Cindy Gallea takes on the
Iditarod...for the third time


March 1, 2001
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana


By Donna Love
For the Pathfinder

 

On Saturday, March 3, sixty-eight mushers from all over the world will begin their 1,161-mile dash across the Alaskan frontier. Seeley Lake resident, Cindy Gallea (pronounced Gally) will be among them. She will be traveling with 16 of her best friends, her team of energetic, comical Alaskan huskies.

Together they will brave the harsh Alaskan interior facing rough terrain, temperatures below zero, treacherous climbs, steep downhill descents and long dark nights. They will ascend jagged mountains, travel frozen rivers, navigate dense forests, cross desolate tundra and trek wind swept coasts. They will do it totally alone and totally unassisted.

 

Over the River and Through the Woods

 

To comprehend what a remarkable feat running the Iditarod is, the distance traveled should be understood. Since Montana is 560 miles wide it is like racing across Montana from Idaho to North Dakota, turning around and charging back to Idaho. The variety of terrain is as varied too, but throw in ragged coast line.

The name Iditarod comes from the name of a river and has one of two meanings. It might be from the Ingalik Indian's name for the river, Haidatarod, which means "distant." Or it might be from the Shageluck Indian's meaning, "clear water." For Seeley, it's nice to think that the name might mean "Clearwater."

The trail was established at the turn of the century when the town of Iditarod experienced a gold rush. Located halfway between Anchorage on the southern coast of Alaska and Nome on the western coast, and only accessible by dog sled, a trail soon developed from both towns to Iditarod.

In 1925 a life threatening diphtheria epidemic threatened the citizens of Nome. Mushers raced life saving serum from Anchorage through Iditarod to save the community.

To celebrated Alaska's Centennial in 1967 a short race was held to commemorate the sacrifice of early mushers. In 1973 the race was expanded to include the entire route. Opponents said it couldn't be done, but 22 finished. It took them 20 days. To date over 400 mushers have completed the race. The course record was set last year by Doug Swingly, a Montanan from Lincoln, who ran it in 9 days and 48 minutes.

 

Families First

 

In the past five years Gallea and her family have represented Seeley Lake well at the Iditarod. Her husband, Bill, an emergency room doctor in Missoula, first ran it in 1996. It took him 13 days, 14 hours and 14 minutes. Gallea ran it in 1998 coming in 48th in a 63-member field with a time of 14 days and 48 minutes.

In 1999 their oldest son, Jim, then 18 (now a student at the University of Montana) came in 43rd out of 48. He is one of the youngest to complete the course.

Disappointed with mistakes she made in her 1998 run Gallea tried again in 2000, but had to scratch after 400 miles due to problems with her dogs. Nevertheless, with father, mother and son all completing the race they have the distinction of being "The First Family of the Iditarod" making Seeley Lake synonymous with mushing.

 

A Man's World

Most mushers in the Iditarod are from Alaska and Canada. Only five are from other U.S. states and 10 are from other countries.

Eight of the mushers are women. That doesn't bother Gallea. On the trail she's "just a musher." The youngest woman on the trip this year is a 24 year old rookie, Jessica Royer from Philipsburg, Montana who won the Race to the Sky when she was only 17. The next to the oldest are both 47.

At forty-nine Gallea is the oldest woman musher racing this year. It might be possible that she is the oldest woman to ever run the course. "That's nothing," Gallea said, "Men have run it in their 80's." This year three generations from the same Alaskan family are running it. Dan Seavey, the grandfather is 64. His son, Mitch is 41 and Mitch's son, Danny, is 19.

Gallea says the woman to watch is Aliy Zirkle from Two Rivers, Alaska, a 32 year-old first time rookie who just won the Yukon Quest, a 1000 mile race, which Gallea calls "a much tougher race" than the Iditarod.

The Road Less Traveled

 

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.

 

Will Work for Food

 

Dog sled racing developed from an Eskimo method of transport. Airplanes and snowmobiles have replaced sledding for the most part, but in some northern areas it is still used. It's making a comeback as recreation and as a serious sport.

The sled Gallea is using is a modern lightweight racing sled weighing about 30 lbs. It will carry around 100 lbs. of supplies, plus her weight. Her personal supplies include her food, arctic-weight sleeping bag, ax, extra clothes, headlamp and batteries, survival gear and ways to fix anything that might break. Supplies for the dogs include first aid, booties, food and their cook pot, called a "dog cooker."

