Local vet travels Iditarod trail
It’s clear who the featured athletes are at this race with 30 veterinarians taking care of the dogs, but not a single medical doctor to assist the mushers who bear the same conditions of the Alaskan wild. Imagine temperatures dipping below negative 40 degrees Fahrenheit and winds blowing up to 50 miles per hour in a trial that took this year’s winning team more than nine days to finish (and the last more than 15). In the 34th Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, 71 teams of 16 Alaskan huskies – mixes of German shepherds, malamutes, huskies and hounds – and their mushers covered 1,150 treacherous miles from Anchorage in south central Alaska, through 24 checkpoints, to Nome on the western Bering Sea coast.
The event gathers a slew of nonpaid volunteers from communications, who keep an exact record of teams entering and leaving checkpoints, to pilots who fly in and out the participants, volunteers and dogs usually in small, two-seat planes. And keeping a close eye on the health of the athletes are 30 volunteer veterinarians.Local mobile veterinarian Denise Fair, who is also a volunteer with the Summit Rescue Group, applied for one of the vet positions in the summer of 2005 (just after finishing the prerequisite five years clinical experience) and in December got the call asking her to work the extreme race.”I wasn’t going to tell them no,” said Fair, who rearranged her schedule at the last minute for the trip.As a rookie, Fair started her trip with a weeklong conference in Anchorage, which largely focused on diseases specific to racing sled dogs. Starting day of the race she was flown out to the Finger Lake checkpoint – a site located on a frozen river. A postcard-worthy day soon turned into a storm with winds blowing at 50 mph. The crew was relieved to wake up with a tent still over its head.
Iditarod team mushers are each issued a yellow vet book, which must be filled out with the checkpoint number and a veterinarian’s name in order to pass. Mushers may choose to go right through the checkpoint, but if they stick around for an hour, Fair said the mushers know all their dogs will be examined.The dogs are checked for injuries on their feet and toes, frostbite and wrist and shoulder problems within a thorough examination. Any obvious lameness seen by the musher is brought straight to a veterinarian.”Mushers know the dogs so well,” Fair said. “When they do come to us, we don’t have to ask, ‘Is there a problem.’ They know.”Fair said physically, the first checkpoint was the hardest, since all the teams were still close together. The vet, who recently finished her first 50-mile marathon in Buena Vista, was up for the challenge.
Another major function the vets provide is caring for dogs which are dropped, or left at the checkpoint.”If a dog’s not doing well, they’ll drop it. (The team) is only as fast as its slowest dog. (The musher) won’t risk it – even if it’s just not having a good time,” Fair said.Dropped dogs are then coded: White, blue or red.A white coding was for dogs like the one dropped at Finger Lake checkpoint. “There was this happy, healthy dog who was too big for the conditions and was postholing. He was just too big for the trail,” Fair said. A blue coding signified some kind of injury like a sore wrist or urinating blood. Red signified an emergency situation.
“Pilots drop everything to get the dogs,” Fair said of the red classification.Dropped dogs, which are picked up by pilots, are taken to Anchorage where two vets are waiting to examine them again and an emergency clinic is available.Vets are sent to different checkpoints depending on the race’s status and after five days and all the teams had passed, Fair moved from Finger Lake to the Takotna checkpoint. Fair estimated she spent from three to four days at Takotna; the cold weather and working nights – vets had to be available 24 hours a day -made it hard to keep track.
Fair’s final two checkpoints were at the village town of Nulato and the rugged coast site Unalakleet.Fair worked mostly with the tail end of the pack of racers, who she said had a different vibe than the top 10 leaders.”It was so great with the middle and back of the pack. Mushers make it like a camping trip for the dogs,” she said. “They all help each other and sit around the same dinner table.”Fair, who plans to apply for next year’s trip which will take the southern route, said of the mushers, locals and veterinarians, “Start to finish, the dogs are taken care of.”
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