March 15, 2001
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana
by Donna Love
For the Pathfinder
The 29th Iditarod is in its final days. As the 1,161 mile long competition draws to a close, Seeley Lake musher Cindy Gallea, is "only slightly behind her schedule," according to her husband, Bill. If all goes well, from this point on, she will finish on Thursday of this week.
Gallea had hoped to finish on Wednesday with a time of ten and a half days, but the lack of snow caused hold-ups. Bill joked, "I may still be the fastest in the family." He ran the Iditarod in 1996 with a time of thirteen and a half days.
The trip over all has been going fairly well for Gallea. She checked into Kaltag, the 19th checkpoint out of 26, on Tuesday, at 4:00 a.m. with 10 dogs.
Her youngest son, Brian explained that mushers "plan on dropping dogs" and that "most of the mushers are down to between 10 or 12 dogs at this time."
The most common reasons for dropping dogs are "cracks in the dog's [paw] pads, and sore ankles or shoulders," Brian said. Dogs are dropped with a greater frequency rate in years with low snowpack.
Gallea's family doesn't know at this time which dogs she dropped, but Brian observed that his mother had "eight leader dogs with her so chances are good she still has leaders left."
Gallea called her family on Saturday from Takotna, the 12th checkpoint, while taking her mandatory twenty-four hour rest. Mushers aren't allowed to carry cell phones, but they can phone from pay phones in larger villages along the route. This makes it fair for all mushers.
Gallea reported that she had "pretty rough trails" between Rohn and Nikolai, a 93-mile stretch just beyond the Alaskan Range. "The dogs did fine," she said, but she and her sled took a beating. Bill explained, "Dogs can run on bare ground, but sleds are designed to run on snow."
At Farewell Lake she encountered "glare-ice" that put her behind her schedule by about five hours. Glare-ice is so smooth the dogs have no traction. She couldn't make any headway and there was no visible trail or markers for her dogs to follow so they kept trying to turn back to the shoreline. She eventually let them and they crept along the uneven edge.
At Anvik, the 16th checkpoint, she checked in and out, but returned a short time later with two other experienced mushers. That tells Bill that she encountered difficulty with the trail such as deep snow that needed grooming or missing trail markers. They stayed for a short time and when they left they made good time to the next checkpoint at Grayling.
A storm was expected in the interior of Alaska late last week, but didn't materialize. Now another one is brewing near the coast where storms can cause visibility to drop to zero.
Bill was philosophical, saying, "That's the Iditarod." In 1993 seventeen teams got caught behind a storm and had to wait it out for 36 hours. The mushers chose to race the rest of the way together ending all at the same time.
If the storm doesn't hold her up, Gallea's next challenge is the rocky coastline. Teams have to travel on land this year because the Norton Sea is too dangerous to cross.
On the coast, Bill said, "the snow has an interesting quality." It becomes "little balls like tiny ball bearings." They call this snow "sugar snow" and it is difficult to run in.
Gallea is presently in 34th place out of 58 mushers. 68 mushers started, 9 scratched and 1 was withdrawn for having a non-competitive team.
When Gallea arrives at the finish line in Nome on Thursday her family will be there to meet her. When friends ask Bill why he's not already there, he laughs, "Its better I stay here and keep busy with work. If I was up there waiting, I'd just get an ulcer!"