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Utah vet volunteers for 10th year at Alaskan Iditarod Sled-Dog race

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Courtesy: Dr. Kimberly Henneman

PARK CITY, Utah (ABC4) – A local Park City Veterinary Specialist is about to celebrate her tenth year caring for dogs at the Iditarod Sled-dog Race in Alaska. 

Dr. Kimberly Henneman of Animal Health VIPS (Veterinary Integrative & Performance Specialists) will head to Alaska this week to start her tenth year working as a trail veterinarian caring for the elite canine athletes running in the famous “Last Great Race” – the Iditarod in Alaska. 

Courtesy: Dr. Kimberly Henneman

According to Dr. Henneman, the Iditarod veterinary team and other volunteers of the 2021 49th running of the Iditarod are not an exception to the coronavirus pandemic. 

This year everyone involved will be dealing with many historic and significant changes put into place. Instead of ending in Nome, like races in the past, this year’s race route will cover approximately 880 miles to the historic mining ghost town of Iditarod and then return to Willow via the “Gold Trail Loop” Dr. Henneman shares. 

In 1973, long-time Alaskan Joe Redington Sr., dismayed by the disappearance of working Alaskan huskies from Native villages in favor of snow machines, started the first race to celebrate the critical role dogs have played in the settlement of Alaska. 

Many years later, the modern Iditarod Sled-dog race covers much of the same routes.  

Dr. Henneman tells ABC4 many years ago; she worked with many types of Search and Rescue, Avalanche, Bomb/drug detection, police apprehension, and performance dogs when she decided she wanted to work with sled dogs. “I answered a call for vets to help out at a small, recreational race up in Cache County and fell in love with the dogs and people,” Dr. Henneman adds.

“After working that race for a couple of years, everyone encouraged me to apply to work at either the Iditarod or the Yukon Quest. I applied and was accepted,” she shares. She volunteered for the first time in 2011. 

She says when she started her journey with sled-dogs, she thought it would only be a bucket list item. 

She says she had so much fun “trying to keep my hands and stethoscope warm, sleeping in an Arctic tent, checking a dog team under the Northern Lights, flying in bush planes, and helping out the mushers, that I decided to go back a second time. The rest, as they say, is history.” 

“The Iditarod Sled-dog Race is a celebration of the sled-dog; therefore, veterinary care has been one of the most emphasized elements of the race since its inception,” Dr. Henneman adds.  

She says each year, approximately 55-60 specially selected veterinarians from around the U.S., Canada, and the world volunteer their time and expertise caring 24/7 for the elite Iditarod canine athletes.

During the 2020 race, Dr. Henneman ended up being the only trail veterinarian in Nome for the last half of the race as other volunteers flew back home early due to airport lockdowns and pandemic concerns. 

“Iditarod was the only sporting event still happening in the US,” says Dr. Henneman of the 2020 races. “We were getting sporadic information and hearing a lot of rumors. One rumor was that Seattle airport was going to close, so many volunteers, including vets, decided to leave the trail early, leaving the race with skeleton staff towards the end. I ended up working in Nome, where I was the last trail vet standing for the last half of the race. Where normally we would have eight veterinarians, there was myself, the head vet, and the local vet as backup.” 

Dr. Henneman tells ABC4 she was tested twice before she goes to Anchorage, where she will be tested again before entering her hotel, then she will quarantine for five days. After quarantine, she will head out on the trail.

She says due to the pandemic, for the first time in its history, the race isn’t going to Nome in order to protect the indigenous villages on the Bering Sea/Norton Sound coast.  

“Instead, the route is going about 440 miles to the checkpoint of Iditarod (an old mining ghost town). There the mushers will do a 40-mile loop to the ghost town of Flat (yes, that’s its name), go back through Iditarod and head back the way they came,” Dr. Henneman shares. 

Dr. Henneman says she has spent a lot of time reflecting on her last 10 years at the races. “It’s kind of hard to describe working so intensely with people that have the same goal in remote wilderness spots and villages in Alaska,” she shares. 

Courtesy: Dr. Kimberly Henneman

She says the Iditarod is never the same and “that in itself is an adventure.” 

“When you go up as a veterinary volunteer, you don’t know which checkpoint you’re going to until the last minute, and you don’t know who you’ll be working with. It is totally a team environment, working with so many diverse people from all over the U.S., Canada, and the world and everyone with the same goal – getting the dogs and mushers safely to Nome, or if they scratch or withdraw, get them safely home.” 

She says the friendships she has made over the years are “special.” “Everyone volunteering on the trail relies on others – it’s a very organic, shared community,” Dr. Henneman adds. 

Dr. Henneman leave for Alaska March 3 and will return March 18.

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