On the surface, the fact that Cindy Gallea "scratched" from this year's Iditarod race might not appear overly newsworthy. But if you dig deeper, you'll discover the full-time Mayo Clinic nurse practitioner and part-time musher's 2019 Iditarod experience was much more than her "scratched" status shows.
Gallea began this year's 1,000-mile race with a team of 14 dogs that would pull her the first 112 miles to the Finger Lake checkpoint before one dog was forced to drop out. Her 13 remaining dogs would pull her across another 188 miles of frozen Alaskan wilderness before losing another member of their team. Now down to 12, Gallea's dogs would muscle their way across another 407 miles of terrain before the wears and tears of "The Last Great Race" cut their numbers by a third. "Those four dogs were my main leaders," Gallea tells us. "They developed diarrhea and became dehydrated so they needed to leave the race. That left me with no veteran leaders, only two very inexperienced leaders, one of whom had never been in Iditarod before."
Still determined to finish, Gallea and her eight remaining sled dogs mushed their way ahead for several hundred more miles to the last checkpoint before the finish line at Nome before having to call it quits. "The last 400 miles were a lot of learning for the dogs," Gallea tells us. "They did better than I imagined they would. Unfortunately, 50 miles from Nome, between the White Mountain and Safety checkpoints, the wind picked up," she says. "My two leaders had never run in wind like that and they did not want to lead into the wind. I tried to encourage them to go on, but they were a bit overwhelmed. And so that is where our race ended."
Although she and her team weren't able to cross the finish line, it was an impressive showing for Gallea, who didn't get into sled dogging until her third decade of life. "When I was in my 30s, I lived on the North Shore [of Minnesota] near Grand Marais, and we had a couple friends who had sled dogs," Gallea says in a video profile by MPR News. "I was kind of intrigued by it, so we started helping them, and that got me interested enough that we got their dogs that weren't making their racing teams."
From there, interest and intrigue blossomed into passion as Gallea added to her team of dogs before deciding to dip a toe into the world of sled dog racing. Gallea and the teams of dogs she's trained with over the years have taken their place at the starting line of 15 Iditarods, crossing the finish line in all but three. And although Gallea is on record telling MPR that this year's Iditarod will be her last, she's said that before.
Whether or not this year's Iditarod truly was her last, for Gallea the race was never about winning — or even finishing. "I do it for a variety of reasons," she tells MPR. "I love being in Alaska and covering the beautiful terrain of Alaska. And then there's sort of the whole Iditarod family that's developed," she says. "It's fun to see everyone again."
But the most important thing has always been her dogs. "This is where I start to choke up," Gallea tells MPR. "The overwhelming feeling that my dogs and I worked together and had a wonderful time going across Alaska — that's the overwhelming feeling of how fortunate we were to do that."
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