Vet heeds call of the wild Animal doctor flies to Alaska to help sled dog race


For Westminster veterinarian Nicholas Herrick, turning the Big 4-0 in December had more than the usual significance.

His wife, Becky, decided to send him to Alaska as a birthday present.

It was she who urged him to apply for a position as one of the trail veterinarians for the running of the 21st Iditarod Sled Dog Race.

"It's something that he's always wanted to do," said Ms. Herrick, who remained at home with their daughters, Natalie, 11; Holly, 10; and 7-month-old Susanna.

On Tuesday, he flew to Alaska to join 20 other veterinarians who were chosen from around the world to monitor the health of the dog teams on the 1,157-mile run from Anchorage to Nome. The event is the longest sled dog race in the country.

The race began yesterday in downtown Anchorage and will take about 11 days to complete.

Dr. Herrick will not be competing in the race or traveling by dog sled, but will fly by bush plane between the race's checkpoints.

"Our job is to make sure the dogs are healthy and in good shape," he said in a telephone interview from Anchorage.

"What we look for is stress-related problems and dehydration, and if we see dogs like that, we have them stopped and rested," he said.

There are about 70 teams participating in this year's race.

"The sled teams are composed of from 12 to 20 dogs," he said. "Obviously, the mushers [sled drivers] are concerned about the health of their animals and take an interest in their welfare."

If a dog becomes disabled during the race, it is removed and flown out to Anchorage or Nome for treatment, Dr. Herrick said.

But the Alaska and Siberian huskies, which weigh between 35 and 70 pounds, have the stamina to take the punishing terrain hour after hour, he said.

"The mushers are very particular about what they feed their dogs," he said. "All food is prepared by each team driver for his dogs, frozen and shipped to the check points along the way. When the teams arrive, a hunk is hacked off, boiled and then fed to the dogs."

Because of the constant stamina exacted by the race, the food that the teams consume is high in protein and fat.

"Some of them use chicken or lamb," Dr. Herrick said. "Others follow the Eskimo recipe, which is salmon."

The teams cover about 100 miles a day, and the race continues around the clock.

"Some of the drivers clip electric lamps to their hats so they can see at night and keep moving. There will also be a few nights when the moon is up and no illumination will be needed because of the reflection off the snow," Dr. Herrick said.

The Iditarod Trail is broken by an advance party of trail breakers on snowmobiles. The purpose is to cut a trail through the deep snows so the teams will not get bogged down.

"It may be deep out on the trail," Dr. Herrick said with a laugh, "but in downtown Anchorage they had to bring in dump trucks of 2 2TC snow in order to get the race under way."

His first assignment after arriving in Alaska was conducting pre-race examinations on participating dogs.

"This is part of the routine," he said. "We want to make sure that the dogs are in good health.

"Mushers are required to make one 30-hour and one 12-hour stop in order to rest the teams. Obviously, they use their own discretion as far as resting the dogs."

Dr. Herrick was assigned to the fourth checkpoint, at Rainy Pass, northwest of Anchorage, on the first day of the race.

He will return to Westminster later this month.

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