It has been described as the “Last Great Race on Earth”. To Ashley Cowan the Iditarod is part of her journey.
The Iditarod doesn’t put man against wild; it teams man with wild together to tackle Mother Nature. The teams of mushers and sled-dogs need the help of veterinary volunteers along the way. On March seventh, Cowan began her job as a veterinary team assistant.
The race covers more than 1,000 miles of some of the earth’s roughest terrain. Dog sled teams raced from Anchorage to Nome. This past race, 67 mushers brought their dogs to the starting line. With each musher allowed up to 16 dogs, veterinarians and assistants had over 1000 canines to care for.
The sled dog’s health is a serious job for all involved. According to Iditarod.com, “Iditarod dogs have some of the most intensive health checkups in the animal athletic world.” As a veterinary team assistant, Cowan attended the ISDVMA Sled Dog Veterinarian Training Seminar to prepare. Cowan preformed pre-race physical exams on the dogs to make sure they were healthy for the race. She also had the responsibility of scanning permanent microchip numbers on all of the dogs at the start in Anchorage (the celebratory start) and also at the restart in Willow (the official start location) to verify the dogs’ eligibility. During the race dogs go through checkups at posts along the way; when they are no longer fit to race, they are removed from the race and are called “drop dogs”. Cowan assisted in giving complete exams to drop dogs as well.
Cowan said the dogs are “surprisingly not large but instead weigh in between 45-60 lbs.” According to Cowan,t ttt tt most of the dogs are mixed breeds and are very muscular. She added, “They have an excellent ability to follow commands and enjoy pulling the sleds.”
Cowan spent her childhood watching her father work as a dairyman and would fall asleep in the hay or cuddled with a calf. Caring for animals has always been a part of her life. “I can’t remember a time that I wanted to do anything else,” she said.
Cowan was inspired to volunteer for the Iditarod while watching the Outdoor Channel and began her research on the Internet. A year after researching Iditarod.com, Cowan found herself stepping off the airplane and into the snow in Anchorage, Alaska. With temperatures ranging between 11 to 24 degrees Fahrenheit, Cowan worked shifts from 6am to 2am for six days straight. Volunteers for the race have to be in good physical condition to brave the temperatures, long hours and travel; travel during the race is done by air or by snowmobile.
Cowan caught the Iditarod bug herself and was able to drive a team of eight dogs during her off time. Before stepping on the sled, she received this advice: “;rules one through ten, never let go.”