When Susan Drapek calls herself a traveling vet, that might be an understatement. The “traveling vet,” who normally deals with small animal medicine and acupuncture in her downtown Eaton Rapids office, recently traveled 3000 miles away to serve as a volunteer trail veterinarian at the Iditarod Sled Dog Race in Anchorage, Alaska.
This is not the first time Drapek has braved sub-zero temperatures to care for the sled dogs at Iditarod; she started in 2019.
“It was something that I always wanted to see, but I never wanted to be an actual musher,” she explained. The Iditarod started in 1973. Back then it took 21 days to finish. Now, thanks to better training and lighter sleds, this year’s winner, Dallas Seavey, only took seven days, fourteen hours and eight minutes to complete the race.
Drapek, age 61, has been a veterinarian for 31 years. She graduated from Michigan State University. She specializes in house calls for basic care of small animals in your home. She offers in-home euthanasia, also, a service that is often needed. She also owns Ivy Acres Boarding.
COVID-19 was a huge issue for the event this year. Drapek spent five days in quarantine in a hotel before she could work the event. Precautions were taken every step of the way, she explained, to guard against COVID. She was tested eight times for COVID during the event.
Even the trail for the race was changed. The route normally goes from Anchorage to Nome. This year it was 200 miles shorter and went halfway out and back. Some of the villages that the race would normally pass through did not want them coming into their village because of the virus. Spectator opportunities for the race were limited to minimize exposure.
Drapek performed pre-race exams on the teams, examining each dog. This involved doing their bloodwork and taking EKGs, she explained. Each dog must be well-vetted before it’s allowed to run. She would then fly to the checkpoints where the dogs and mushers rested along the trail. There she would check the dogs for heart issues, hydration level, attitude, appetite, any weight loss, and their lungs.
Temperatures were extreme during the race, of course. Good gear is the key, Drapek explained. “My body was never cold, even when it was 25 or 35 degrees below at night. When it was up to 0 degrees during the day, that felt hot.”
“You have to be pretty dedicated doing this kind of work. And it’s important to keep your hands warm—there are no human doctors on the trail.” The dogs come first, she explained. The team of veterinarians she worked with ranged in age from 40 to 70 years old.
“It’s the adventure of a lifetime,” Drapek said. “Even just to participate in some small way.” Drapek has always enjoyed the outdoors and has kayaked, canoed, gone white water rafting, backpacked, and biked the Dalmac.
“The dogs are great and very socialized,” she said. “It’s rare to see a dog that won’t curl up in your lap.” The dogs are generally mixed breeds, usually; Siberians, hound, or shepherd mixes, and generally weigh between 45 and 55 pounds.
“Their eagerness to run can be seen as the musher is getting the booties back on with the dogs howling in eagerness,” Drapek said. On average, they stop every four hours on the trail to rest for a few hours.
There are all kinds of risks in being part of the Iditarod. “Travel is strictly by air or snow machine, living conditions are typically very crowded, meals are often haphazard, rest periods may be sparse, and schedules can change at a moment’s notice,” the Iditarod committee explains to new volunteers. But there are always volunteers willing to risk it.
Drapek told about sleeping on the ice in a tent at temperatures considerably below freezing. There was a heater, but it had been painted and as it heated up the fumes were overwhelming. Keeping clean was a challenge. Salmonella was a risk, as the dogs eat raw meat, which is fine for them but could make a human extremely ill. Coming upon a moose on the trail could be a fatal meet-up; moose will kill you, she explained, along with the wolves.
She plans on attending the 2022 Iditarod race, which is the 50th anniversary of the event.