When a colleague contacted me in fall 2019 asking if I wanted to participate as a pathologist in the 2020 Iditarod, I didn’t really know what to expect. But I knew it sounded like something I wanted to do.
The race involves teams of sled dogs running approximately 1,000 miles in 10 to 14 days. Typically, more than 50 veterinarians are stationed at about two dozen checkpoints to monitor and care for the animals. Among these veterinarians are one or two veterinary pathologists who are there to do a postmortem examination, called a necropsy, in case a dog dies on the trail. This happens less often than people might think.
As a faculty pathologist at the Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory (WADDL) and clinical assistant professor at the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine, I prepared to go to the Last Great Race. I spent the months leading up to the Iditarod reading up on musher terminology, and diagnosis and treatment of common sled dog ailments. I spent almost as much time researching and acquiring the appropriate cold weather gear.
I headed to the race nervous but eager, and I had an amazing time. There were ups and downs but it was an experience I will always remember. The people, the scenery, the cold. And, of course, the dogs.
When the opportunity to participate again in the 2021 race came along, even in a pandemic, I jumped at the chance. This time, hopefully, a little more experienced and a lot more prepared.
Here’s a look at my experiences at this year’s race.
I arrived at the Lakefront Hotel in Anchorage excited and ready to go. This time, I more or less knew what I was in for. The rest of the veterinarians could end up at any of the checkpoints but, as the sole veterinary pathologist, I would only be sent to the most accessible sites along the Gold Trail Loop. I would spend a couple of days in Anchorage, then move on to McGrath.
I was nervous about how COVID restrictions would change race dynamics. There wouldn’t be any of the usual social celebrations. And we were generally restricted to our rooms while awaiting our trail assignments. But the overall mood was only minimally subdued.
I was anxious to get out on the trail. The mantra at the Iditarod is “go with the flow.” So I tried my best and met some great people. We spent time walking around Lake Hood, considered the largest floatplane harbor in the world. We also watched the beginnings of the race unfold with the online tracker. And I helped out with the returned dogs, flown back to Anchorage after being “returned” by a musher on the trail. On day six, the first flight of approximately 80 dogs arrived. All of the dogs needed a complete physical exam and, if necessary, instructions for follow-up care. Most dogs are returned for minor reasons, such as muscle strains or just not pulling well. We worked in teams and were done in a couple of hours.
Going with the flow
Almost one week into staying in Anchorage at a hotel, I woke up feeling anxious. I was still waiting to hear when I would go to McGrath. My first flight had been canceled due to weather, and I was bumped from my second flight due to supplies and weight restrictions on the plane.
I finally received a text that morning: A group of us would be heading to Deshka Landing. This was followed by a call from the head veterinarian. COVID rules had messed with his plans, and he could only send veterinarians who hadn’t yet been out of the trail. I was just fine with that. I would see the finish and also get to help participate in evaluations for the Leonhard Seppala Award for Humanitarian Treatment of Dogs, an honor awarded to a top musher with the best attention to dog care.
An hour and a half later, in true Iditarod-go-with-the-flow fashion, I received another call from the head veterinarian: I was actually needed more in Finger Lake. This request was followed by a question: Did I have all the gear I would need? Unlike McGrath, Finger Lake is one of the more remote checkpoints, located on the lake near Winterlake Lodge. Even in non-COVID years, the checkpoint consists of tents, without any indoor areas. I said yes and crossed my fingers that it was true.
I met Monte Mabry on Lake Hood for the 45-minute trip. Part of the Iditarod Airforce (IAF), he and other pilots volunteer to transport supplies, people, and dogs—often in treacherous weather conditions—to and from the course. It was a bluebird day over the Alaskan Range, and Monte dipped a wing of his Cessna, circling low to view several moose.
We landed on Finger Lake and took the short walk over to camp: four Arctic oven tents, one larger tent with a wood stove for the mushers, an outdoor cooking area, and, out back, a couple of tents serving as outhouses. The tents were nestled in a relatively protected corner of the lake with views of the mountains on all sides. I and three other veterinarians immediately went to work setting up our returned dog area, erecting an additional vet sleeping tent, and helping to make dinner.
The entire crew met for dinner in the musher tent. The rest of the team had been there since the beginning of the race, and we introduced ourselves. Among our ranks were a sailing enthusiast, a planetary geologist, a social worker, and a software engineer. That night, I watched the Northern Lights dance in the sky for the first time in my life.
Checkpoint day one
That night also had me questioning my life’s decisions. It was somewhere around negative 20 degrees outside. Propane heaters only provide a certain level of warmth in the best of circumstances, and ours was not working under quite right. The tent smelled like propane, and the heat output was not what it should have been. In in the middle of the night, I stole my tent-mate’s extra tarp to sleep on. Even then, I laid awake for what felt like hours.
We all woke before dawn to greet the first musher. I drank powered coffee, adding some Swiss Miss for an extra boost. It was still dark when we met frontrunner Dallas Seavey. He was clearly racing for the win. After just a few minutes of consideration, he returned two dogs and was gone.
We examined his dogs and got them set up with food and straw, and plenty of love and scratches. Throughout the day, the top of the pack continued to come in, and I forgot that I was tired. The veteran veterinarians took the lead, and I fell in step, checking in mushers who were passing through, taking in and examining the few returned dogs, and doing full assessments of the teams that stayed.
The next two days passed in a similar fashion. Veterinarians worked together during the day and took shifts at night. The days were sunny and bright, and I frequently found myself simply staring at the beauty of the landscape. Thankfully, our propane heater got fixed, and I slept well.
We accumulated a few more returned dogs and took care of them on our line. Tonto, the dog with the most gregarious personality, served as the sentinel on the end of the line and quickly became the unofficial checkpoint mascot. We gave the dogs extra snacks, and they ate well and basked in the sun throughout the day. We ate equally well, enjoying each other’s company over family-style meals in the mushers’ tent when it was otherwise unoccupied.
By the third morning, I was beginning to feel like I could drink powdered coffee with Swiss Miss every morning, as long as I had this view. But it was nearing time to go. Anticipating departure, we began packing up camp in between taking care of the dogs and checking in the occasional musher. It was physical work, and the day turned windy and cold. The last musher arrived at the checkpoint by 10:30 p.m. We thought he might stay with us, but he was in a hurry and ran through. We celebrated in our tents and slept well.
The final morning, we tried to sleep in, but eventually heard a quiet but no-nonsense voice say, “Hey, vets, it’s time to get up. We need to pack up.” So we roused ourselves and got to work collecting water buckets, breaking down the tents, hauling out the last of the straw, and breaking down the returned dog run. Our pilot came to pick us up while filming himself for a Smithsonian special. I got to ride in the front seat, and the weather was calm and sunny for the flight back to Anchorage.
In Anchorage, we all prepared to return to our normal lives. We showered for the first time in days and shared laundry in the pay machines at the hotel. We celebrated the race and had our last goodbyes with people we would likely only see once a year but consider friends for life. And, like last year, I sighed with relief that a pathologist had not been needed this year.
On the web
Meet the pilot: Monte Mabry
From the archives: A race at the top (Spring 2021)