Tuesday, July 10, 2012


* I started this post back in March and seemingly forgot to finish it off. It's a bit late, but worth posting as it was a wonderful experience witnessing one of the greatest races. 

When I was a kid there was a York Peppermint Patty TV commercial where a woman ecstatically shouts, "When I bite into a York Peppermint Patty I get the sensation of driving a dogslead across the frozen tundra....Wshew......Wshew"

I'm not sure that lady had any idea about the reality of mushing a team of dogs. Not that I do either, but after spending a weekend watching the Iditarod racers blow through Galena, I'm beginning to have an inkling.

This year, Galena was a mandatory checkpoint in the race from Anchorage to Nome. I was fortunate enough to be able to schedule one of my Galena trips at the same time that mushers were arriving in Galena.

Every team must stop at the mandatory checkpoints. How long they stay at each checkpoint is up to the individual musher. Most of the mushers I saw spent anywhere from 1 1/2 - 7 hours. While stopped, they sleep, eat, and the dogs rest. There are three mandatory layovers required during the race: one for 24 hours, two for 8 hours. A few of the mushers used Galena as one of the mandatory 8 hour stays.

Upon arriving, the team is verified by the official race checker. After checking-in the dogs are cared for. Hay is spread out as beds for the dogs. The dogs patiently wait for their spot of hay but you can tell they are anxious and they know what hay means: nap and food! The musher tends to the dogs, taking their booties off, caring for any injuries, feeding them. Who wouldn't want a bag of fat after pulling a sled for 12 hours?

Food for the dogs.

Official race vets check the dogs, ensuring they are okay to continue on. Injured dogs are pulled from the race.

One of the volunteer vets checking the dogs.
Ally Zirkle tending her dogs and talking to the crowd.
She was 1st to arrive in Galena and came in 2nd place overall.

What was most surprising to me was how quiet everything was. There was no fanfare of any kind. I learned quickly that I'd know when the next musher was coming in by the casual gathering of people in front of the community hall. I felt that I should clap and cheer for each musher as he or she rode in, but apparently that's not what you do. 

Musher coming in!
Notice how thick their clothing is. It was -20 this day,
but they certainly endure colder temperatures.
This dog enjoyed sunbathing while the others slept.
After awhile he turned so that his back could be warmed too.

So pretty in their matching coats and booties!
Teams resting.

There are volunteers who bring hay and pre-dropped supplies to the mushers. Other than that help, the mushers take care of everything themselves.

Supplies ready for the next musher.
Volunteers preparing hay for the mushers.
The mushers use HEET (antifreeze) in their alcohol cookers
to heat water and cook dog food.

At Galena, the community hall served as the checkpoint. The room was divided in half, with a temporary partition cordoning off an area for the mushers to sleep. Mattresses were on the floor.
A musher getting the 411 on where he can sleep.
He was thrilled to hear there was hot water available
and a mattress waiting for him.
A team getting checked-in, anxiously waiting to get to their hay.
The hand done bead work that you see in the villages is exquisite.

I saw ptarmigan for the first time on this trip! I like their feather covered feet.


Watching this team leave was my favorite moment of the weekend. It was such an exquisite scene, the dogs running into the sunset. A sled team on the go is sublimely quiet -- the rush of the sled runners across the snow the only sound save for an occasional command from the musher. Teams often run through the night. The trail is marked but I still don't know how they stay on course. I'd end up in Adak, I'm sure. 

A team leaving for the night.