Iditarod vets give expertise, get adventure in return

Posted: Monday, March 11, 2002

KALTAG (AP) -- From a sled dog's perspective, the people in the green parkas probably seem a little nosy. Helpful, nice, but awfully curious.

They are the veterinarians who can be seen hovering over the teams soon after they reach a checkpoint in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

There are 35 vets working along the trail this year, monitoring the health of the dog teams in the 1,100-mile race to Nome.

''Mostly I look for self-motivated people, so I don't put out advertising. They come to us by word of mouth,'' said Dr. Stuart Nelson, who has served as chief veterinarian for the race for the past seven years and, prior to that, was a volunteer vet for nine years.

Nelson generally selects his veterinary team by the September prior to the race. Each year there are about nine rookies. This year, six of the vets are from Alaska, two are from Australia, one is from Spain, one hails from New Zealand, one is from Canada and the rest are from elsewhere in the United States.

The goal of the veterinary program is to have each dog examined by a vet at every checkpoint, Nelson said. But given that some teams will spend very little time in some of the checkpoints, it isn't always possible.

Depending on the amount of time a team spends in a checkpoint, a dog may get no examination; a brief examination to check hydration, attitude and weight; an examination that also includes examination of feet and legs; or a complete exam that involves all of those as well as a check of the dog's heart, lungs and stomach.

In examining each team, the vets are guided by a small yellow notebook each musher is required to keep. The notebook includes any relevant comments by veterinarians at prior checkpoints about examinations for each dog, including what medication they may be taking and any follow-up care that may be needed.

''It's for consistency,'' said Dr. Rick Long of Edmonton, Alberta, thumbing through Kotzebue musher John Baker's veterinary care diary as gusty winds blew through the Kaltag dog yard.

''If only the vets could write better. Of course I guess it could have something to do with writing in the cold,'' Long said. ''Aside from penmanship it's a perfect system.''

In choosing volunteer vets, Nelson says he looks for ''hardworking people with a solid background in veterinary medicine.''

And it helps if they have a sense of adventure.

''Just being in the outdoors is great,'' says Dr. Kyle Brayley of Houston, Texas, standing by the schoolyard in the small Yukon River village of Nikolai, where a half-dozen dog teams lay napping in the sunshine.

It is Brayley's first trip to Alaska. He started the race at the Yentna Station checkpoint, then came to Nikolai. From there, he'll hop onto a small plane and head into the Interior of Alaska to the village of Nulato.

Since the race began, he's examined hundreds of sled dogs, sometimes at 4 a.m. by the glow of a headlamp in temperatures of 20 below. He has quickly adapted to the cold and even tried sleeping outdoors under the stars.

Dr. Melanie Hull of Mansfield, Ohio, is serving as a volunteer Iditarod vet for the second time.

''It's a chance for me to be involved with sled dogs without quite the big commitment,'' she said. Hull used to race sled dogs in sprint races and has served as a race veterinarian at mid-distance races in the Lower 48.

''I really enjoy this. There's actually snow here,'' said Hull, who usually had to travel far from her Ohio home to find snow to race her dogs.

In addition to the dogs, Hull enjoys the sense of camaraderie with the other race volunteers.

''What's really neat is the spirit of the Iditarod, people coming together and working together for the race,'' she said.

The downside for Hull to working in rural Alaska?

''The outhouses,'' she said laughing. ''That's the hardest part.''

A race vet's job begins before the teams have been bedded down.

''We like to watch them as they come into the checkpoint,'' said Dr. Roger Trautman of Rock Hill, S.C. It's then that the vets can see if the dogs are pulling well and if there are any signs of lameness or hard breathing.

''We look for a brightness in the eyes. Are they sniffing around? Interested in the other dogs? When they're rolling over and taking a snow bath, that's a good sign,'' Trautman said.

After the dogs have settled down on beds of straw, the vets check their heart rate and breathing and feel for any signs of muscle pain or swelling of joints. The animals handle all the attention with little fuss.

''They're extremely easy to work with. They're very cooperative because they are handled so frequently,'' Trautman said.

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