Travel

Level Up Your Iditarod Adventure by Joining the Return Dog Program

The Alaska race's most coveted volunteer job may take some expertise, but it comes with plenty of cuddles.

Anchorage Daily News/Tribune News Service/Getty Images
Anchorage Daily News/Tribune News Service/Getty Images
Anchorage Daily News/Tribune News Service/Getty Images

Every year the Iditarod-AKA the Last Great Race on Earth-typically kicks off with over 100 mushers and sled dogs often numbering in the thousands (this year’s unusually low number of mushers notwithstanding). But while these canine superstars are at the top of their game, an average of 30% don’t actually make it to the finish line each year.

There are myriad reasons a sled dog might not finish the 1,000-mile journey, which begins ceremonially in Anchorage and ends in Nome, Alaska up to two weeks later. They can get hurt or sick on the trail, perhaps, or just wear themselves out. It could be part of a race strategy, or a matter of good ol’ biology. “Maybe a female is in heat and causing problems,” explains Dr. Liz Millman, a certified vet and one of the Iditarod’s thousands of volunteers. And though the rules state that mushers must cross the finish line with the same dogs that they started with-meaning no new dogs can be added throughout the course-they only need a minimum of five out of the initial 14 at the end to comply.

Which begs the question: Where do the pups who leave the race go? To a magical place called the Returned Dog Hub.

Courtesy of Dr. Liz Millman
Courtesy of Dr. Liz Millman
Courtesy of Dr. Liz Millman

Once the main artery for sled dogs charged with facilitating commerce and delivering mail in snowbound areas of Alaska during the Gold Rush, parts of the Iditarod Trail (now a National Historic Trail) were still in use even after machinery like airplanes and snowmobiles were introduced, particularly in Indigenous villages. The idea for a race was introduced by the Alaska Centennial Committee in 1967 as they searched for something to commemorate the state’s history and garner national attention. The first race as we know it today kicked off in 1973.

As popular as it has grown, the Iditarod’s decades-long tenure has not come without controversy. Though advocates of the race say the dogs thrive, the harsh conditions of the desolate routes-plagued with blizzards, far-below-freezing temperatures, and treacherous terrain-plus documented cases of mistreatment would have opponents like PETA and the Sled Dog Action Coalition believing otherwise. Humans may have used sled dogs for thousands of years for hunting, communication, and transportation, but the Iditarod, and other races like the Finnmarksløpet in Norway are not exactly necessary.

In response, rules of the the Iditarod state that anyone who has been convicted of animal cruelty or neglect in the state of Alaska is prohibited from participating. Mushers are required to carry a minimum of two sets of booties per dog, and in the weeks prior to the race, each dog undergoes physical examinations including bloodwork and EKGs. And after last year, when a sled dog named Leon slipped out of his collar and escaped from a checkpoint (he was eventually found), and three mushers were penalised for bringing their dogs inside for safety during a storm, tracking systems and sheltering rules are currently being reviewed.

Anchorage Daily News/Tribune News Service/Getty Images
Anchorage Daily News/Tribune News Service/Getty Images
Anchorage Daily News/Tribune News Service/Getty Images

But when a dog dropped at a checkpoint ended up tragically asphyxiating back in 2013, the Iditarod introduced perhaps the biggest reform to date: the amping up of the Return Dog Program. “They already had a lot of people volunteering, but getting people who really knew sled dogs meant the dogs were better cared for,” says Dr. Millman. “They started reaching out to handlers and mushers around the nation, people who had experience with sled dogs.” These experienced volunteers-about seven to 10 per hub-arrive with prior knowledge about how to mix food for sled dogs and the correct way to feed them, how to walk and handle them, and how transport them properly.

Dr. Millman coordinates the logistics and husbandry for the program and its volunteers. (Her official title? Race Return Dog Coordinator.) Her team includes vet techs stationed along the trail, a veterinarian overseeing Return Dog Medical, as well as experienced dog handlers. They work in tandem with other volunteer crews-including the Iditarod Air Force (IAF), civilians who pilot their own planes to provide aerial support-to make sure the dogs eventually return to their kennels safe and sound. “Everyone works together to make sure the dogs are the most important thing in the race, and we’d do anything to get them home as quickly and safely as possible,” she says.

Courtesy of Dr. Liz Millman
Courtesy of Dr. Liz Millman
Courtesy of Dr. Liz Millman

Prior to the race, mushers fill out a Dog Care Agreement Form, which indicates which vet a dog should be taken to if it’s in need of medical attention as well as contact info for the handlers responsible for picking them up. Mushers can return a dog to any of the 26 checkpoints along the trail and a vet will check them out. If the dog is deemed in dire condition, they’re air-evacuated to a medical facility right away. Most cases are not so extreme, however, and the dogs typically just hang out and wait to be air transferred to a hub in McGrath, Unalakleet, Nome, or Anchorage, where Dr. Millman’s teams are waiting to re-examine them.

“Because those checkpoints are only open for one to three days, our IAF crew will bring the dogs from the small checkpoints to the hubs,” says Dr. Millman. Eventually, they all wind up in Anchorage, where they’re examined one last time, scanned to make sure their microchips match their tags, and given a very important final meal. “We want to see that they’re eating before they’re released to handlers,” says Millman.

Courtesy of Dr. Liz Millman
Courtesy of Dr. Liz Millman
Courtesy of Dr. Liz Millman

While many of the rookie volunteer positions at the Iditarod don’t require much expertise, joining the Return Dog crew does necessitate some kennel or dog-handling experience in order to provide the best care possible. You sleep with other volunteers on the floors of gyms, community centres, and, in McGrath, a church. Despite the accommodations, it’s a very sought-after position. “Everybody’s happy because our crew gets to work one-on-one with the dogs,” says Millman. “I always get pictures dogs sleeping on the couch with my handlers, coming inside, getting lots of good treats-just well-cared for.”

Should you be jonesing to work intimately with the pups but lack advanced experience, Dr. Millman can be flexible-provided you’re willing to work your way up. “I’ll bring [volunteers] to Anchorage first, work with them that year,” she says. “If they’re committed and they have a good time and pick it up really well, then I’m more willing to put them on [the] trail next year.”

Anchorage Daily News/Tribune News Service/Getty Images
Anchorage Daily News/Tribune News Service/Getty Images
Anchorage Daily News/Tribune News Service/Getty Images

In Anchorage, there are office volunteers and crew volunteers that help with husbandry while learning how to handle and work with sled dogs. You also get the added perk of witnessing an adorable sight: Dogs enjoying planes.

“Most dogs don’t like being in kennels or in the car, but sled dogs are really good at travelling,” says Millman. “We clip them in so they’re not running loose. Most of them just relax and hang out and it’s really cute. Every now and then, when a plane is landing at a hub, you’ll have a dog looking out the window, like “This is awesome!”

Get the latest from Thrillist Australia delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe here.

Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist’s Senior Travel Writer. 
Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

Get the latest from Thrillist Australia delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe here.

Related

Our Best Stories, Delivered Daily
The best decision you'll make all day.