Every March for more than 10 years, a globe-trotting Sonora woman has made the journey to Alaska where she volunteers to oversee a facility housing hundreds of world-class athletes.
Susan Shinkai, 54, a pharmacist at Sonora Regional Medical Center, takes a yearly vacation to serve as the nightshift supervisor of a dog lot in Nome during the annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
“We take care of the dogs until the mushers get there,” Shinkai said.
Mushers are allowed to have a total of 12-to-16 dogs on their team and must cross the finish line with at least six on their tow line. Throughout the race, they can drop off dogs that have become tired which then get taken to either the dog lot in Nome or Anchorage depending on proximity.
The dog lot Shinkai’s in charge of is roughly 200-by-100 feet with nine large shipping containers separating three rows each spaced about 100 feet apart. Chain strung between the boxes is where they attach dogs that are brought in after being dropped off by mushers at various checkpoints during the race.
Kathleen Janczak, of Rochester, NY, volunteers each year as the Nome dog lot’s daytime supervisor and called it a “relief” whenever she sees Shinkai arrive dragging with her a stack of luggage full of tools used to build the facility that houses roughly 300 canines.
“We just enjoy her tremendously,” Janczak said. “She takes what does very seriously and is fun to around. She’s also very handy with her tools, which is just some of the reasons we’re happy having her there.”
Started in 1973, the Iditarod has evolved into a highly-competitive race where mushers towed on sleds by teams of up to 16 dogs compete across 1,049 miles of Alaskan terrain from Anchorage to Nome.
The Iditarod gained more worldwide attention in 1985 when Liddy Riddles became the first woman to win the race followed by Susan Butcher, who went on to dominate the competition for the next five years.
Shinkai became interested 15 years ago while visiting Alaska for the first-time with her longtime boyfriend Clint Smith, of Sonora, when she found out that the next race began the day of her 40th birthday: March 7, 1999.
After making her inaugural trip that year, Shinkai officially became “hooked” on the experience. A couple years later, she discovered the dog lot in Nome where she now makes her annual pilgrimmage.
Veterinarians are on-hand at the lots to check the dogs for any injuries or illnesses while volunteers like Shinkai mainly provide security.
From 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., Shinkai is in charge of monitoring the lot with a staff of up to six other volunteers and over the years has dealt with everything from drunk people wandering around the lot at night to dogs becoming loose from the line.
Her favorite part of the job is getting to witness up close the relationship between mushers and their dogs, one of the unique aspects of the sport that attracted her to the Iditarod in the first place.
For example, Shinkai said one year former champion Lance Mackey arrived at the lot where a dog he had formerly-owned and sold was being housed.
“It heard his voice and immediately stood up,” Shinkai recalled. “Out of 300 dogs in the lot, he called it out by name and ran over and gave it a big hug.”
Tragedy struck one of the checkpoints at this year’s event when one of the dogs that had been dropped off died during the night after being buried under a snow drift.
Shinkai said she’s never been to that particular checkpoint but understands it can get very hectic due to its location over a strenuous mountain pass and go from housing 50 to 150 in a matter of hours.
“It was a perfect storm-type of a situation,” Shinkai said. “Normally, any Iditarod dog sleeping in those conditions is usually fine, but it was the snow drift that got this one.”
Despite her deep appreciation for “man’s best friend,” Shinkai doesn’t own a dog. Growing up she suffered from allergies that prevented her from keeping one and now her lifestyle doesn’t allow it.
“I always tell people I don’t have dogs because I travel too much, but for one week out of the year, I have 300 of them,” she said.
Shinkai grew up in San Francisco and got her degree in pharmacy from University of Pacific in Stockton. While attending college, she made frequent trips to the foothills for hiking and moved to Sonora upon graduating in 1983.
In addition to the Iditarod, Shinkai has a passion for Disney and goes on monthly weekend trips to Disneyland. She also visits Disneyworld in Orlando as well as other Disney theme parks throughout the world.
Shinkai’s passion for adventure has also taken her to Iceland, Russia, New Zealand, the Galapagos Island and the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, which she climbed five years ago, among other destinations.
“She’s incredibly dynamic,” said Pam Muiter, a friend and fellow pharmacist at SRMC. “She does all sorts of things and has a good general knowledge.”
Muiter said Shinkai makes calendars for co-workers, which “everyone looks forward to getting” each year, filled with photographs taken on her many adventures, some of which she has even sold as art over the Internet.
“Last year my calendar had pictures she took while in Europe,” Muiter said. “She’s the kind of person who totally gets involved in everything she’s doing and is also really appreciated around the pharmacy for her experience.”
Another one of Shinkai’s many hobbies is photographing fireworks shows. She had just returned Monday from a weekend trip to Kentucky where she photographed the Thunder Over Louisville fireworks show that kicks off two weeks of festivities surrounding the annual Kentucky Derby horse race.
Shinkai is next planning a trip with Smith to view polar bears in Manitoba this fall.
Shinkai has thought about the possibility of one day competing in the Iditarod and has won several three-mile dog sledding events in the past. However, she doesn’t want to leave her job for an extended period of time in order to train.
“I don’t want to live as a dog handler,” she said. “I’d rather live as pharmacist who sometimes handles dogs.”
Shinkai plans on traveling to the Iditarod once again next year but how long the trip will remain an annual tradition largely depends on how much longer the decades-old race can continue to capture her interest.
“I’ll keep going every year until I get tired of doing this,” she said.