LAKE WYLIE — Call it puppy love.
It’s what drew Dr. Gretchen Love, 39, out to the frozen “middle of nowhere” for the thrill of her professional career. It also led to her return as bride-to-be.
The Lake Wylie veterinarian left for this month’s 1,049-mile Iditarod to examine and care for 1,300 sled dogs in, at times, minus 60-degree cold. When she left Alaska, the Clover Vet owner and her new fiancé, Billy Bolin, had more to celebrate than warmer weather back home.
“We sat down to see the Northern Lights, and when the sky lit up and she turned to the right to look, I got down on my knee and got engaged,” said Bolin, a Lake Wylie insurance salesman.
But Bolin knows Love better than to try to compare the question-popping with a crowded pack of trip highlights. About 40 veterinarians tend to the 40- to 60-pound “mutts” before and after the weeks-long race, and at 26 checkpoints along the way. Love was one of three to handle pre-race duties. Each of the 65 teams brings about 20 dogs, with 16 used for the race. Love ran heart scans and blood work. She estimates 5 to 10 percent of the dogs weren’t cleared.
“Just like with any other athlete, they can’t have any steroids, painkillers, things like that,” Love said.
All vets working the race were volunteers. Love contacted organizers to get the gig. Expenses there were paid, including flights to checkpoints further into the race. Then came training on what to expect.
Love said back home, she’d have failed maybe 80 percent of the dogs on their heart screenings. Top level sled dogs are, almost literally, a different breed of animal. They consume 10,000 calories per day with 60 percent or more of it fat, and still have to run off energy at times before starting a race stage.
“They’re not just like your average house pet,” Love said. “They’re very intense runners. They’re a completely different pet.”
Balancing animal care with mushers often “delirious” from just a couple hours sleep per stop was a challenge, especially given Love only had about a minute with each animal.
“You have about a minute before your stethoscope freezes up,” she said.
Vets can check the animals and report concerns, but can’t feed them or put a blanket on them. Ultimately, mushers make the calls on what their dogs need.
“It’s a team effort between the mushers and the veterinarians,” Love said. “If I help the musher in any way, he’s disqualified.”
The 15-year York County resident spent Thursday morning handling two emergency surgeries in addition to the daily routine common to her four years at Clover Vet. She’s glad to be back, particularly back to her own dog, Breeze. But already she has an eye toward those lights up north and to the animals she’d never get to see apart from trekking that way again.
“I would love to do it every year if I can get away every year,” Love said.