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Iditarod veterinarian crew quietly ensures safety of canine athletes (Alaska Press Club winner)

By Keith Conger - Published in the Nome Nugget newspaper 03/26/15

**First Place - Small Print, Best Short Feature

The finish line chute at the end of the Iditarod sled dog race can be a busy place.

As racers make their way up the snowy ramp to the iconic Burled Arch they are often swarmed by a mob consisting of family members, race officials, checkpoint volunteers, and media personal of all sorts. Most of the people that comprise this hive of activity have fancy, official-looking badges dangling from their necks, and are decked out in brightly-colored parkas adorned with ornate, embroidered patches.

One person, however, stealthily slips in and out of the crowds. He shows no official markings, is clad in dark, nondescript clothing, and wears a black mushers hat that all but conceals his identity. Stewart Nelson, Chief Veterinarian of the Iditarod, furtively slips in to receive the official dog logs that each musher carries throughout the race. He checks dogs as he makes his way down each gang line, and then vanishes, heading for the dog lot staging area ahead of each team.

Nelson, a notable author on sled dog care, manages a large troop of volunteer dog care specialists. Speaking at the finish line as he waited for one of the mushers on Saturday, March 21, the long time Iditarod veteran said he coordinates a group of 55 veterinarians and another 10 or so technicians.

Forty-five of his vets supply services at checkpoints along the trail, while 10 help with the dogs that mushers drop from their teams during the race. There are also vet techs at the two main dog drop hubs. Unalakleet is one of the hubs. This year, with the race starting in Fairbanks, the second hub was in Galena, instead of McGrath. The vet techs also facilitate the mandatory pre-race examination that each dog must receive.

Nelson spent his first nine years with the race as a volunteer trail vet. Then 20 years ago he was asked to assume the position of Chief Veterinarian. When not in Alaska, Nelson spends time in northern Idaho as a relief vet in various clinics. He said his Iditarod duties are so extensive he is unable to operate a regular practice.

Nelson explained that during the early stages of each Iditarod, before racers get spread out, six or seven vets manage a checkpoint. During the later stages, this number is whittled down to three or four. Vets are leapfrogged as the race progresses.

“He (Nelson) is a remarkable individual,” said first year volunteer veterinarian Ron Hallstrom. “It is hard to visualize someone else doing all the things he does.”

Hallstrom, who runs a private practice in Virginia, was convinced by a veterinarian friend to sign up for this year's race. While taking a break on Saturday afternoon at the Iditarod Headquarters after two weeks on the trail, Hallstrom explained that usually there are four new vets added to the team, but this year there were 10.

The 2015 Iditarod acted as a sort of homecoming for the 66-year-old Hallstrom. In 1973 he summited Mount McKinley with climbing luminary Ray Genet, and was flown to the mountain by aviation legend Don Sheldon.

For his first Iditarod, Hallstrom was part of a veterinarian team in Ruby. After all the mushers had passed through that checkpoint he was flown to Koyuk. He enjoyed learning about the unique culture of the people in Koyuk and appreciated eating caribou stew, beluga whale, and dried fish.

Hallstrom's work with police canines in Norfolk, Virginia makes him familiar with working dogs. “But these dogs are different than what I regularly see. They are like ultra-marathon runners. I know dogs, but these dogs are a different ball game.”

To help rookie volunteers become attuned with the demands of the race, they are paired with Iditarod veterans. Hallstrom explained that new recruits must attend a three-day class prior to being sent out on their first assignment. The presenters for the class are some of the top vets in the country and include experts in the field of emergency medicine, toxicology, and orthopedic surgery.

The high point of Hallstrom's experience came last week. A storm down the coast caused mushers to pile up in Shaktoolik. When the winds abated, mushers came to Koyuk in waves, one after another. He and his veterinarian partners worked for nearly 10 straight hours servicing the unusually heavy volume of teams.

“Mushers are very attuned to their animals,” said Hallstrom reflectively. “Every one of them has been extremely conscientious in their care.”

Nelson echoed those sentiments. He said that great care is taken to forge relationships between mushers and veterinarians. Their conversations at each checkpoint help ensure the safety and well being of the dogs. “Even though there are no rules that state every dog must have a hands-on examination at every checkpoint,” said Nelson, “we were still able to perform over 12,000 hands-on exams during this race.”

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