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Sending Out Supplies

How to prepare and organize food drops for a distance race.

Most distance races in Alaska require mushers to submit the food and equipment that the team will use sometime before the start of the race. For the Iditarod and Yukon Quest, “food drop” time is several weeks before the race starts, while smaller races may request that supplies be turned in several days or even just hours before the start. This allows the race organization time to transport the supplies to the checkpoints, which will be available when the teams arrive. According to musher and Iditarod race marshal Mark Nordman, properly organizing one’s food drops is a key factor for success in all of the distance races he has participated in.

Planning Your Run

The first step in preparing a food drop is to acquire accurate information on the race course. You’ll need to know first if the race requires a certain amount of food and specific equipment to be shipped to each check­ point. If so, that amount needed will be­ come your minimum limit. Some races may also have a maximum limit on volume or weight for particular checkpoints and may limit certain items, such as extra cookers or coolers (to limit transport costs), so read the rules carefully.

Also, study the course description with distances between checkpoints and lo­cations of mandatory rest stops. You should be able to compute approximate running and resting times at checkpoints. Of course, trail conditions can vary, so it is also a good idea to inquire about past races to determine the time you can anticipate need­ ing between checkpoints. Remember, too, that most races put a maximum allowable time on the trail so that a few “campers” in the back of the pack don’t hold up the entire organization unreasonably.

You should have a good enough under­ standing of your team’s capabilities to lay out a strategy or timetable for how you intend to run the race. Veteran racers usually plan exactly where they will be, down to the hour, for every checkpoint, even the longest races. Your estimated timetable determines how many hours you intend to run and where you intend to rest. With this information in mind, you can write up a spreadsheet with the checkpoints listed down one edge of the paper and the items you intend to pack along the top.

Preparing the Dog Food

You will include dog food, human food, supplies, and fuel in your food drop packages. It is important to keep these items labeled and separate, especially the fuel, which can spill and contaminate your food supplies.

To calculate how much dog food to take, you should know how much each dog will need daily based on the feeding you have done during training. But remember that you will just about double a dog’s daily running time when you begin racing. Researchers have concluded that each racing sled dog uses about 10,000 calories daily when traveling 100 or more miles daily. Your training diet should have been planned to supply roughly half that many calories, and you should be planning to increase the amount of the items with the highest caloric values (such as fat snacks) once the race is underway.

Most importantly, do not radically alter the content of your dogs’ diet during the race since it has taken them several months to adapt to their current diet for maximum digestibil­ity. Most mushers use top-quality dry food as the basic component of their team’s training and racing diet. Ideally, it is a type that does not freeze into a solid block in the bag, and that quickly soaks up warm water.

Dry dog food and other dry components are packaged separately in plastic bags in pre-measured volumes sufficient to produce a meal for the entire team. Dogs can get picky when tired, so supplemental dry powders, fats, and meats should always be packaged separately so they can be left out in case of spoilage or palatability prob­lems. Clear, reclosable plastic bags allow easy identification of the various items, but if you are using several items of a similar appearance, be sure to label the bags with indelible ink. Space is also a consideration, so some mushers use vacuum packaging for many food items.

Meats and fats can cause considerable problems in warmer locales, as they can thaw and leak into other supplies or refreeze into an inconvenient blob. Frozen meats can be cut into very small pieces to thaw quickly when added to hot water in a cooler. Quest champ Bruce Lee suggests cutting all meats as thin as a flat chocolate bar so the dogs can easily eat the meat, even if it is frozen.

Freeze Dried Meats

Many veterans own meat-cutting band saws. You can also partially thaw meat blocks and cut them with a knife. But be very careful when thawing and refreezing meats. Salmonella and other bacteria are common and can infect you as you work. Be careful to thoroughly refreeze thinly sliced meats before packaging them in premeasured por­tions. You will probably want to double bag your frozen meat slices since the edges are rough and can tear the bags.

The new freeze-dried meats and dog foods are good alternatives to avoid spoilage and reduce weight. (Jack Beckstrom of Montana says that Race to the Sky and John Beargrease Marathon mushers, who have hand­lers who drive to each checkpoint, often use canned dog foods to avoid spoilage.) Freeze­ dried products are extremely useful but remain somewhat expensive at this point. You may want to use freeze-dried meat at strate­gic locations or as water bait daily. Once your dog food items are packaged in separate bags, you must pack the proper amount in larger sizes. Some mushers arrange items by putting together all the components necessary for a single feeding in one large bag. For example, this might include 3/4 pound of dry food per dog, a cup of a dry high-calorie supplement, 3/4 pound of sliced meat per dog, 1/4 pound of fat snack per dog, and supplements such as vita­ mins or electrolytes. These single-team feedings are then labeled and placed in the larger checkpoint bags. You must pack enough “single team feeding” bags for each checkpoint.

Remember to feed once at each checkpoint and carry feedings along the trail. Some checkpoints may be good spots for a longer break (such as the mandatory 24-hour stop in the Iditarod), so you will want to send extra feedings to those locations.

