Iditarod rookie Damon Ramaker was just 100 miles from the finish line—a blip in a nearly thousand mile race—when he heard the rumblings.
Not of an avalanche, or the whoosh and glide of his dogs pulling the sled over the ice and snow, but of rumors: The Iditarod powers-that-be were considering calling off the rest of the race so that the remaining 11 mushers—of the 57 who started the race—could get home and quarantine.
That’s how quickly the world had changed since Ramaker had left the starting line in Anchorage just two weeks earlier.
‘It became a big faith journey.’
It’s not like Ramaker didn’t know about the COVID-19 pandemic—he’s a Mayo Clinic emergency room nurse. But, in late February, when he packed up 20 dogs into his retrofitted pickup and left Minnesota for the 80-hour drive to Alaska, coronavirus was still something happening mostly somewhere else—China, Italy, Washington state.
Ramaker had been training for this moment for three years. He’d already carved out these six weeks off work, already had his low-key going-away celebration with emergency room colleagues at Mayo, many of whom picked up shifts for Ramaker while he was gone. The ER Department at St. Marys Hospital, in fact, kicked in to sponsor six of Ramaker’s dogs.
The race started on March 7, during those surreal early days of the outbreak, when everything seemed to change by the hour.
He kissed his wife and three kids goodbye at the starting line in Anchorage (they’d flown up to meet him a few days before). And he was off. He’d started his first Iditarod.
The only question now was whether he’d finish.
Iditarod 2020 featured one of the highest scratch percentages in its 47-year history. Of the original 57 teams at the starting line, 23 had already dropped out. Three mushers and teams needed to be rescued by helicopter. Another 23 had already finished.
Now, 12 days and 850 or so miles into the race, the remaining 11 mushers had just endured a 16-hour delay at Koyuk checkpoint, riding out a terrible storm. They had made it through 50 miles of blowing snow on the run from Koyuk to Elim, the next-to-last stop before the finish.
But then the sea ice came in. The trail from Elim to White Mountain was covered in water. When the teams headed out, they found the trail impassable. After three hours of trying to get through, they turned back to Elim to spend another night.
They had been there so long—nearly 30 hours—the press was calling them the “Elim 11.” And they stuck together like a team.
And, now, the 11 teams decided to make one last attempt, hoping to get over a mountain pass, along 30 miles of trail that hadn’t been used in years.
“For me, I’m a Christian and it became a big faith journey,” Ramaker says. “I wanted to finish in the worst way. But I found peace in that, even if we didn’t finish this race, I was gonna be happy with the experience we had.”
Ramaker harnessed up the team. Headed down the trail.
‘You become stronger throughout the race.’
The 39-year-old Ramaker grew up with dogs—one or two at a time, like most people. There was always a dog riding along in the farm truck, or going hunting or camping with the family. When he was a teenager, Ramaker visited Alaska and even took the Iditarod tour—but the idea that he would one day return as a professional musher never crossed his mind.
About 10 years ago, when he and wife Kylie were living in the Twin Cities with their first child and a rescue dog, they took up skijoring—the sport in which you wear cross country skis and get pulled by a dog.
It was something different, a fun way to get some exercise in the frigid Minnesota winter. Ramaker wanted to bring his daughter along, too, so he bought a “junky little sled” to pull her. When that seemed like too much for one dog, the family got a second dog and taught her to pull. “Then I thought, ‘Well now we don’t have enough.’ So we started borrowing dogs,” says Ramaker. “The two dog team became three, then four.”
In 2011, Ramaker took a job with Mayo Clinic. He and his family moved to Chatfield then the Wykoff area.
Ramaker knew that Cindy Gallea, a nurse practitioner in Mayo Clinic’s Division of Medical Oncology, was also a musher with a 50-dog kennel and 13 Iditarod races under her belt. So he reached out. Asked her for advice about adding more dogs, maybe even running a kennel.
Gallea, it turned out, was in the middle of training her dogs for an upcoming Iditarod. She asked if Ramaker wanted to help. He jumped at the chance.
First he was fascinated, then he was hooked. By the fall of 2015, Ramaker was serving as Gallea’s dog handler—the person who helps with everything dog-related, from training to feeding—for the 2016 Iditarod. The two trained together in Montana. Took a few other big trips for races. Gallea even helped Ramaker establish his own kennel down the road from hers.
