winners and guests.

Wrage then said, "I need everyone to picture: It's Illinois, it's January and you've just signed up for a seven day getaway. Anyone for skiing in Colorado or maybe snow machining up in the U.P. [Upper Peninsula of Michigan]?" He asked guests to raise their hand if they could envision going to the beach and being in the warm sun, and said that is what the average person would probably do.

Wrage said, "I think those are great ideas as well, but unfortunately, I did not have that opportunity. My destination was quite different. I ended up in central Alaska to volunteer as a team veterinarian for the Copper Basin 300 Dog Sled Race."

Wrage said for several years a classmate of his has been asking him and other classmates to come help with one of these races, but it was not until this January that he took her up on the offer. He said, "My job was to ensure the health of the sled dog team. I did not realize at the time what the entire team consisted of. . . I had no idea what to expect."

Wrage did a quick Google search and found last year's average temperature for the race was 33 degrees below zero. He said, "I can tell you in my almost ten years as a mixed animal veterinarian in Illinois, I have gotten to experience pretty extreme weather, but this had me a little bit nervous."

Wrage said, "a two page long packing list tested my ability to beat the airline baggage requirements, but I did succeed, and 24 hours later, I was in Glennallen, Alaska preparing for the race." He said, "Before I left, I stated my only goal was really to return with all my digits and no frostbite, and to see the Northern Lights."

Wrage then described the race and what was involved in getting ready for it. The Copper Basin 300 Dog Sled Race is considered by many to be one of the toughest races, but finishing it is a requirement for those who want to compete in the Iditarod or the Yukon Quest.

Wrage said the race consists of 48 teams with twelve dogs per team, one musher, and one handler. Along the race, there are four check stations and only 18 hours of mandatory rest for the mushers and the dog teams. Each check station has a site for the teams to camp which consists of where they park the sleds on the straw or snow for the dogs and mushers to sleep. Prior to the race, each team drops bags of food for supplies at each checkpoint.

Wrage said all 500 dogs in the race had to have a pre-race medical inspection and exam. During the race, the veterinarians examined all of the dogs as they came in and out of the checkpoints. They would talk with each musher about the team, look over the dogs, do an exam, and provide any medical treatment necessary.

Wrage said what he found most interesting about the experience was not necessarily the medical aspects, but rather the dynamics that go into the dog team and the race. He said, "The interaction between the dogs and the handlers is obvious. The mushers and the volunteers were intriguing to watch."

He said, "Maybe it was the lack of sleep or prospect of waiting in the dark and cold for the next team to arrive, but it got me thinking not only about these teams, but other teams in my life, both ones I had been with in the past and the ones I am part of today."

Wrage asked the question, "What do you think makes up a team, your team, and where do you fit on that team?" He said, "In the race setting, when you think of a team, everyone thinks of the dogs and mushers, but there is a lot more to the team than that. The team includes the dogs and the mushers, but also includes the handlers, the veterinarians, the organizers, the trailblazers, and volunteers."

According to Wrage, the musher is more than just a rider, and "race rules say, only the musher can handle, feed, and care for the dogs. They are not allowed to receive any assistance" unless the vet team goes out to give medical care.

Wrage said during the race, the musher must have food provisions for himself and the dogs in addition to emergency equipment like axes, fuel, and snowshoes to survive the harsh climate. The mushers must also be fit since they have to help push their sleds up the 2,000 foot altitude during the race. Even during heavy snow, the mushers have to don their snowshoes and go ahead of the team to break the trail for the team as they continue racing.

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Wrage said the canine portion of the team typically has twelve dogs with one to two lead dogs guiding them. Besides keeping the team on the trail, the lead dogs are expected to be more attuned to the commands of the musher and more resistant to distractions on the trail.

Next to the lead dogs are the swing dogs, which are the second to third pairs of dogs. Wrage said in addition to providing power, they must follow the turns of the lead dogs to help keep the dog sled steady.

He said the next key dogs in line are primarily for pulling and maintaining speed and the last group is the wheel dogs, who are important in turning and stabilizing the sled.

Wrage said, "The Copper Basin 300 had another member of their team that really shocked me. With $15,000 on the line, it was pretty surprising to see how much the mushers worked for each other." He said mushers were willing to help with small things like sharing parts for the sled, if another team had a breakdown on the trail, to big things like lending a ride and helping other mushers catch up and locate a lost dog team.

Some may wonder how a musher can lose a dog team while in a race, but Wrage asked the audience to picture themselves on the back of a dog sled being pulled by dogs at up to 15 miles an hour. He said it is dark for 16 hours, the average temperature is between two and twenty below, and the musher is getting two to three hours of sleep per day for the last three days of the race.

Wrage said with a slight change in the trail or a bump or a branch catching mushers off guard and knocking them off the sled, within seconds the team can be hundreds of feet away before they even realize what happened. There is no way to catch up to that team unless another competitor gives them a ride to catch up and find where the team actually did stop.

Wrage said, "I gained appreciation for the camaraderie between the teams. Surprisingly, it turns out, the severe challenges and risks mushers encounter in the race tend to make the contestants more reliant on each other in this type of event."

He said it made him feel that is how life is as well, "Given the opportunity to be 'behind the scenes' showed the hidden members of the team as well. We all know who those people are in our lives."

Wrage said parts of the "race team" worked in the background, such as the dedicated people who made up the race committee and spent the previous year fundraising.

Another team rode ahead on snow machines to check for dangers along the route for the race. This group had the biggest role in keeping the teams on the trail and keeping them safe throughout the entire race.

Wrage said, "I could see how a team was not just a musher or a lead dog . . .but countless people that helped me through the race." He said, "Regardless of where you sit in a team, you need to know your purpose. Each team member must fulfill their purpose for the entire race to be a success."

Wrage said the goal is to work in unison to win the race and "without all the team members, it will not be a success."

Wrage said to the scholarship recipients, "As you finish your senior year in high school or college, your most recent experiences may have been as that lead dog or the musher. Now as you enter a new college, career, or new career experience, you're probably not going to be the lead dog for a while or even a musher."

Wrage asked the questions, "Where do you fit and the bigger question is, what are you learning while you are there? Be observant of who makes up your team. The players may come and go, but the whole team is what helps you grow as you head towards the finish line."

Wrage said, "Ask yourself who you name as team members. Are they teachers, coaches, academic advisors, friends, [or] bosses? As I think back to my team throughout the years, I can still name many of the team members; some I chose, some who chose me, and some who I did not even know who were there." Some have been there since the beginning and some have yet to be part of your team, he said.

Wrage said Dr. Bill, his mentor during high school, is now a colleague and co-worker. He said another team member is Betsy Pech, his teacher, FFA Advisor, and advocate who now works by his side as a team member on a school board.

In closing, Wrage asked recipients and everyone else, "Have you considered who is on your team? Who do you need on your team?"

[Angela Reiners]


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