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Vet answers call  from the wild

BENNINGTON RESIDENT AT IDITAROD

It didn’t take long for Lori Baldwin to feel at home.

Even though she was thousands of miles from her Bennington home, Baldwin’s work as a veterinarian made it seem like another day at the office — just without the office and the luxuries of everyday life. This, after all, was the Alaskan wilderness.

She had always wanted to volunteer at the Iditarod, the world class sled race that spans 998 miles between Anchorage and Nome. For it to happen, though, she needed all the pieces to fall into place.

A colleague of hers had been pushing for her to volunteer for years. It represented not only a big time commitment, but a financial one as well. She would have to pay her own way, add some necessary and expensive pieces to her winter wardrobe and take time off from her job at the Goffstown Animal Hospital.

But she couldn’t imagine a better way to spend some vacation time. Baldwin has always had a special place in her heart for animals. It is what led her to attend the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine and spend the last 16 years as a vet.

“I always wanted to go up and see what it’s all about,” said Baldwin. “And this year, the timing was right.”

So Baldwin applied for one of the first-year volunteer positions. Fewer than 10 rookie vets are accepted each year and only 50 veterinarians total, so Baldwin was not sure if she had the right resume to be chosen. She had never worked with sled dogs, but had an extensive background with greyhounds and the Goffstown police dogs, along with the name of Turner Lewis — her former colleague who has been volunteering at the Iditarod for almost 20 years.

Much to her surprise, Baldwin was selected for the 41st annual running of what is referred to as “the last great race on earth.” She flew to Anchorage on Feb. 24 and took part in a three-day introductory course where she conducted pre-race exams on many of the 60 sled dog teams, which also counted toward her continuing education.

“They just didn’t toss us out there,” said Baldwin.

March 2 marked the ceremonial start of the race, for which race officials had to truck in snow, and the following day was when things started for real. On the second day of the race, Baldwin was flown one hour to Skwentna — the fourth checkpoint 83 miles from Anchorage. The flight left from Lake Spenard, located just outside the Millennium Alaska Hotel in Anchorage, and it carried two veterinarians at a time to the checkpoint. Many times, the planes would land on lakes near the checkpoints, something Baldwin was not used to.

“It was really interesting compared to commercial flying,” she said.

Her first shift was from 8:30 p.m. to 7 a.m. and she even spent a few hours sleeping on the floor of an 8-foot by 10-foot room in the local post office with four others. Baldwin spent two days in Skwentna before returning to Anchorage for a short break.

Her second assignment brought her to the ghost town of Iditarod. It is the 12th checkpoint along the course and 432 miles from the hotel.

“On the trail, there is nothing,” said Baldwin. “At one point it was a real town.”

While the Skwentna checkpoint mostly resulted in routine check-ups, her work in Iditarod required a lot more thorough examinations of the dogs. Muscle strains and general soreness are always a concern, but at the midway point Baldwin was on the lookout for more serious issues, like heart and lung ailments and dehydration.

“As you got farther out, you go into bigger exams,” said Baldwin.

When the teams would arrive at the checkpoint, Baldwin would consult the dog-team leader and see what information they could provide. The mushers are so in tune with their team that they can tell when one of the dogs is not performing to its usual ability.

“Most of the time the musher would know what the issue was,” said Baldwin. “So the first thing we’d do is approach them.”

In her years as a vet, Baldwin has seen many incredible animals cross her path. But she left Alaska with a new appreciation for what those dogs are able to accomplish.

“These are tough, tough dogs. Amazing athletes,” said Baldwin. “Seeing how athletic those dogs are, it’s pretty incredible.”

The same can be said for the mushers.

“We worked hard as vets out there, but when I saw what the mushers did, I couldn’t fathom,” said Baldwin. “My job was easy compared to what they had to do. Everything the dogs needed is done before the musher takes care of themselves.”

When most people think of Alaska in March, they think of cold temperatures and large snowfalls. That is why Baldwin purchased a new jacket and boots, along with all the necessary survival gear. But Baldwin was delighted when the temperatures reached the 40s one day, even allowing for her to part ways with her new jacket for a short time.

It was actually very warm, so the temperature wasn’t a lot different than New Hampshire,” said Baldwin. “But you definitely have to be prepared gear wise.”

While it started as a once in a lifetime experience for Baldwin, she hopes to go back every year. Her two weeks at the Iditarod left her wanting more and come next February, Baldwin just might be on a plane bound for Alaska.

“You have to see it to believe it,” said Baldwin. “It’s just surreal to be there.”

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