Today, Ramaker, his wife and their kids—now 10, 8, and 5—live in a 700-square-foot yurt on eight acres between Fountain and Fillmore with two dozen Alaskan Huskies of their own. His love, admiration and respect for dogs has never been stronger.
“When you spend that much time with the dogs, you begin to understand them on a lot deeper level,” Ramaker says. “I can walk through every dog in my kennel and Cindy’s kennel and tell you something unique about that dog.”
When he decided to go for his own Iditarod bid, the entire family got behind him. So did his Mayo colleagues and the greater Rochester community, raising thousands of dollars, rooting him on.
For three or four years he learned the mushing ropes as best as you can in Minnesota, training on gravel roads, using a four-wheeler before the snow comes, sledding across farm fields after the crops come out. Each season starts with two- or three-mile training runs, working up to 60 miles, then competing in the 100-and 300-mile races required to qualify for Iditarod.
Over the past two years, Damon and his team have competed in the Gunflint Mail Run 100 in Grand Marais. The Race to the Sky 300 in Montana. The John Beargrease in Duluth. The Percy De Wolfe 200 in Dawson City, Yukon.
Even though no distance or conditions could have truly prepared Ramaker for what awaited him in Alaska, he believed his dogs had what it took to go the distance in the Iditarod, the 983-mile trek that’s called “The Last Great Race on Earth.”
“They’re incredible dogs. For the most part, they’re up for anything. And they just love to go,” Ramaker says. “Training is one thing, but enduring some of the difficult stuff on that two-week Iditarod journey just kind of glues everybody together. You just become one unit. I depend on them and they depend on me and you can feel that bond strengthening. Then you become stronger throughout the race.”
‘They’re good therapists.’
Even the most experienced musher can’t make a dog do anything he or she doesn’t want to do. Ramaker marveled at the athleticism, drive, and joy his dogs displayed, day after day, on the winding, treacherous journey from Anchorage to Nome.
On the early, grueling 35-mile stretch between Rainy Pass and Rohn, Ramaker wasn’t having much fun. They’d climbed above the tree line to an exposed stretch with harsh wind, ice pellets whipping his eyes, his beard frozen solid. “But these three-year-old leaders [Susan and Finn] I had in weren’t hesitating at all. Driving down where they needed to go, finding the trail when it wasn’t all that apparent,” he says. “It just makes you so proud of what they are and the work we’ve done to get there.”
The specter of COVID-19 trailed the team the entire way, a nebulous competitor no one could have predicted.
But Ramaker was overwhelmed throughout the race by the show of spirit, both human and dog. One official checkpoint was canceled in order to protect the locals from exposure to the mushers. But many of those locals set up an impromptu checkpoint anyway. They shoveled snow from a dilapidated building in an abandoned village, covered the windows with plastic, dragged in an old woodstove, left crucial supplies.
When they had to rely on that little-used trail, locals did their best to mark the route.
And during that last stretch, the Elim 11—those last finishers—stuck together, kept track of each other. And they all finished.
When Ramaker finally crossed the finish line on March 22—13 days, 20 hours, 28 minutes and 37 seconds after he’d started—there were no crowds. The usual celebrations had been canceled. Much of the world was on lockdown. But his little family was waiting for him, and it was the longest they’d ever been apart. His dogs had done it, everybody was happy and healthy.
And now the real work was just beginning. Ramaker had to get back to the ER.
“I think as complicated as things were on the trail,” he chuckles, “it was still way simpler than what we’re dealing with now.”
Back home, the fight against COVID-19 had changed everything. But Ramaker’s Mayo colleagues told him they’d appreciated the distraction of rooting him on in the race. Returning to life in a new normal has been a full time job, but it helps that Ramaker and his family have started a nonprofit, The Deep Root. Its mission is still in development, but at its core it seeks to harness the spirit of Ramaker’s sled dogs to connect with anyone who might need a boost, like people living with disabilities or struggling with mental health.
“We spend a lot of time with these dogs and they’re incredible animals. They’re good therapists. They just kind of have a way of knowing what you need and giving it to you,” Ramaker says.
“They’re a medium that we can reach people through. So we’re getting them out into our community and inspiring people, motivating people, encouraging people in whatever unique circumstance they’re in.”