Stu Nelson – Part 2: Who is Stu Nelson, what he does in his free time, a good story and what you can do to keep your pet healthy
Dr. Stu Nelson, chief veterinarian for the Iditarod Sled Dog Race, splits his time between clinics in Alaska and Idaho. When he isn’t doing that, he is working on building a cabin near Eagle, Alaska. Nelson isn’t a pet owner himself, because of his constant travel commitments, but he sees the Iditarod dogs as his own pack.
“The way I look at it, the Iditarod dogs are largely my responsibility, so I look at them as pets in many ways,” he said.
During the last 25 years, Nelson has collected hundreds of memories of working on the Iditarod, but one in particular still stands out.
“It was a serious and potentially terrifying event at the time,” he said. “But when you look back it’s almost comical.”
Many years ago, two-thirds of the way into the race, at the Koyuk checkpoint, a team pulled in without a musher.
“It was like 2 o’clock in the morning and then all of sudden, one of people who was staying up to watch yelled ‘Team In!’” Nelson said. “And here was this dog team parked, patiently waiting with no musher. The team had come in and parked without the musher. And they didn’t even bat an eye.”
So the search began for the missing musher, who had fallen off her sled eight miles out. When she was found and had restarted the race, Nelson said he took a minute to step back and think about what really happened and the remarkable intuitive nature of the dogs, knowing where to go and where to stop.
Some of the things that keeping sled dogs healthy during some of the toughest conditions on earth can also be applied to family dogs, Nelson said. Early observation of problems can go a long way to helping a dog stay healthy. The same goes for knowing what is normal in terms of health and behavior for your dog, so that you can know when things go wrong. Plenty of exercise and human interaction, along with keep your dog at a healthy weight will contribute to a healthy pet.
“There needs to be a basic knowledge of what is healthy for the dog,” Nelson said.
And although preparing for the race is a year-long effort, Nelson finds a little time to himself in the form of a yearly solo canoe trip in upper Canada. Last year however, he found himself without a canoe or any gear, having lost it after hitting a sleeper in the river. Nelson survived for 13 days on his own, with only the belongings in his pockets. And even after such an experience, he’ll be going back again this summer. “Hopefully, I won’t crash and burn this time,” he said.
Nelson said that he will continue to be the chief veterinarian for the Iditarod for as long as time allows.
“A lot of people ask me how long I’m going to do this,” he said. “This is my 25th year and that’s a long time. I take it one year to the next and see how things are going; I haven’t been fired yet.”