WYKOFF — The barking, yipping and howling grew as Cindy Gallea and Damon Ramaker hitched each of 19 dogs to one of two sleds. When all were hitched, the noise reached a fierce crescendo.
Gallea released her brake. Ramaker released his brake.
Suddenly silent, the dogs sprinted ahead, their innate passion prodding them to run, run, run. Only the sizzling whisper of the sled and the soft patter of their feet could be heard above the wind Friday as they bolted south toward a snowmobile trail at the beginning of a 54-mile training run.
First came Gallea, a veteran of 14 Iditarods, the longest sled dog race on earth, stretching about 1,150 miles on some of Alaska's toughest terrain.
"This is my 14th and final one," she said a few hours before. "My friends say they've heard me say that before, but I really mean it this time."
Money and time are getting harder to come by. And she's 64.
"It does get a little harder as you get older," she said.
Gallea lives south of Wykoff on a farm with about 50 dogs in kennels. She became an Iditarod regular because she once lived in Grand Marais, a Minnesota dogsledding hub. In the late 1970s or early 1980s, and she got interested in dogs. Eventually, she wanted her own dogs, then more dogs. Then she wanted to race; then race longer.
She moved to Montana because it's a great place for mushing, but Gallea, now a nurse practitioner at Mayo Clinic, returned to Minnesota to be closer to her family.
'It's very spiritual'
This week, she was to take 20 dogs to Montana for final training and to make the hard choice of cutting down to a 16-dog team. The race begins March 5; there will be 86 mushers, an unusually large field. Her best time is 11 days, seven hours, 56 minutes; the record is eight days, 12 hours.
On the trail, she never knows exactly what conditions will be for her and the dogs, she said. At times, it's above freezing, at other times 40 degrees below zero.
"I love Alaska, I love running dogs," she said. "Those dogs are really fun. They are amazing athletes. That's their drive, that's what they want to do."
For her, being in the wild "is very profound. It's very spiritual."
Next down the trail was Ramaker, Gallea's apprentice.
He has skijored — cross country skiing with a dog helping pull — as well as worked with sled dogs.
When he heard about Gallea, "I kind of stalked her," he said. He's an emergency room nurse at Mayo Clinic Hospital - Saint Marys Campus so he was able to find her in the Mayo directory.
"I didn't know what we (he and his family) were getting ourselves into," he said. It's a lot of time, but he's never regretted it. At first, he helped her with the dogs, then he learned how to hitch and take them on runs.
He grew up in the Wykoff area but now lives in Chatfield with his wife, Kylie Ramaker, and their three children. He will join Gallea on Feb. 26 in Montana and they will drive to Alaska; Kylie will fly up later so both can see the race begin.
'Call of the wild'
When Damon Ramaker approached her, Gallea agreed to take him under her wing.
"I said the best way to learn the sport is to do it with a person with an established kennel," she said.
She liked what she saw in her apprentice. "I could see him gradually getting hooked," she said. "He has been an incredible help … training is THE most important part."
"These guys are different people," Kylie Ramaker said. "These guys are driven. I don't know what it is, the guys have the same type of energy."
The two agreed.
Gallea said "the way I have understood this in myself is I have the call of the wild. Every now and then it's really nice to immerse myself in the wild. When it's that strong, you just respond to it."
Ramaker said he too hears and feels, that call. "That is one of my big dreams. I find my peace outside."
Of course, the question has to be: will Ramaker follow his mentor's route to the Iditarod?
He didn't say yes, he didn't say no.
With his young family, it's not to be, at least right now, he said.
"I guess I would keep it in the dream category at this point," he said. "I wouldn't say it's a goal yet, but it's a dream."
It would mean a huge commitment of time and money, he said.
But then, just being allowed to help Gallea was a dream come true, he said, it's "more than what I expected from the initial contact.
Once done talking, the two went outside for the hard work of setting out sleds and lines, getting harnesses on 19 dogs (nine for Gallea, 10 for Ramaker), keeping them under control as they tugged and tried to race before being hitched.
The dogs got to run, and he and Gallea let that wildness call them down the trail.