Big Sandy 2008 Alumna Kaitlin Bray boarded a plane in Nashville on February 28 en route to Anchorage, Alaska for an adventure of a lifetime. More than 10 hours later, Bray touched down and months of effort paid off when she was welcomed to the 48th iteration of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, also known as the Last Great Race on Earth. Bray’s story began in September.
The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is an annual long-distance sled dog race run in early March from Anchorage to Nome, entirely within the U.S. state of Alaska. Mushers and a team of 14 dogs, of which at least five must be on the towline at the finish line, cover the distance in 8–15 days or more. It was a dream for Bray who obtained a Bachelor of Science Degree in Agriculture with a concentration in Animal Science and Veterinary Health from University of Tennessee Martin in 2014 and has been working as a senior vet tech in emergency, trauma and critical care for the last six years at the biggest veterinary specialty and emergency hospital in Nashville. She said, “I applied for the program in September 2019 and had to fill out an application, send my resume and supply three letters of recommendations from veterinarians and veterinary specialists. I got selected for an hour FaceTime interview with the head tech in Alaska on Halloween. I received the email that I was selected in December and had to start arranging my travel plans and booking my flights immediately.”
Once Bray arrived in Alaska, a roommate from Canada greeted her. She then found out she also had roommates from Washington, Colorado, Canada, Bargain Auction North Dakota, Alaska and one more from Tennessee. She said, “We all got to stay on a frozen lake in the cutest little cabin.”
After getting acclimated, Bray went straight to work. Volunteering as a veterinary technician in the ECG Program for the Iditarod, the program is essential for the race as the dogs cannot run without going through a full medical exam. She said, “We performed ECGs and blood draws as well as micro-chipped/ microchip checked every sled dog to ensure they were healthy prior to running. There were up to 24 dogs per team and 57 teams.”
The 2020 Iditarod Race began on Saturday, March 7. The intense, extensive rugged race departed from Anchorage with the finish line 1,000 miles away in Nome. More than 50 veterinarians were stationed at checkpoints along the trail to treat the canine athletes. Mushers (the human racers) could finish only with those dogs that started the race with ill or injured dogs flown back to home base. If a team member numbers dropped below the predetermined minimum, a musher could not officially finish. With a time of nine days, 10 hours and 37 minutes, Thomas Waerner won. He finished with 10 dogs.
During the race, Bray worked in three locations, Anchorage, Wasilla and Willow. She said the experience was that of a lifetime. She said from the Musher’s Banquet, where numbers are drawn to the festival and crowd, this adventure will never be forgotten.
She said, “I got to meet and work with amazing people from Norway, Canada, Sweden, Italy, Switzerland and everywhere else you could think of. I’ve already been invited back to work next year and I am hoping to work the trail so I can take care of the dogs during the race.”
Bray said, “I was gone for a total of two weeks and it was the most eye-opening experience because all of the people that I got to spend time with, live for life and their sled dogs.”
Bray finished with, “The Iditarod, The Last Great Race, is the biggest and most famous sled dog race in the world and history so it’s pretty amazing to get involved with, which leads to my eternal gratitude for my experience.