Women who run with the wolves 

On the trail with Montana’s women of the Iditarod

Some sports that once carried a regional or seasonal allure have been compromised. A hockey franchise, for instance, is just as likely to play a game in Florida as Montreal. The outcome of baseball and football games, once dependent upon weather conditions that could play as much a role as referees or coaches, now proceed under climate-controlled, artificially turfed perfection, oblivious to any blizzard or thunderstorm on the horizon.

As lamentable to nostalgic types as these developments may be, there remain an iconoclastic folk who’ve always preferred not to watch anybody do anything without jumping in with two feet themselves. Possibly for reasons too sublime to enumerate, frozen, sparsely populated landscapes seem to lend a predisposition to this way of recreating.

While there are obvious drawbacks to this development (curling, after all, is an Olympic sport), in western Montana we find ourselves surrounded by the right climate and more than a few rugged individualists who represent this phenomenon. Perhaps Montana plays second fiddle only to Alaska as breeding ground for these kinds of tough, athletic endurance endeavors. No wonder then that the first non-Alaskan to win the Iditarod was Doug Swingley of Lincoln, Montana, who has won two other times as well, including last year when he set the course record.

The Iditarod is a 1,100-mile mushing race from Anchorage to Nome that traverses some of the foulest weather-beaten terrain on the planet—vicious winds and temperatures far below zero in typical winters, swampy, mosquito-infested slush-fests in not-so typical winters and summer. Actually, the race is so tough that it completely deflates the myth of the rugged individualist. A synergy between people and animals is the attraction here, with inter-and intra-species cooperation at a premium, a dynamic that does away with the crazy, man-alone-in-the-universe ideas gotten from reading too much Jack London or Hemingway.

As a matter of fact, two Montana women will be mushing their way to Nome come March 3, when the race begins. Jessica Royer, who grew up in Philipsburg and got started with dogs in part by handling them for Doug Swingley, will be starting her inaugural Iditarod. And Cindy Gallea will be starting her third Iditarod, having placed 48th in 1998 and pulling out last year’s race due to some technical difficulties with one of her lead dogs.

Royer has gone native, spending most of the year in the 49th state training with her dogs. She still visits home, and her mother, Connie Sperry, manages a mushing tour operation in Ennis. Gallea is part of a mushing family that moved a decade ago from Minnesota. Her son Jim is the youngest non-Alaskan to finish the Iditarod, and her husband Bill completed the race in 1996. Swingley is the early favorite to win the overall title again this year. But Royer, who is only 24, and Gallea, who with her family has made mushing and dogs the center of a rewarding family life in Seeley, will cover the all the same ground that Swingley does. Royer and Gallea are two of 14 women beginning the Iditarod this year. In Anchorage, they’re worried they may not have enough snow to begin the race, in what has been an eerily balmy winter. Meanwhile, here in Montana, the winter storm door seems to have finally opened, perhaps signifying that at least for this year, the home of mushing might be in Montana.

Running With the Pack

Seeley Lake on a bright winter Saturday morning is usually abuzz with the sound of snowmobiles. There are miles of trails and old logging roads, intersecting and looping, creating a seemingly endless maze of possible routes for exploring and taking in sights of the valley, hemmed on the east side by the Bob Marshall Wilderness and on the west by the Missions. And unless you are a die-hard proponent of Nordic skiing or a thrill-seeker of a decidedly masochistic bent, astride a snowmobile is the safest way to travel in these parts. Bipeds on roads designated for multiple modes of snow travel need to stay way off to the side, keeping in mind that the hapless cross-country skier or snowshoer on these by-ways is outnumbered by a ratio of about 15 to 1, and that the machine that may grind a pedestrian into frozen oblivion may not always be within earshot.

If the sight and smell of two-cycle engines doesn’t appeal, there are still alternatives. Locals in Seeley Lake are overwhelmingly accommodating to individual preference. Many of them, for example, are slowing down their motorized sleds these days at the sight of Bill and Cindy Gallea’s dog-powered sleds.

“We get along well with most snowmobilers,” says Cindy Gallea. “In fact we even joined the local snowmobiling club to help with access and maintenance of local trails.”

“Yeah,” chimes in husband Bill. “They’re considerate folks for the most part. But God, I just can’t imagine traveling in something so noisy and smelly.” He speaks without a trace of irony.

The Galleas, their two sons and their 44 Alaskan huskies have been residents of Seeley for nearly a decade. While their avocations differ from those of their neighbors, they’ve won some respect, and even a little notoriety, for their accomplishments. The Galleas are the only family in the world in which three of four members have finished what many consider to be the toughest endurance race in the world—the Iditarod. Bill was the first in 1996, followed by Cindy in 1998, and son Jim in ’99.

