By: Kaitlyn Glaesmann
Cindy Gallea, 63, grew up on a farm in Minnesota where she experienced the pleasure of the outdoors and the good feeling of interacting with animals. She graduated from the University of Washington in 1990 with a Master’s degree in nursing. She has worked as a nurse practitioner for the last 24 years. Cindy says, “I started running dogs recreationally in 1986 and went on to run my first race in 1991 in Montana. My passion for running dogs grew steadily leading me to running Iditarod for the first time in 1998. I love running the Iditarod. I will always love the Iditarod because of the joy and challenge of running dogs through Alaska, working with my dog team, and the pleasure of being part of the Iditarod family. This year, after having to pull out early last year due to my being ill, I am especially eager to be on the trail and work with my team to get to Nome.” Cindy is the mother of two adult sons: Iditarod veteran, Jim, who still participates as a race official during the Iditarod, and Brian. She lists her hobbies as bicycling, hiking, canoeing, politics, and justice/peace issues.
Hometownis Wykoff, MN
The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is an annual long-distance sled dog race run in early March from Anchorage to Nome.
Mushing is a recent development for Gallea, a nurse practitioner taking time off from her job at the Seeley-Swan Medical Center to run the race. In 1986, while living in Minnesota her husband was introduced to mushing by friends who took him winter camping via dog sled.
That same year another friend ran the Iditarod and soon after another friend became their mentor leasing them their first dogs. Today that friend is the Iditarod Race Marshal, the head official of the race.
Gallea supported her husband's weekend hobby, but with two young sons she didn't personally get involved until 1991 when they moved to Seeley Lake and opened their own sled dog boarding school, Snowcrest Kennels.
Gallea admits that running a kennel is hard work. The most labor-intensive part is work feeding the dogs. In the summer the dogs are fed dry dog food once a day. In the winter it is a much more difficult task. They have to mix meat in with the dry and feed the dogs twice a day. It takes an hour each day to chop and mix the meat and with only 42 adult dogs and 13 young they have a "small kennel." Big kennels have over 100 dogs.
Getting the dogs in shape begins months in advance. They pull a similar weight to get used to it and they night train since much of the Iditarod is run at night. They also must take part in qualifying races. Seeley Lake's Race to the Sky is a qualifying race.
Along with the getting the dogs in shape, all their supplies are packed and shipped to Anchorage. That means that weeks in advance mushers have to anticipate every single item they might need. Gallea overstocks to be sure she has more than enough.
Packing the right clothing is a must. Gallea uses a layering system with every item of clothing "breathable." To accomplish this she doesn't use "a speck of cotton." She wears synthetic long underwear, "the single most important item to have along," a layer of fleece and then a wind layer, a full body suit with hood so wind and cold air can't get inside. She uses wind proof fleece gloves made by mushers, Cindy Ogden and Margaret Christensen of Seeley Lake.
The most comfortable mushing temperature for humans and dogs is ten degrees above zero to ten below. She wasn't cold on either of her first trips because both years were warm, but her husband was "very cold" in 96. It dropped to 40 degrees below zero.
Along with packing supplies she must also get the food ready. "Preparing the food drops is one of the biggest headaches," Gallea said. Her youngest son, Brian in high school, prepared most of her personal food and she thanks Ron Herncane of Seeley Lake who donated a full day from his meat processing business for cutting and packing the dogs' meat.
Going to the Dogs
The maximum number of dogs a musher can use in the Iditarod is 16. Gallea is traveling with 16 Alaskan huskies, which she admits are "really just muts" because Alaskan huskies are a mix of several breeds including Siberian huskies, which can take the cold, but aren't as tough, and hounds for speed.
Gallea likes Alaskan huskies. She boasts that they "are the world's best athletes" because they efficiently turn their food into energy.
The Gallea's breed their own dogs because "its such a good feeling" to see their own puppies do well. Their dogs aren't neutered. As they age good sled dogs are used for breeding. For organization's sake they give their litters theme names.
Her strongest leader is Orion, a six year-old named for astronomy. He ran the Iditarod with her in 98. Gibson (Mel) will also be with her as will Cruise (Tom). She also has two three-year-olds, Willow, (towns in Alaska) and Lovell, (astronauts) along with her.
Running the Iditarod is Expensive
Shipping the dogs' food is the biggest expense. Gallea is extremely grateful for the help she received this year from High-line Movers, a local moving company in Great Falls, who shipped the food and supplies of the Montana mushers free of charge.
Another big expense is the four-day trip to Alaska for her dogs, herself and her husband. It helps that the dogs travel well, but "Gibson is the worst." After a break it's sometimes hard get him back in his box on the truck. "We have to get creative," Gallea says with a conspirator's smile. Special doggie treats help.
