Monday, February 1, 2010

Iditarod Food Drops: it's own chapter.

I'm going to do my best to update the blog in the next couple of days. I've completed two races and have gotten my drop bags done since my last post, which was so very long ago.

Iditarod Food Drops

Almost every mid to long distance dog race needs 'drop bags.' Drop bags cosist of large poly bags filled with food and supplies for the dogs, and a wee little bit for the musher. Drop bags go to each checkpoint, where the musher must register, as they either stop for a rest or pass through. So before a race, the musher thinks about a race plan and what they'll need and where (Clint Warnke, Judy Currier and Aliy Zirkle were instrumental in my planning for this crazy race). In the Iditarod, we are allowed 3 bags for each checkpoint. Most of the bags are filled with dog food; the rest of the supplies consists of dog booties, vet supplies, dog blankets, and a little people food. But there is so much preparation even before one starts packing the bags.

One of the many chores to do for Iditarod preparation is cutting meat. We feed all sort of meaty items to the dogs, both in their main meals and for snacks. The meat provides them with water and/or fat. Their main meals are fed as soon as possible when we come into a checkpoint (or camping spot; wherever we're going to take a several hour rest break). The meals consist of high fat/protein kibble, plus some meat, plus warm water to soak it all into a meaty stew. Dogs can get really finicky when racing, just like people on ultra-marathons; it's a combination of just being tired and getting an upset stomach from the work. So we offer them all sorts of things to maintain their interest in eating. The meat staple that I'm using ('Power') for their main meals will be one composed of beef, beef fat, tripe and some other goodies and vitamins. The meats come in frozen 50 lb. blocks. Here's a picture of chicken (light colored), beef (red), Power (pinkish), Hi-Pro (brown), and beef fat (bottom right corner, looks like dirty marshmellows).

In order to get the block into a usable form, it needs to be cut in small pieces:

This is Judy and Devan Currier's meat saw that I'm using. I'm not sure what I'd do without it! I cut the blocks into strips of meat that will thaw easily in hot water or eaten by the dogs easily as snacks. Snack time is a quick stop along the trail; they need to eat the snack quickly and easily so we can get going again. Remember that it can be really cold out, so the snack size has to be small. If the morsel is too big and hard (frozen) most dogs won't go to the trouble to eat it. I like to snack the dogs every couple of hours. This offers them a little mental break and a treat that provides water and fat to maintain hydration and calories.

Once the meat is cut into strips, it is put into snack and meal bags. Each snack bag will hold 16 strips of meat, each about 1/4 lb. The meal bags have 10 lb of Power and 2 lb of beef or pork fat. This is my friend Sarah who helped me, big time, packing snack bags:

Then once the snack bags, kibble bags, bootie bags, vet packs, socks, long underwear, people food etc etc etc are prepared, THEN one can pack the drop bags. Here is my supply of kibble for the Iditarod (each bag weighs 8 lbs):

This is a lot of kibble for sure, but I may use only half of it. I have one bag of their normal high calorie kibble for every meal. Then I also have a bag of an alternative high calorie kibble in case they decide they don't like their normal food. Then I also have a bag of high, but not as high calorie kibble as an additional 'just in case' bag. Just in case they don't like the rich kibble, or just in case a storm comes in and I get stuck at that checkpoint and need 3 meals instead of 1. I can basically get stuck, safely, at every checkpoint from Rainy Pass on.
Ok. Once you have all your bag ingredients ready, you can put out the bags for each checkpoint (Iditarod paints and labels the bags, we put our name on it though):

Once the kibble is in the bags, you get the shopping cart and grab the appropriate bags of frozen meat. Besides the boxes of meat that I ordered, I also have fish. Dogs LOVE fish. In Alaska, 'fish' = salmon. Last year I got a large amount of salmon from Nenana, a town just down the road. Native Alaskans use fish wheels to catch thousands of salmon as they make their way upstream. I think the native folks may eat these fish also but they are way too spent for white taste buds. The fish I get for the dogs have been laying on the bank for a little while and are a bit ripe. This is called 'sour fish.' I can't tell you how much the dog love sour fish. This year was a terrible fish year. Luckily, I still had fish from last year in the freezer!

By the next day, the drop bags are taking shape. After the kibble and the meat, come the supplies like booties, sled runner plastic, dog blankets, extra cloths for me, meals and snacks, vet supplies etc etc. I filled 3 bags at almost every check point.

Then my friends Liz and Marty helped with last minute packing and closing up the bags. I held my breath and just hoped I remembered everything.

Liz then put a little rope handle through the top of each drop bag. This will be a huge help at the checkpoints. The bags are not usually right by the parking spot so you have to carry/drag each bag to the sled/camping spot. The bags weigh between 20 and 55 pounds; I will love love love the rope handles!

The final step!!: Get the bags to the drop point in Fairbanks. My friends Pam and Kimberly were there to help. The bags didn't quite all fit in Pam's truck, so I put some in my little truck. So one trip into town did it.

Once at the shipping warehouse, we unload the bags onto two pallets.

They are then wrapped with plastic to keep it all together.

The pallets are then weighed and the musher gets their check book out. My drops were almost 1900 lbs. The bags are then shipped to Anchorage where they are sorted and flown out to each check point. I, and every other musher, worry about the frozen meat. It has been very warm for about a week now. I sure hope the bags are kept in refrigerated facilities.

Phew! That was a lot of work. I am so thankful to friends who helped me. Marie and Cord powdered, organized and packed my dog booties (36 bags, 16 sets in each bag, 4 booties per set....that's a lot of booties). Pam helped me cut the meat and transport the bags. Sarah got the ball rolling with the whole packing ordeal and just took charge of it. Aliy and Margie helped with packing and labeling the bags. Liz and Marty helped with the final packing and closing of the bags, and of course, with the all-important rope handles. Thank you friends!