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Sleepless in Dawson: vet supports Quest

DAWSON CITYDave Overell had only been in Dawson for 15 minutes when he saw his first patient.It was a border collie with a bleeding nose.


Dave Overell had only been in Dawson for 15 minutes when he saw his first patient.

It was a border collie with a bleeding nose.

“I had a little black bag and that was it,” he said. “I treated him on the kitchen table.”

Before his arrival eight years ago, there was no vet in Dawson, only the odd mobile clinic.

“In retrospect, I should have known I’d be on call all the time,” he said.

Overell was sitting in the Yukon Quest vet shack at the Dawson dog camp Friday afternoon. He was on duty, ready to answer mushers’ questions and look at their dogs.

Two saline IV bags were hanging on a line above the woodstove, warm and ready in case dogs arrived severely dehydrated.

“I hope they just keep hanging there and we put them away still full at the end,” he said.

This is Overell’s sixth Quest as a race vet, and it’s the first time he has not made it to all the checkpoints.

The day the race began, he was on sweep at Angel Creek, the first checkpoint from Fairbanks where there’s a mandatory vet check for every dog on every team.

After the last Quest mushers left, the Quest 300 teams started coming in for their mandatory checks.

By the time Overell got to the next dog drop at Mile 101, he was exhausted. He took a nap, then checked out the few teams that remained there.

The following morning, he was supposed to drive to Central, but a major storm had blown in.

“I woke up and there was no road,” he said. “And I couldn’t see (Eagle Summit), which was not a good sign.”

Initially, Overell thought he could catch up on sleep while he waited for the snowblower to clear the pass.

But the snowblower didn’t arrive.

“There were two teams waiting out the storm at 101 — the most checked teams on the whole race,” joked Overell. “We were socked in.

“Then we heard the helicopter flying. We had gone for a walk and saw the helicopter land in front of the dog drop — and we thought, it has gotta’ be dogs.”

The helicopter made several trips bringing stranded mushers and teams off the mountain.

“That’s when things got really busy,” he said.

“It was raining cats and dogs, but there were no cats.

“It was magical. Everybody just did what needed to be done.”

There was little boy filling buckets with clean snow for the dogs; an old woman was making sure every dog on every team was accounted for, and the cook had hot chocolate and hot food for the mushers coming off the mountain, he said.

“There was no one co-ordinating the stuff that needed to be done, it was just done — I get all choked up just thinking about it.”

“Those mushers on the mountain took better care of their dogs than they did themselves,” he added.

The dogs were all in good shape, with just a few minor problems.

By the time the rescue effort was finished, Overell had missed his stint at the next checkpoint.

“I was looking forward to having a great burger in Central, which is my tradition,” he said.

But head vet Kathleen McGill sent Overell straight to Dawson City to ready the vet shack and be prepared in case the summit closed and the other vets were unable to make it back.

This year, there are 10 veterinarians working on the Quest trail. Often they log less sleep than the mushers.

“Even when we have hotel rooms, there is always a vet sleeping in the vet van, ready to wake up and work as soon as someone knocks on the window,” said Overell.

With so many years of experience on the Quest trail, it was interesting to hear Overell discuss whether the race is hard on the dogs.

The first winter he was here, when he still wasn’t that familiar with the Quest, he helped out at the Dawson checkpoint.

“And I thought about those issues,” he said.

So, he decided to compare sled dogs to housedogs.

In terms of fitness, sled dogs are way above average, he said.

“And with dog care it’s the same thing. The mushers’ high level of dog care is why you can do this race — good dog care is how you do well and finish,” he said.

“But people are people and there are going to be exceptions, both with household pets and in the mushing community, and if people choose to focus on them, fine, but don’t tout these exceptions as the rule.”

Overell has no real pets of his own, just some red wrigglers who help him compost.

“Being home is a bit of a challenge sometimes,” he said, explaining why pets weren’t an option.

“And, really, I have 1,700 pets — you worry about them all as if they were your own. You get to know them and the people and get more and more attached to the whole family.”

Overell is away for a several months of the year servicing Inuvik, Mayo and Old Crow. And when he is in Dawson, he seldom has time off.

“I am supposed to have Sundays and Mondays off, but there are some years I can go months without a full day off,” he said.

When he first arrived, he worked out of the back of his truck.

“The first surgery I did was on a picnic table on a dog that was hit by a car,” he said.

“I had the IV balanced on the picket fence and tourists were all stopping and taking pictures.”

When October rolled around, it became too cold to work outside and Overell got some space in an old snowmachine shop. Then, when the humane society opened, he got a small office in its building.

“It was tiny, but at least I could reach everything,” he said.

“Now I have a bigger office and I can’t find anything.”

Before discovering his calling, Overell had worked for Health Canada for eight years doing behavioral studies on Macaques monkeys in Ottawa.

“People would make jokes about me working with monkeys, ‘cause I worked for the government,” he said smiling.

Eventually one of the monkey vets approached him and asked him why he wasn’t a vet.

Six years later, and many thousands of dollars poorer, he was.

His plan was still to work with monkeys, but he fell in love with a human and followed her to Dawson instead.

However, his student loans soon caught up with him and as a vet in a small community, he couldn’t cover the costs.

He was getting ready to leave when the city agreed to take over his loans, offering him a 10-year contract.

Occasionally, Overell is still lured by the possibility of not being on call 365 days a year and earning a much bigger salary down south, he said.

“But then I drive to work and sees a moose in the bush, a fox running across the road and ravens circling overhead, and I think of my colleagues driving to work in a wall of traffic with all this smog and I remember why I’m here.

“The biggest satisfaction is not the money; it’s the people and contributing to animal health and saving animal’s lives — it’s amazing.

“It’s like trying to describe the northern lights, you have to see them to really know what I’m talking about.”