Once in Anchorage they stay with friends, which helps financially, but then there is the expense of shipping her supplies to checkpoints along the trail. Another expense is the entry fee of $1,750, but that is small compared to other expenses.
Estimates put the total cost at $25,000 to $30,000 depending on how far away from Alaska a musher lives. Its no wonder the competition between the top contenders is fierce. The top winner receives $60,000 and a Dodge Ram truck.
In 98 Gallea only won $1049, but then she isn't doing it for the money. She's doing it because she loves it.
Three Dog Down
Gallea loves the challenge and cherishes the most important rule of the trip. Mushers have to do it all on their own. The only help they are allowed is from other mushers on the trail during an emergency.
Family and friends can fly in to visit them at checkpoints. Her husband visited her in McGrath in 98, but this time Gallea doesn't want him to. She said it was "a distraction."
Mushers don't have to rest at checkpoints. They just have to check in. They can camp anywhere, as long as it's off the trail, but they have to take one twenty-four hour lay-over, which can be taken anytime deemed the most helpful to the dogs.
On average they race for six hours and then rest for six. "Well," Gallea laughed, "the dogs get to rest." The mushers have to feed the dogs, bed them down and get reorganized so mushers probably only get one hour of sleep out of the six. Most mushers only get three hours of sleep every twenty-four hours. The ones that run it the fastest "probably only get 24 hours of sleep the whole race."
This makes fatigue the most difficult thing about the trip. Gallea made a major sleep depravation mistake in her 98 run.
At one rest stop after her chores were done she set her alarm for three a.m. When she awoke the dogs were still sleeping so she got ready and then laid down on their hay with them, knowing from past experience that she would awakened in a short time from the dogs stirring or from the cold.
It was so warm that year and she was so tired that when she awoke it was morning. She knew that by the time she got up, took care of the dogs and got underway they would be traveling in the heat of the day. That is hard on the dogs so she waited to take off until five o'clock that evening when the temperature cooled.
After that she lost more time because she was running her dogs more in the daytime to catch up so they had to rest more. In the end her mistake cost her a whole day.
The race ends in Nome and it's "a pretty fun time in Nome." When Gallea finished in 98 she admitted "it was one of the best feelings" she's ever had. She couldn't get over the "incredible feeling" of what her and her dogs had done, saying, "It's quite a feeling."
Her husband, oldest son and dad met her and she was "really glad to see them." The first thing she wanted to do was sleep, but she had to take care of her dogs.
After the dogs were settled her victory meal was a hamburger at Burger King. Then because she got in so late due to her long rest she only had time to take a quick shower before going to the Awards Banquet. Half way through the banquet she fell asleep.
When she returned home to Seeley she felt "a sort of letdown" because all of a sudden it's over. She wondered, "What do I do now?" She was particularly disappointed because she overslept and was second-guessing herself.
She threw herself into getting her son ready for his turn and then for her return in 2000. Now she is ready to try again. Her husband believes that this year she will not only finish, but will beat his time. She doesn't know about that. She says, "There's winning, but then there's knowing that I ran my team to the best of their ability." She just wants to help the dogs do their best and know that she "wasn't the weak link."
If you would like to follow the Iditarod daily on the Internet, Gallea recommends the site at www.iditarod.com, which is the official site of the race.
In April, the USA Channel is going to have a two-hour Iditarod television special that will air on Tuesday, April 10 at 8:00 p.m., eastern-time. If you miss that the program it will repeat on Sunday, April 15 at 2:00 p.m. eastern.
Even after the advent of the airplane, dog teams continued to be widely used for local transportation and day-to-day work, particularly in Native villages. Mushers and their teams played important but little remembered roles in World War II in Alaska, particularly in helping the famous Eskimo Scouts patrol the vast winter wilderness of western Alaska.
After the war, short and medium distance freight teams were still common in many areas of Alaska even when President Kennedy announced that the United States would put a man on the moon. During the 1960’s, however, it was not space travel but the advent of the “iron dog” (or snowmachine or snowmobile) that resulted in the mass abandonment of dog teams across the state and loss of much mushing lore.
In 1964, the Wasilla-Knik Centennial Committee was formed to look into historical events in Alaska, specifically the Mananuska-Susitna Valley, over the past century. 1967 marked the 100th anniversary of Alaska being a U.S. Territory after being purchased from Russia. Dorothy Page, chairman of this committee, conceived the idea of a sled dog race over the historically significant Iditarod Trail. Joe Redington Sr. was her first real support for such a race. Joe and his wife Vi had deep historical interests in the Iditarod Trail since the mid-1950’s and felt this centennial race would help in their quest to preserve the historic gold rush and mail route and get it recognized nationally. The Redingtons and Pages joined forces. Dorothy poured her heart and soul into research as a historian and Joe Redington worked non-stop to put together a new sprint sled dog race.