You will also want to include snacks and water baits with the feeding bags, but ensure they are well-labeled to avoid confusion. Many mushers send a variety of meats or snacks in case the dogs become picky about any particular item. For in­stance, when it is quite cold, the dogs will need higher-calorie items such as fatty lamb, but they may prefer lean ground beef when it is warmer. It is a good idea to always plan on having at least one extra feeding at each checkpoint in case the weather slows your progress. Quest champ Vern Halter suggests adding dry food to each checkpoint to hedge against delays.

Preparing Your Own Food

Your food can also be prepackaged. Again, you want to have items organized in separate bags. The usual notions of break­ fast, lunch, and dinner don’t always apply in distance racing, but you can organize meals while resting and snacks for the trail.

You will need high-calorie foods just as the dogs will, and they should be packaged for easy preparation. Some mushers wrap a sandwich (say sliced ham and cheese on buttered bread) in tin foil and then warm it on the edge of the cooker while the dogs’ water heats up. Other mushers use freeze-dried foods that only require hot water to be poured into a handy pouch. It is probably best to keep your food fairly simple. It is difficult to 10 thaw and eat a four-course meal on the trail. Your snacks should be small enough to place in an interior pocket for warming along the trail since they will be frozen solid in the sled bag.

Liquids are probably the most important component of a musher’s diet. Exerting yourself in the cold air can easily dehydrate you. Plan to consume many quarts of water with high-energy powders added or convenient fruit juices that can be thawed in interior pockets and quickly consumed with a straw. Avoid drinks containing caffeine, however, as they reduce circulation, making you colder, and act as diuretics, con­ contributing to dehydration.

You will usually find that the folks at the checkpoints supply a pretty good feed while you are there, so you may end up only snacking along the trail and eating a bigger meal during your longer breaks.

Learning from Experience

According to former Iditarod head veterinarian Karin Schmrdl, the fol­ lowing are some common mistakes rookie mushers make in distance races:

  • Cooking food in the cooker rather than heating water to pour over the food. The food is difficult not to burn by mistake, and the burnt taste re­mains in the pot for the rest of the race, making the food distasteful.
  • Shipping out pre-mixed dog food. Even if the dogs eat the mixture at home, under the stress of racing, their tastes may change. Shipping out a wide variety of foods is wiser.
  • Not shipping out enough dog food. Racing dogs can use up to 10,000 calories daily and don’t eat everything they’re fed. The musher must prepare to feed a tremendous amount of food.
  • Overfeeding on the first day. Water is very important, but light meals on this stressful first day often reduce the chance of stress diarrhea.
  • Using booties that are too large. The floppiness hampers the dogs’ running.

 

Thanks to Karin Schmidt, DVM, for permission to reprint. This and other information on distance racing can be found in the newest Musher and Veterinary Handbook, published in 1998 by the International Sled Dog Veterinary Medical Association, P.O. Box 543, Sylvania, OH 43560 USA.

Arranging It All

Your clothing and other sup­ plies should be packaged separately, and they can then be packed right on top of the largest bag for easy access. Iditarod veteran Bill Cotter has often pointed out that “the Iditarod is won or lost in the checkpoints.” Many mushers specify one bag as their”pri­ority bag” at each checkpoint. This bag will contain your number-one priority items for efficient checkpoint operation. These would include personal items such as dry gloves and socks, batteries, and a quick, energy­ boosting snack right on top. Underneath could be all the necessary ingredients for one complete feeding at the checkpoint. This way, you can enter the checkpoint, grab that one bag and a bale of straw, and be ready to bed down the dogs and start feeding in the cooker.

A second bag can be packed with a quick exit in mind if you do not plan to rest at the checkpoint. Your team might lie down and get too comfortable in the time it takes to dig through all your supplies, so a single bag can be packed with the items you’ll need to con­tinue-perhaps dry gloves and socks, fresh batteries, and snacks for you and the dogs.

Some races supply bedding straw for the dogs, while others make it optional. The dogs really appreciate the warmth of the straw, and it helps keep them in place once you put the straw down. If you pack your own, it is a good idea to package the bale in a large plastic bag because the usual baling string can give way during shipping.

Similarly, the biggest races supply fuel, either alcohol or white gas, at the check­ points. Be very careful that you have good containers-such as the original unopened ones-to carry fuel along with you on the trail. If it spills in the sled, it can contaminate your food supplies just from the odor (even right through plastic bags). Other supplies, such as extra brake teeth, runner plastic, clothing, headlight parts, dog booties, and harnesses, can be included at appropriate checkpoints.

Finally, Bruce Lee strongly suggests car­rying a written record with you of the con­ tents of every bag. That way, he says, “you can pull out your notebook and plan ahead before entering the checkpoint.” Efficiency counts when every minute spent searching through various bags could have been spent on dog care or in catching up on sleep. So get well organized before the race even starts!

 

Will Forsberg

Regular Mushing contributor and former Mush with PRIDE president Will Forsberg is a mid-distance racer and freight hauler who lives near Healy, Alaska. His wife, Linda, raced in the Yukon Quest forseveral years.

This article appeared on in Issue #66 Subscribe to Mushing Magazine’s print and digital editions here, or browse the digital archives here.
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