Local veterinarian Dr. Ralph Yerex tells tales of Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Alaska | Local News

On March 4, the Kenosha News reported on Dr. Ralph Yerex’s anticipated trip to the 50th running of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Alaska. Here’s a follow-up of what he experienced.

When local veterinarian Dr. Ralph Yerex volunteered his expertise at this year’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which was the 50th running of the fabled event, he knew he was signing up for some “way up north” adventure.

What Yerex didn’t expect was being part of a rescue mission involving teams of dogs and their mushers.

Yerex, an independent part-time veterinarian at Willow Springs Veterinary Clinic in Pleasant Prairie, participated in the 975-mile Iditarod race from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska, which began March 5. He was one of 49 vets who volunteered to provide routine checkups and medical assistance to over 600 dogs on 49 mushing teams.

A former Eagle Scout, Yerex said in a recent interview he wasn’t bothered by most of the conditions of the race, which included sleeping in tents on the Alaskan ice.

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But a “ground blizzard” that caught six of the mushing teams about 70 miles from the end of the trail was another thing.

The fierce winter storm that hit the last stretch of the Iditarod affected the teams that had left from the second-to-last checkpoint at White Mountain for the finish line in Nome.

“Mushers reported winds running 50 to 75 miles per hour,” Yerex said.

Of the six teams that ran into trouble, Yerex and his colleagues were called upon to bail out two of them.

Yerex and fellow veterinarian Mack Boyd were at the White Mountain checkpoint when they received the call for help from musher Gerhardt Thiart.

“Gerhardt called us and said, ‘I’ve broken my ankle, can you please save my dogs?'” Yerex said.

Alaskan resident Ed Stang located Thiart and was able to transport him to safety on his snow machine, but he had to tie up the dogs and leave them behind when he transported Thiart.

Meanwhile, musher Bridgett Watkins, who had also experienced an injury, pushed her emergency beacon, signaling that she needed help too.

“She and her dogs were at the point of losing their lives,” Yerex said.

Before being rescued by her husband, however, Watkins managed to get her dogs to the point where Gerhardt’s dogs had been secured by Stang.

Meanwhile, as soon as they heard the call for help, Yerex and his group sprang into action to help the stranded dogs of Gerhardt and Watkins.

“I grabbed my emergency kit, a butane stove and tarp, and hopped on the back of the snow machine, and we drove the 16 miles to where (the dogs) were,” Yerex said.

Yerex and Boyd located the mushers’ stranded dogs, got them bedded down and used a satellite phone to call for more help. When more equipment arrived, they loaded eight of the dogs onto two sleds to be towed behind one of the snow machines.

Yerex and 11 other dogs piled into an open-sided trailer attached to another snow machine.

Harrowing return

The 16-mile trip back to White Mountain took one-and-a-half hours and was pretty harrowing, Yerex said. His job was to hang onto the dogs to make sure they didn’t jump out as the vehicle fought through freezing, high-velocity winds.

At one point, Yerex said, the vehicle sank in four feet of snow and locals arrived to help dig everyone out.

The entire rescue took five hours to complete, Yerex said, but he reported that the injured mushers were treated successfully and all of the dogs checked out, as well.

Yerex himself was treated for frostbite to his left leg, which had been exposed to the elements during the trip back to White Mountain.

All discomfort aside, Yerex said his take on the whole adventure is positive.

“Some of the conditions were a little Spartan, but the opportunity was absolutely worth it,” he said.

In addition to the drama of the rescue, Yerex said trip highlights included witnessing the passion mushers have for their dogs and the support offered by Alaskan locals.

“They brought us food, as well as helped with the rescue,” Yerex said. “I got to eat some moose ribs and fresh king crab legs.”

Asked if he’d return to the Iditarod, Yerex replied enthusiastically, “Yes! The trip was one of the top highlights of my life and career.”

IN PHOTOS: Hero K-9 Riggs is released from the veterinary hospital

Rigs

Kenosha County Sheriff’s Department K9 Riggs, shot when he stopped a fleeing homicide suspect on Oct. 21, was released from an Illinois veterinary hospital on Oct. 24, with dozens of law enforcement officers, first responders and police dogs turning out to honor him and his handler Deputy Terry Tifft.


Deneen Smith


Rigs

Rigs

Dozens of police dogs and their handlers turned out to honor Kenosha County Sheriff’s Department K9 Riggs when he was released from a veterinary hospital Sunday. Riggs was shot in the head while stopping a fleeing homicide suspect Thursday.


Deneen Smith


Rigs

Rigs

Kenosha County Sheriff’s Department K9 Riggs, shot when he stopped a fleeing homicide suspect last week, was released from a veterinary hospital Sunday, with dozens of law enforcement officers, first responders and police dogs turning out to honor him and his handler Deputy Terry Tifft, above holding leash.


Deneen Smith


Rigs

Rigs

Kenosha County Sheriff’s Department K9 Riggs, shot when he stopped a fleeing homicide suspect on Oct. 21, was released from a veterinary hospital Oct. 24, with dozens of law enforcement officers, first responders and police dogs turning out to honor him and his handler Deputy Terry Tifft.


Deneen Smith


Rigs

Rigs

Kenosha County Sheriff’s Department K9 Riggs, shot when he stopped a fleeing homicide suspect on Oct. 21, was released from a veterinary hospital Sunday, Oct. 24, with dozens of law enforcement officers, first responders and police dogs turning out to honor him and his handler Deputy Terry Tifft. Veterinarian Dr. Jennifer Herring, who treated Riggs, brought him outside to Tifft.


Deneen Smith


Rigs

Rigs

Kenosha County Sheriff’s Deputy Terry Tifft had an emotional reunion with his K9 partner Riggs Sunday when the police dog was released from a veterinary hospital. Riggs was shot when he stopped a fleeing homicide suspect Thursday.


Deneen Smith


Deputy Terry Tifft and K9 Riggs

Deputy Terry Tifft and K9 Riggs

Riggs and his handler Deputy Terry Tifft have been assigned to first shift patrol since September 2014.


Kenosha County

Sheriff’s Department