Veterinary researcher gets taste of wilderness in Alaskan Iditarod race

courtesy photo Oursler helped make sure sled dogs such as these were healthy during the 2012 Iditarod race in Alaska. Oursler served as an assistant trail volunteer in 2012, and hopes to return to the race in 2017.

After braving harsh temperatures and long hours at the 2012 Alaskan Iditarod race, Stephanie Oursler, research associate in the College of Veterinary Medicine, has set her sights on returning to the race as a veterinarian in 2017.

Fueled by a lifelong love of the race and a passion for veterinary medicine, Oursler is ready to return to the snow-packed trails as soon as possible and help ensure the dogs are safe and healthy.

The Iditarod, also known as the “Last Great Race on Earth,” is a dog sled race that takes place in Alaska every March. The race takes 10 to 17 days to complete.

Oursler’s interest in the races began at a young age.

“My grandma and I used to watch the Iditarod coverage when I was growing up,” Oursler said.

When Oursler became interested in veterinary medicine, she discovered a way to combine her education and her love for the Iditarod race, even though she first thought it to be impossible.

“I put my dreams of the Iditarod in the back of my mind,” Oursler said. “However, when attending a club meeting during veterinary school, Dr. Vern Otte spoke about trail veterinarians with the Iditarod. He renewed my interest in working with the Iditarod.”

Iditarod mushers and volunteers must meet race requirements in order to participate. Mushers must go through several years of training, including shadowing experienced mushers. Volunteers, including veterinarians, must submit an application. To be eligible, veterinarians must have been practicing small animal medicine and surgery for at least five years.

Iditarod policy also recommends that volunteers have experience with sled dogs, something Oursler saw as a challenge to her dream.

“Since I was born and raised in Kansas, I had no clue how I was going to get sled dog experience,” Oursler said.

Even though she did not have any experience with sled dogs, Oursler expressed her interest in volunteering for the Iditarod to the Iditarod Trail Committee in March of 2010. The next month, Oursler received a response from Dr. Stuart Nelson Jr., chief Iditarod veterinarian, who gave her two options.

“He said that I could design a research study that would promote health and or knowledge concerning sled dogs, or he said I could spend the month of February doing pre-race exams on the dogs participating in either the 2011 or 2012 Iditarod,” Oursler said.

Since Oursler anticipated still being at K-State during the 2011 Iditarod, she decided to delay her experience until 2012, during her clinical year of veterinary school.

Finally, in February 2012, Oursler spent three weeks in Alaska as an assistant trail volunteer, helping with physical exams, blood collection and microchipping for over 1,300 dogs.

Aside from helping with pre-race exams, she also worked at the ceremonial start and official start, making sure the mushers brought the correct dogs and that any last-minute concerns were addressed.

With this experience under her belt and as a current vet school student, Oursler hopes that by 2017, she will be able to submit an application to be a trail vet.

Trail vets are an important part of the Iditarod experience, said Antonia Reitter, Iditarod and Ididaride Sled Dog Tours volunteer.

“Trail vets are not only helpful, they are essential,” she said.

Veterinarians help ensure that all dogs are safe and healthy before and during the race, a crucial element to the success of the race, Reitter said.

“Veterinarians are specifically looking for weakness, injuries or illnesses that need attention throughout the pack at the checkpoints,” Reitter said.

One reason Oursler said she wants to be a trail veterinarian and has such a passion for the Iditarod is how demanding it can be.

“It is an exciting challenge,” Oursler said. “There are no diagnostic tools available. You must rely on your physical exam, prior experiences and knowledge to assess injuries and problems occurring during the race.”

Oursler has a great level of respect for the dogs that pull the sleds during the race.

“These dogs are amazing athletes. The Iditarod race is 1,059 miles, roughly 100 miles per day,” Oursler said. “After working with these dogs last year, you can tell that these dogs truly love what they do.”

Editor’s Note: This article was completed as an assignment for a class in the A.Q. Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communications.