West-central Montana has become a breeding ground for some of the world’s best dog sledders. Here’s why
Imagine for a moment you’re dog musher and Iditarod racer Cindy Gallea. It’s February at 4 am when the alarm clock buzzes. You shuffle to the kitchen to fix a pot of coffee. At the flick of the light switch, the front yard erupts with 60 barking Alaskan Huskies. You crack a smile. The outside thermometer reads ten below. The smile fades. In the mud room hangs long underwear, wool socks, pack boots, gloves, goggles, parka and one-piece coveralls stiff from sweat, dog urine and feces, mud, and blood.
You fix a thermos of coffee and don your mushing uniform in the cold mudroom. Who gets to run this morning? Today it will be Chevy Love, Kubota, Jackson, Thelma, Louise, and 12 others. After anchoring the sled to a nearby ponderosa tree, you harness the squirming dogs one-by-one. In their excitement, they chew through their ropes, growl, jump and pee. By the time you unhook the anchor, it’s 5:30. The sun hasn’t even thought about coming up.
From the front yard you yell “gee” for a right turn, but there’s no need; the dogs know the course by heart, having run it hundreds of times before. Today’s goal is to see if Chevy Love will be the lead dog in the Iditarod in Alaska that’s only one month away. When you reach a cruising speed of nine mph, you switch off the headlamp. The light of the moon reflects off the snow and lights the way.
You pull into the yard two hours later, unharness the team, feed and water all the dogs. By the time you get in the car, it’s 8:30. You don’t have many sponsors to help pay the $20,000 needed each year to buy food, medicine, and gear for your dogs, so you drive to your full-time job as a nurse practitioner in Missoula.
Gallea lives in Seeley Lake, Montana. To the east of her home is the vast Bob Marshall Wilderness and to the west rise the peaks of the Mission Mountain Wilderness. Just 75 miles southeast at the southern tip of the “Bob” sits the town of Lincoln. And between these two towns, something strange is happening, something that has mushers the world over scratching their heads.
The Swingley Factor
It all started back in 1995, when Doug Swingley, a Lincoln resident, became the first non-Alaskan to win the Iditarod. Held in Alaska since 1973, the Iditarod is a 1,150-mile dogsled race from Anchorage to Nome—roughly the distance from Missoula to El Paso, Texas. It takes mushers anywhere from eight to 15 days to guide 16 dogs or less over mountain passes, barren, windswept flats, and floating pack ice. Mushers from all over the world come to compete for a top prize of $50,000, a brand new truck, and the bragging rights to say they won the “Last Great Race on Earth.”
In Swingley’s first run at the Iditarod, he placed in the top 10, coming in at 11 days, 13 hours. Three years later, he won it. He went on to win three more times, and placed second in the 2006 race. Swingley is hardly the only Montana contender in the race. Aside from Alaska, Montana has the largest contingent of racers from any other state. In any one year as many as seven mushers, most of whom live in the Seeley Lake/Lincoln area, compete in the Iditarod.
With so many mushers from one region of Montana coupled with Swingley’s wins, the combination began to raise some eyebrows. “People began to say ‘What does this Swingley guy have in Montana?’” says Chuck Ackley, the Trail Boss for Race to the Sky, Montana’s own 350-mile dogsled race. What Swingley has in and around Lincoln is a network of hundreds of miles of mushing and snowmobiling trails that are, according to Ackley, some of the finest trails in the country.
Race to the Sky
As Trail Boss for the past 15 years, Ackley, along with a group of dedicated volunteers, are responsible for the upkeep and logistical planning for the mushing trails that weave through the mountains and meadows between Seeley Lake and Lincoln. Mushers Unified for Trail Travel, or MUTT, is part of the support system that marks those trails with orange signs with one large paw print designating mushing trails. For Montana’s two big races—the Race to the Sky and the Seeley 200—Ackley and MUTT coordinate with more than 40 landowners, six ranger districts, four national forests, and two lumber companies to get permission for the mushers to travel those areas. Ackley says they get support from four local snowmobile clubs while local logging operations re-route their truck traffic out of mushing areas. “When it’s all done, putting the little sticks in the snow for the mushers to follow is the easy part,” he says.
Held in February for nearly 40 years, Montana’s Race to the Sky attracts mushers from all over the world. Hundreds of spectators descend upon the town of Lincoln to get a glimpse of the riders and their teams as they ride through the town streets. Barking and noise aside, the townspeople appreciate the excitement, not to mention money, the event brings to town. “It’s a big shot in the arm for a little town in the winter,” says Ackley. “It’s the largest single event that takes place here in the winter and it keeps the bars, hotels, and restaurants going. It has an impact on the town and the town reacts to that.” Part of that reaction comes in the off-season shortly after the Iditarod when the town hosts the Lincoln Iditarod Day where the public can come and get to know Montana’s mushers. “It’s like an old-time rendezvous that trappers used to have,” says Ackley. “Only this time it’s for the mushers.”
