Iditarod Calls: For Local Vet, Mush Ado for This Remote Job
Elizabeth Lyerly is the adventurous type.
The longtime Southern Pines veterinarian has traveled the world in search of new experiences. Visiting the Galapagos Islands, walking across England, hiking adventures in Spain and China - Lyerly has done things few others have.
There is, however, one part of all that which she isn't fond of.
"I don't like to fly," she says with a smile. "So the destination has to be worth the flight."
Her next destination - more than 4,000 miles northwest of Southern Pines - definitely involves flight. Next month, she will work as a veterinarian for the Iditarod, an eight-day, 1,200-mile sled dog race through the harsh Alaskan environment from Anchorage to Nome.
Lyerly, who has practiced veterinary medicine in Southern Pines since 1999, said she has always wanted to work the Iditarod, the premier dog-sled race, but it wasn't until she got a gentle reminder from a friend and fellow veterinarian that the fire began to burn again.
"It has always been in the back of my mind," she said. "I saw him at a reunion, and he has participated in seven (Iditarods), and we talked about it, and I decided I was going to try and do it."
The acceptance process for vets is vigorous and includes a lengthy written application. To set herself apart, Lyerly added one unique touch to her application.
"In the white space at the bottom of the application, I wrote in big capital letters, 'I am not a whiner,'" she said.
Maybe, she says, that was what got her application noticed. Conditions are likely to be harsh. Vets will work out of small cabins, roadside tents or native villages. They will be responsible for checking the health of as many as 450 dogs that will participate in the race in 16-member teams.
For more than a week, she will brave the elements and be immersed in the local culture, eating the food they eat, which may be a challenge.
"I don't think there will be too many greens," she said with a smile. "But I will eat whatever they prepare. Hey, it's not forever, and I can handle anything for a while. But I am not looking forward to the whale blubber."
Since she was accepted to work the Iditarod, Lyerly has taken a crash course in sled dogs thanks to a 183-page veterinarian handbook devoted entirely to mushing. She will also get 16 hours of pre-education on sled dogs.
In her studies leading to the race, Lyerly said she has learned plenty of interesting facts. One is that the sport is quite safe for the sled dogs, who have amazing cardiovascular conditioning and love working in the cold temperatures.
"They are exercise machines," Lyerly said of the sled dogs.
As a vet at the race, Lyerly said her job will be to check the animals for signs of dehydration, hypothermia, lameness or even attacks by moose.
"Moose see the dogs as wolves, which are their natural enemies," she said.
As a vet, she is limited to carrying all necessary supplies in a 40-pound bag. Among the items she will take is a sleeping bag that will keep her warm in temperatures that could reach 20 degrees below 0.
"Basically, it is all survival gear," Lyerly said.
Two of the most important pieces of advice Lyerly has learned as she preps for the harsh conditions are keeping her feet dry and always having the right clothing.
"You don't want wet feet, because if they get wet, you will never warm up," she said. "And there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing."
And though her friends and family here may question her wanting to go someplace where conditions can be so unforgiving, Lyerly said her job, compared with the mushers in the race, is easy.
Racers, she said, have to plan their stops, set up food and supply drops along the route, and carry necessary supplies for themselves and their sled teams. All the while, they have to expect the unexpected.
"They are just brilliant," she said of the mushers. "They have to plan for food drops, booties for the dogs, harnesses, anything that they might have to give the dogs. It is really a strategy, and they have to have planned for anything."
Each sled team must complete two qualifying races to be eligible to enter the Iditarod. The team of 16 dogs is harnessed to a sled and is controlled by the musher or driver without reins.
"You have pairs of dogs in front of you that could be 64 to 80 feet in front of you and there are no reins, it's all voice control," she said.
The Iditarod begins the first Saturday in March. Lyerly will leave for the race on Feb. 24. As the race draws closer she said her excitement grows.
"I want to be stationed in a remote village," she said of her dream assignment. "I want to meet the people who come in by dog sled or by plane. I want to be part of that whole different culture."
Contact Tom Embrey at (910) 693-2484 or tembrey @thepilot.com.
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