Most of the family’s mushing efforts these days are aimed at Cindy, who will head north in the coming weeks for her third start of the 1,100-mile race. “It’s such a labor-intensive thing,” says Cindy in a somewhat groggy voice. She has recently completed an all-night training run with the team that will hopefully pull her to her second finish of the great Alaskan race. “The first time you do it though, it’s worse—you have to think everything though before you do it, and then you do still have to complete the tasks.”

The prep work for the Iditarod is mind-boggling. Food, shelter, clothing, cooking and camping gear for 16 dogs and one person for the better part of two weeks must be prepared, packaged and shipped to Alaska weeks in advance of the start. Unlike mushing contests in the lower 48, the 11 check-in points of the Iditarod trail are not accessible by car. Everything needed for the race is flown in.

“It gets interesting in warm years; the meat you’ve packed for your dogs will thaw and get prone to spoiling ,” says Cindy Gallea. “Plus the check-ins are really hectic. You’re cooking for your dogs and yourself, treating their injuries, maintaining and repairing equipment, and if you don’t have something you need, it gets really frustrating. You sleep three or four hours max per night, and there are times when you’re literally asleep behind your sled.”

“The fatigue is the single biggest factor in the race,” adds Bill. “Most of the decisions you end up making are not because your team needs more rest, but because you need the extra rest as the team driver.”

Extra sleep, however, is not something the Galleas are particularly accustomed to. Bill is an ER physician in Helena, and Cindy is a nurse practitioner in Seeley. Elder son Jim is a UM student, and youngest son Brian is a high school student. Most families with busy children and dual careers barely have time to feed themselves, let alone maintain a kennel of 50 dogs and a training schedule the hour-equivalent of a full-time job. “Brian has really been wonderful. He’s the only non-musher in the family, and he’s making the bulk of my meals for the Iditarod this year. He’s also been helping out with the dogs quite a bit.”

How the Galleas came to the sport of mushing has a something to do with their enthusiastic preference for outdoor winter recreation, and even more to do with the high energy that both husband and wife possess. Both exude an enviable sort of relaxed intensity they attribute partly to developing relationships with the dogs on which they depend in races and training.

“I remember when we got started with this,” Cindy recalls. “We had friends that had a team in Minnesota where we lived, and after taking them out camping one time, we were trying to decide what the least number of dogs we could have could be and still maintain our sanity. And I recall that Bill said 12, and I said 6. Now the argument is can we have two litters this year or three, and it’s Bill who’s saying, ‘God, only two—we only have room for two.’”

“If you’re competitive or intense by nature, two things happen,” says Bill, trying to explain how 12 dogs and a weekend hobby turned into a full-blown kennel and a family full of Iditarod finishers. “The first is that you’re handling dogs for other people, and you’re always doing what other people tell you, and you start to think you could do just as well if you were making the decisions yourself. The second is that you start to second-guess those decisions, thinking you might make better ones if you were in charge.”

So does the competitiveness ever factor in the racing endeavors of individual Gallea family members? “Well my time [in the Iditarod, 13 days, seven hours] is still the fastest in the family,” says Bill, “but I expect Cindy will beat it this year.”

Feeding and caring for 50 dogs is quite an undertaking. On this morning, Bill returned home from town having parted with $800 in exchange for 700 pounds of beef patties and 600 pounds of beef-trim fat. “It’s human-grade food, and sometimes I catch myself with this moral ambivalence. Eight hundred million starving people in the world, and I’m feeding all this food—spending all this money and energy, on dogs,” says Bill. “Then I remember that the opportunity to share this with others is what makes it worth the cost.”

Along those lines, the Galleas encourage visits from schoolchildren and local community members and take time from their busy schedules to pay local elementary schools visits. “The response of some children to the animals, the tremendous interest, and the great questions, and then letting people see us hook up a team, how these dogs love to run, those are some of the things that make this worthwhile,” says Cindy. She alludes also to the reciprocal relationship of musher to team that carries with it an increasingly rare kind of grace. “There’s a certain rhythm to the sound of the dogs all working in unison, the sound of the sled gliding over the snow. And there’s a rhythm to the day when you’re out with your team, and they’ve taken you all these miles, and then you’re taking care of them, tending to their sore muscles, caring for them if they’re injured, and bedding down with them at night. The attraction of the Iditarod is a long encounter, or an immersion in that kind of rhythm.”

That rhythm is elusive, and according to Cindy, what can arise in its place is a comedy of canine and human errors that requires a sense of humor to work through. “The reason I pulled out of the Iditarod last year is that one of my lead dogs went into heat halfway through the race,” recalls Cindy with an embarrassed smile. “I was exhausted, was trying to sleep, and that dog was mated four times in one night.”