Unlike the early day races Gallea doesn't have to carry all the food she and her dogs will need. Food drops are made ahead of time at checkpoints along the route. On the trail the dogs eat about every six hours and while mushing, get a snack every two hours.

The dogs are fed a variety of chow. Their main stay is dry dog food mixed with meat, which is vacuum-sealed and frozen. The food is thawed in their "dog cooker" over a fire.

During the race the dogs need 10,000 calories a day mostly in the form of fat and protein. They get some carbohydrates from the dry dog food. They get the water they need from their food.

The dogs' appetites vary on the trip based on the weather so Gallea has to prepare for all alternatives. In a cold year they eat more fat. She packs beef, fish, horse, and beaver. "The dogs love beaver!" She gets it from local trappers that sell their discarded carcasses to mushers.

A good sled dog will eat "no matter what." On Gallea's 98 bid for the Iditarod, she had a dog that was "being very picky." One of her personal food items was smoked turkey breast. She offered the dog her meal and it loved it.

 

Weight Training

 

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.

 

Millennial Defeat

 

She made a different kind of mistake in 2000 (that wasn't entirely her fault) that caused her to drop out of the race after 400 miles. Her main lead dog was injured early in the trip and she dropped him at a checkpoint.

If dogs are dropped early in the trip they are flown back to Anchorage where most dogs are cared for by inmates at the Eagle River Correction Facility about 20 miles from Anchorage. If dogs are dropped later they are flown to Nome. The Gallea's have friends in Anchorage and Nome that care for their dropped dogs.)

Gallea continued the race, but shortly after that another lead dog unexpectedly went into heat. (The dog was later found to have health problems.) She dropped that dog, too, but her other dogs lost their ability to concentrate. It was a hard decision for her to make, but with a shortage of lead dogs, a team of disoriented dogs and 600 miles of tough terrain still ahead she knew that "scratching" from the race was the right thing to do.

This year's comeback is a sort of "proving ground" for her after her first year's goof and her second year's scratch. She is determined to not make mistakes due to fatigue and she has eight strong leaders along with her.

Nevertheless, she has some reservations because some of the dogs "on my team last year didn't finish." She is hoping they won't remember too much. If they do they may get to the point where she scratched before and think the race is over.

The Forest for the Trees

The start of the race is a time when emotions run high. The first year Gallea stood in the starting chute she thought, "What am I doing?" The enormity of it overwhelmed her.

The second year she concentrated on the small parts thinking "right now I'm running from this checkpoint to that one."

This time in the back of her mind will be the whole picture, but she will focus on each leg of the journey as she reaches it.

The trail has two routes, a northern route and a southern route. On even years the northern route is followed and on odd years, the southern. Gallea ran the northern route in 98. This year she will be doing the southern one.

The first part of the trip is fairly flat following river bottoms, but she will quickly ascend the Alaskan Range, which "the prettiest part" of the trip from Finger Lake to Rohn.

The descent off the Range is "the trickiest part" because "Alaskans don't use switchbacks." The trail simply goes straight down. She said that's a good thing because it keeps her on her toes and she doesn't fall asleep there.

"The hardest part" is thirty to forty miles of post river country from Rohn to Nikolai. It is called the Buffalo Tunnels area because buffalo used to make trails through the thick brush.

It is an area of twisting, winding, rough trail often without much snow. In 98 ten miles of it was dirt. She "hoped her dogs didn't make a wrong turn" because she had no way to stop them. All her braking systems need snow to work.

The southern route splits off at Ophir and curves south following the original route of the gold rush. When the trail turns north again she will pass the longest run between checkpoints from Eagle Island to Kaltag a distance of about seventy miles.

After that she will travel on the Yukon River, which is so wide the dogs get disoriented. Montana has nothing like that to train on. The dogs are used to traveling at the edge of a river near its banks. In 98 her leader kept trying to take her to the shore so she had to change leaders.

After the river they will be follow the bays of the Norton Sea near Nome, which is choppy up and downs. The wind here can be a problem knocking over trail markers and causing ground blizzards that make it difficult to see.

Victory Dance

 

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.

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