With much volunteer labor (the start of a fundamental Iditarod tradition), the first part of the trail was cleared, including nine miles of the Iditarod Trail. The two heat, 56 mile Centennial race between Knik and Big Lake was held in 1967 and 1969. Then, interest in the race was lost. However, Joe Redington never lost interest, instead his vision grew into a never conceived of before long-distance race. Countless hours of discussions with fellow mushers followed. Two of these mushers were teachers, Tom Johnson and Gleo Hyuck. These three men spirited this first-ever, long-distance race into reality and in 1973 a new race was born. The U.S. Army helped clear portions of the trail and with the support of the Nome Kennel Club (Alaska’s earliest, founded in 1907), the race went all the way to Nome for the first time. Even so, the mushers still had to break much of their own trail and take care of their own supplies. The winner of the first Iditarod was Dick Wilmarth, taking almost three weeks to reach Nome.
Redington had two reasons for organizing the long-distance Iditarod Race: to save the sled dog culture and Alaskan huskies, which were being phased out of existence due to the introduction of snowmobiles in Alaska; and to preserve the historical Iditarod Trail between Seward and Nome. To promote both goals, Redington asked Dorothy Page to be the editor of an Iditarod Annual. Her enthusiasm, drive, and love of history opened the world’s eyes to the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
The race is really a reconstruction of the freight route to Nome and commemorates the part that sled dogs played in the settlement of Alaska. The mushers travel from checkpoint to checkpoint much as the freight mushers did eighty years ago—although some modern dog drivers like Doug Swingley, Martin Buser, Jeff King, Susan Butcher, and Rick Swenson move at a pace that would have been incomprehensible to their old-time counterparts, making the trip to Nome in under ten days.
Since 1973, the race has grown every year despite financial ups and downs. The Iditarod has become so well-known that the best mushers now receive thousands of dollars a year from corporate sponsors. Dog mushing has recovered to become a north-country mania in the winter, and some people now make comfortable livings from their sled-dog kennels.
While the Iditarod has become by far Alaska’s best-known sporting event, there are a dozen other major races around the state every winter, such as the grueling thousand-mile Yukon Quest, the Kobuk 440, the Kusko 300, the Klondike 300, and the Copper Basin 300. In a revival of age-old tradition, some entire villages and towns in rural Alaska become swept away in the frenzy of sled dog racing, and sled dog are now common in many rural areas where they were eclipsed by “iron dogs” only a few decades ago.
Alaska is the world Mecca for sled dog racing, which has developed into a popular winter sport in the Lower 48, Canada, Europe, and even Russia. Mushers from more than a dozen foreign countries have run the Iditarod, and Alaskan mushers routinely travel Outside to races such as the John Beargrease in Minnesota, the Big Sky in Montana, the UP 200 in Michigan, and the Alpirod in Europe. A number of Alaskan mushers have even run races in the Russian Far East. The Winter Olympics are considering adding sled dog racing as an event and several sled dog races were held in Norway in conjunction with the 1994 games.
Although the race’s fame causes many people to think of the Iditarod Trail when they think of traveling to Nome, the trail is actually impassable during the spring, summer, and fall. Moreover, its routing is far from a direct course, taking about 1,150 miles to go the 650 or so airline miles from Anchorage to Nome. In addition, the race committee has routed the race to pass through a number of towns and villages missed by the original trail, and has adopted a northern route for even-numbered years to include more villages along the Yukon.
The checkpoints for the first half of the current race are Anchorage to Campbell Airstrip, Willow, Knik, Yentna Station, Skwentna, Finger Lake, Rainy Pass (Puntilla), Rohn Roadhouse, Nikolai, McGrath, Takotna, and Ophir. In odd numbered years the middle part of the race largely follows the original trail, from Ophir through Iditarod, Shageluk, Anvik, Grayling, and Eagle Island to Kaltag. In even years, it swings north from Ophir to Cripple, Ruby (heart of another old mining district), Galena, Nulato, and on to Kaltag.
From Kaltag, the home stretch is the same every year: Unalakleet, Shaktoolik, Koyuk, Elim, Golovin, White Mountain, Safety Roadhouse, and Nome. True to their predecessors, the mushers still run down Front Street past the still notorious saloons into the heart of the Last Frontier’s last frontier town to the burled arch. Every musher’s arrival is heralded by the city’s fire siren and every musher is greeted by a crowd lining the “chute”, no matter the time of day or night, or if he or she is first or fifty-first across the line.