Journeys with the Sahtu Veterinary Team
For two weeks I had the opportunity to be part of an amazing volunteer team of veterinarians and technologists travelling to the Northwest Territories providing veterinary care to five remote communities in the Sahtu region. All of the communities we visited are accessible by air only, except for a small window of opportunity mid-winter where the boggy muskeg ground and rivers and lakes freeze solid enough to drive on, creating a temporary winter road system between these five communities.
Firstly, let me define exactly what winter road means as this isn’t your typical highway. Winter roads are temporary roadways carved out of snow and ice and are generally quite rough. Okay, really rough! Maximum speeds are reached at 50km/hr travelling in a lighter passenger truck; however, much of the road is shared with larger, heavier vehicles, and depending on the weather and amount of snow received recently transportation can be quite slow-going. Travelling with a mobile veterinary clinic requires a lot of supplies (not to mention people!), as we are carrying everything from portable dog kennels to oxygen machines and various necessary anesthetic and surgical equipment. Travelling by air wouldn’t be near as affordable with all of this in tow, therefore it is crucial that this small window of time that the winter road is open once a year be utilized so that these communities can receive the veterinary care that they just don’t have access to on a normal day to day basis.
We began in Norman Wells, the regional centre for the Sahtu region, situated on the north bank of the mighty Mackenzie River 684km northwest of Yellowknife, NT, just over an hour’s flight from the territory’s capital. After a successful few days of house calls, vaccine appointments and surgeries performed here, we loaded with all the supplies we would need for the next week and headed south to the community of Deline, on the shore of Great Bear Lake, the eighth largest lake in the world. We set up our mobile veterinary clinic in the science lab at the community’s single school, performing spays and neuters to prevent unwanted litters, dental cleanings and body shaves for the indoor dogs.
After two days spent in Deline, vaccinating and deworming as many pets as we could, we travelled to Tulita. Here we nicknamed “the best surgery suite in the Sahtu”, our science lab classroom transformed mobile vet clinic station with the most amazing view west facing the Mackenzie Mountains. Again, we performed surgeries and appointments over the next two days allowing high school students to come and spend time with us and experience what is involved in a career in veterinary medicine.
From there we headed back to Norman Wells to restock for what was to be the second week of our trip and our eight hour drive the next day to Colville Lake, our northernmost community 50km north of the Arctic Circle. Here we spent the day outdoors, where the temperatures reached -30 C, vaccinating the entire town’s pet population going from house to house in the little community of just over a hundred people, but not before we managed to squeeze in a couple of spays in our makeshift surgical suite in the local gymnasium. And last but not least, our final community of Fort Good Hope was reached, where yet again we invaded another school to set-up our surgery and prep stations. All in all we performed over fifty spays and neuters, along with several dentals and groomings, and even one mammary tumour resection, not to mention all the hundreds of dogs and cats that were vaccinated and dewormed! Not bad for a group of strangers that had never met or worked in clinic with each other before! I can say by far the most satisfying part of this journey was seeing the smiles on the faces of countless pet owners as they came to pick up their pets from surgery or bring them in for vaccinations, and just how grateful they were that we took the time out of our lives to spend just a little bit of time in theirs.
Written By: Amanda Bengtson, RVT