The Great Race of Mercy – The Race to Immunize
#14 - Al Borak, Cheyboygan, Michigan. Ears flapping and quads digging in.
#8, Dave Turner from Sandy, Oregon, crosses the finish line.
Idierod bound, #15, Monica Zappa, from Kasilof, Alaska
Stacey Teasley after the race. Stacey Teasley, #3 is from Jackson, Wyoming
by Terry Allen
February 10, 2015
In 1925, long before Alaska became a state, a diphtheria epidemic was threatening young Native American children who had no immunity to "the white man’s disease." The state mobilized, and 20 mushers and 100 dogs relayed 20 pounds of antitoxin 674 miles in 5 ½ days from Nenana (near Anchorage) to Nome and saved the lives of many in the small community. That event has gone down in history as "The Great Race of Mercy."
In the spirit of that great race, this year’s 20year anniversary running of the International Pedigree Stage Stop Sled Race, is also known as "The Race to Immunize." One of itsgoals is promoting immunizations for children under the age of two. For the past seven years, the race has made cash contributions to the towns on the race circuit. Many of the towns choose to use the funds to provide vaccines in their communities, to reduce the number of vaccine-preventable diseases.
The Pinedale/Cora Stage Stop of the International Pedigree Stage Stop Sled Dog Race (IPSSSDR) took place on Wednesday & Thursday, Feb. 5th & 6th. The Mushers Banquet was on Wednesday night in the Lovatt Room of the Sublette County Library in Pinedale.
Sunny skies welcomed the fans this year, as opposed to last year’s blinding, bitter snow storm. There was live music, an opportunity to meet the mushers, get autographs, enjoy great food, and witness the handing off of bib to the next day’s leader.
The Pinedale stage of the race was held Thursday morning from the Upper Green snowmobile parking lot. While lively music played from big speakers, about 50 kids from East Side Elementary School in Rock Springs happily met the approximately 150 sled dogs and the 15 mushers. The excited and gaily attired children played King of the Mountain on the high snow banks, and posed for photos.
After the Pinedale race, the teams headed down to Big Piney for the Musher's Banquet at the Marbleton Senior Center. Their Stage Stop was on Friday morning, taking off from the Middle Piney parking area. The annual race was from Jan. 30 to Feb. 8th this year. It is done in "stages" stopping in different towns each night to allow each community to have an opportunity to have an event and to meet the mushers and learn more about sled dog racing and vaccination. The race spans eight stage stops and four states, traveling nearly 350 miles.
Jill Harrell of Bend, Oregon, is a dog handler for musher Jerry Scdoris, but is also known as the Lead Teacher on the Trail; and her students are fans of dog sled racing from all over the world. I found Jill sitting in front of her laptop at the Welcome Mushers banquet at the Pinedale Library, working on her blog: www.easysite.com/missharrellsthirdgrade.
"I have been using a sled dog racing theme in my classroom for 7 years, and I can honestly tell you that it is the one thing that is truly engaging for all my students. No one wants to miss a day of school when we are following a race," she said. "Working on race data math problems is much more fun that working from textbooks or worksheets." Going outside the classroom to gain practical experience seems to be proving its value to her students. "By adding sled dog racing themes and using best practices, I have been able to meet and exceed state and common core standards with 90% of my students for the last 5 years."
Ben Bath, son of musher Jerry Bath of Lander is the guru of the sled runners for his father. "There is a science to runners…a plastic science, you might say," he said. "We use different runners for different conditions. It is similar to what a ski racer finds important…different waxes, different widths, and different plastic and metal compositions."
Sandy Bath, Ben’s mother, points to the little stuffed musher dog tucked into the front of their sled and credits "Speedy" as another speed secret. "He brings us luck," she said. "We’ve won some good races with Speedy in tow."
Alix Crittenden arranges 8 or so metal dog food bowls into 2 neat rows and then pours what looks like bloody red shark chum into them. It smells like shark chum, too. "I grind up left-overs from last nights dinner," she said. "I mix chicken, beef, fish oil, kibble and water altogether and then try to make it into ice cubes, because it helps the dogs cool down when they come in from the race. They like to chew it."
Several times world champion Terry Streeper has been in the sled dog racing sport for 40 years and agrees that equipment science and dietary science are the biggest improvements he has seen. "The equipment is lighter and better made," he said. "We are also more aware of both the dogs and mushers dietary needs, but we aren’t a hell of a lot faster than we were 40 years ago."
There is a wide variety of look to the assembled sled dogs. Some look a bit like a German Shepard, some look like a sharp featured yellow lab, while others have a rich red color like a fox. But, they all have in common a smallish and slender look. Sandy Bath says we can blame Walt Disney for that one. "Those Disney movies are what make you think about sled dogs being great big huskies," she said. "We know the lineage of our dogs back to the 40’s. We know what their distance was, conformation and build. Different mushers like different dogs for different reasons. You might want different dogs for different courses and different conditions, but all the dogs are slim and built for racing long distances."
All around the paddock dogs are getting massage. Sandy Bath says some of them get massaged 4 times a day if the snow is "punchy", meaning a soft surface rather than a hard one."We massage their hams and pec’s and triceps," she said. Today I’m seeing more strain in their front muscles, so we will massage that more."
Alix Crittenden bends over a dog’s foot like a farrier, applying "Pink stuff", a lanolin and antiseptic cream. "We apply liberally to the paws and between the toes of the dogs, and under the booty." She said. "It’s another layer of protection, especially if the snow is rough ice."
Of the 15 mushers racing in this year’s series, Monica Zappa is the only one going to the Iditarod this year. "I hope I’m going," she said. "But, I’m down here training because we don’t have snow in Alaska for the second year in a row. Last year it was basically frozen dirt and roots and stumps."
Like The Great Race to Mercy, all those years ago, this year’s Race to Immunize, has brought together the best of the tradition, to compete, to work together, and to make a contribution to our community.
Follow your favorite dog sled teams and get race results at: www.wyomingstagestop.org
Photos by Terry Allen