That same embarrassed smile was apparent as Cindy and Bill went about the complex and arduous task of hooking up the dogs to a sled later on that morning. Of course, one of the reasons people love dogs is their ability to provoke laughter. It follows reason, then, that more dogs might make you laugh harder, and if you’ve got the space, why not build 44 dog houses containing 44 hyperactive, athletic, comic, eager, nutty dogs and train them to pull you a thousand miles over the ice? Why not name them silly things like Pork Chop or Obi-wan, or common people names like Mary or famous athlete names like Flo-Jo or Jordan? Why not grin and bear the astounding cacophony while all 44 of them howl, whine, beg, jump five feet into the air, hop on top of their dog condos, bark, whirl like twisters, and generally beg like a team of hyperthyroid little leaguers to be chosen part of the day’s team? Why not feel a little disappointed when you’re left behind in a snow shower with 30 other dogs while the 14 luckiest dogs in Seeley pull a lucky musher down the driveway and out of sight?

“This is all about the pleasure of dogs,” says Bill. “It all comes back to that. We love winter, we love being outside, and we love dogs.”

Born to Mush

Montana, for Jessica Royer, is a southern state. “I spend more and more time in Alaska every year,” explains the 24-year old native of Philipsburg. “It’s so open, with less people, and more wild places. But I got my taste for that sort of thing growing up on a cattle ranch in Montana. Being outside and working with animals is what I love.”

Cows and horses, however, proved to be less interesting than mushing dogs for Royer. At age 15, she began hanging around some of the mushing events held every winter near Georgetown Lake outside of Philipsburg. “Eventually, I got to know some of the mushers,” recalls Royer. “One weekend there was a passenger event, so I got invited to ride in a sled, and then I started handling dogs, working for Doug and Greg Swingley in the summer.”

At the time, Doug Swingley was on the rise on the mushing scene, and in 1995 he became the first non-Alaskan to win the Iditarod. Handling for the Swingleys put Royer at the epicenter of the Montana mushing world, and by 1993, she had a team of dogs and entered her first race in Idaho, where she placed third as a 16-year old.

Since that race, Royer placed mushing at the center of her life, pulling in her mother, Connie Sperry, along the way. Sperry runs Spirit of the North Sled Dog Adventures in Ennis near Big Sky resort. They run dog sled tours of the area, and customer volume has doubled every year for the past few years. Sperry has inherited from her daughter a kennel of 100 huskies and a business that keeps both mother and daughter scrambling to keep up

“But you know I wouldn’t have it any other way,” says Sperry. “This is an opportunity for her, a decision she’s made and we’ve always supported her. Jessie was instrumental in starting this business, and myself and her step-father just want to help in whatever way we can.”

Sperry has also learned from daughter Jessica how to hook a dog team up to a sled, which is no simple matter, and the finer points of handling the huskies. “I can do it, but Jessica has an intuition for it,” says Sperry. “Ever since she was a little, she’s been an animal person, horses and dogs. She just has a way with them.”

For her part, Jessica is hoping that way will point north from Anchorage and put her in Nome for the awards banquet in a reasonable amount of time. The biggest obstacle in preparing for the race has ironically been the lack of snow in Alaska.

“I was staying closer to Anchorage with friends, but the poor snow conditions forced me to basically out of my truck and search for places to train,” says Royer. “I ran the Copper Basin race up here and ended up injuring some dogs, and I had to stop twice to fix my sled. The snow conditions were just awful.”

With a busy training schedule and having to travel to find snow, Royer had had difficulty keeping up with an important priority: personally answering all the mail she gets from curious school children and fans all over the world. “That’s one of the best parts of my job,” she says. “The kinds of questions I get, and the volume of mail has been overwhelming, literally in the thousands. I still haven’t gotten to all the mail I got last month.”

If the weather cooperates, Royer feels she will be adequately prepared, and her team fully trained when the Iditarod commences on March 3. She feels that neither her age nor being one of only 14 women to start the race have made her plans any more difficult to execute. “I’ve never heard any negative feedback on me or any other musher just because I’m a woman,” says Royer. “Plus I’ve been hanging around and working with guys my whole life, and so I tend to not even notice if I’m working with all guys.”

A major hindrance presented to rookies in the Iditarod is the cost of running the race. Royer estimates it will cost her nearly $30,000 to run the race, money that less-established mushers frequently have trouble coming up with. The Jessie Iditarod Committee has been established to help raise funds. Those interested in helping out can check out the Spirit of the North website at www.huskypower.com. Just don’t be surprised to find Connie Sperry helping to solicit donations.

“My mom has been so supportive: She’s coming up for the start in Anchorage, and it will be great to see her,” says Royer, who adds that her step-father Jim will be waiting in Nome for her at the finish.

At the start of the race in downtown Anchorage, each musher begins through crowded streets with his or her own sled and team, along with a ceremonial second sled piloted by an honorary family member or support crew person. Connie Sperry will be Royer’s honored musher. While Royer may not oust her former boss Swingley as champion this year, other teams this year may be hard pressed to find a more apropos tandem of mushers heading out of town.

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