Along with the Race to the Sky, the area hosts the Seeley 200 in late January. Rookie mushers who have their sights’ set on the Iditarod must have 500 miles of mushing in qualified races under their belt, and if they’re brave enough, they could run both the Race to the Sky and the Seeley 200, and then the Iditarod all in the same season, although most opt to take a break in between.
For Swingley’s neighbor and Iditarod veteran, Jason Barron, he says the trails around Lincoln and Seeley Lake helped him to perform well in the last Iditarod where he placed fifth. “You couldn’t ask for a more diverse trail system or prettier country. The country here is very rugged and what helps prepares rookies for the Iditarod is that ruggedness.” Jason and his wife Harmony—she mushes as well and won the Race to the Sky in 2003—moved from Alaska to the Linclon area in 1998. Together, they run a kennel that produces some of the Iditarods top dogs. Jason’s father, John, a 26-time Iditarod racer himself lives down the road in Helmville. Barron says he and his dog team are ready for next year’s Iditarod and hope to win it. “It’s going to be the Jason and Doug show,” he says.
The lure for mushers to the area isn’t just about the trails, Barron adds. “It’s a technology hotbed with progressive thinkers in the mushing community.” Barron is referring to people such as Eric Pack who operates Vyper sleds out of Condon, 30 miles north of Seeley Lake. In last year’s Iditarod, four Iditarod mushers were riding his sleds, including Swingley, Barron and Gallea. Pack, a home builder by trade, moved to Condon 10 years ago for sled dogs and snow, he says. He’s been building sleds for the past five years.
It has been only recently that wooden sleds have gone the way of the dodo in lieu of more space-age materials. Pack owns an antique sled that was on Admiral Byrd’s mission to Antarctica in the late 1920’s. Sleds from that time were built with wood, nylon, and leather and could weigh hundreds of pounds. Now, using materials such as aircraft grade aluminum and carbon fiber, Pack produces a sled that weighs 40 pounds. He relies on his mushing neighbors for feedback on designs. Pack started re-building sleds for Gallea when she told him her wrists hurt and her thumbs blistered after holding on to the sled for more than 14 hours at a time during the Iditarod. To solve the problem, he bent the handlebars to resemble a curling bar found at a gym. Swingley and Barron had feedback as well. Barron is a passionate rider who is tough on sleds, whereas Swingley is quantitative and specific, says Pack. The combination results in feedback designers and builders only dream about. “When you’ve got world-class mushers out your backdoor and they show up and hang out with you, that really helps,” he says.
Barron recognizes the importance of having this type support system in the community, and he appreciates it. “Sending a dog team to Nome is like sending a rocket to space,” he says. “And these individuals are just as important as the drivers. The community that supports us deserves a lot of credit because they’re the unsung heroes.”
While Pack designs sleds, other mushers in the area design dogs. In mushing, much like horse racing, bloodlines are key to a good team. It’s not uncommon for neighbors to swap, buy or trade dogs. Many of the racers from Gallea’s team have come from Barron who runs Team KanaBear kennels with his wife. Many times, lead dogs are bred with other lead dogs in the hopes of producing little lead dogs. Good leaders are priceless and can make or break a team, says Gallea. “Dogs are a lot like people,” she says. “You can’t teach a shy person to be a leader. Great leaders are born, and I work with them to bring that out.”
As for Gallea and those early morning runs in Seeley Lake, she plans to have her most aggressive schedule ever this year. She also plans to run her best race in this upcoming Iditarod and run the course in 10 days. Last year’s race was a tough one for her. She was experimenting with new dogs to lead the team, and they didn’t know the course. The weather didn’t help matters much either. For a few consecutive nights, it dropped to 45 below zero. When it’s cold, dogs tend to eat more and at one checkpoint, her 14-dog team ate 50 pounds of food. She camped out on the trail alongside them and got frostbite on her nose.
In her front yard dotted with barking dogs standing on top of their plywood doghouses, I asked Gallea why she does it. Why work a full-time job to pay for a full-time hobby? Why subject yourself to the bitter cold nights and early morning training runs? She paused, looked at her dogs with watery eyes, and apologized for not being able answer.
Update: Since I wrote this piece for Montana Magazine in 2006, Cindy Gallea last competed in the Iditarod in 2019.