Sundance Times - Continuing the Crook County News Since 1884

Working the "last great race"

Sundance's Ramsey returns from third year volunteering at the Iditarod


April 18, 2019

Courtesy photo

Doug Ramsey shows off the Rohn Cabin along the Iditarod route, where he volunteered during this year's race.

Enthusiasts flock to witness the glory of the Iditarod each year, a thousand mile race in which man and dog work together to cover hostile territory through whiteout conditions and sub-zero temperatures. Its path honors the serum run in 1925 that saw a relay of sled teams rush to Nome carrying the cure to a community plagued by diphtheria.

For local Doug Ramsey, who decided when he retired that it was time to tick an important item off his bucket list, standing witness to the tradition didn't feel like quite enough.

"I'd always wanted to see the Iditarod," he says. "The more I looked into it, I didn't want to be one of the thousands of people on the outside the fence. I wanted to be inside the fence."

In 2014, Ramsey added his name to the thousand-strong list of volunteers who man the Iditarod route. It takes more than you might imagine for an event of that scale to run like clockwork, he says.

Submitting your name to be a volunteer is almost like applying for a job, he says.

"On the application, you check off what you'd like to do, all the way from making foot ointment to helping with the banquet to dog handling to security guard to parking attendant – anything you can think of," Ramsey says.

When the coordinator asked what Ramsey would like to do, he asked what help was needed.

"He said, well, we always need help with parking and security guards. I said, I'm not coming to the Iditarod to park cars and chase people," Ramsey says. "He laughed and said maybe I'd be a good volunteer for dog handling. I said, sure... and by the way, what does a dog handler do?"

Ramsey has volunteered at the Iditarod three times since 2014, starting, as suggested, as a dog handler. While many of the mushers have their own handlers, others are in need of help at both the ceremonial start in Anchorage and the real kick-off the next day, 60 miles north at Willow Lake.

"In Anchorage, it's on a main street where they have all the signs and flags and the starting line and all the people are lined up watching. There are 50, 60 or 70 dog teams and each one has 14 to 16 dogs – that's a lot of dogs," he says.

"They stage these dogs on the side streets and then...the musher has to take his team out, make a 90 degree corner and go to the starting line. Well, the mushers just can't control them in town like that, there's just too much power there."

The dog handler, he says, is the steering wheel and the brakes to get mushers from the staging area to the starting line with a two-minute gap between teams.

"I think, last time I did it, there were about 100 volunteers just for dog handling," he says. "You have to take a class and the biggest thing [they teach] is: don't step on the dogs' feet."

Ramsey grins as he recalls the words of the teacher when it comes to the humans doing the handling: "When you fall down – and some of you will fall down – you better roll and get out of the way, because if a dog rolls over you, no big deal, but if a sled runs over you it's going to hurt."

The process is repeated almost exactly in Willow the next day, when the real race begins. A single volunteer like Ramsey will take three or four teams to the starting line in both places.

In Nome, at the finish line, the process is almost a direct opposite. Each team must be met at the Burled Arch finish line and escorted to the dog lot.

Much like the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, the Iditarod brings an influx of people to the little town of Nome for a short period each year. As mushers come in, the siren sounds and, no matter the time of day, for those four or five days people will come out from buildings all over town to welcome the team.

"Nome really grows for a week or two there," he smiles.

Dog handling introduced Ramsey to one of the race's recent superstars: Norwegian musher Joar Ulsom.

"I took Joar Ulsom last year to the starting line in Willow. He actually won it last year and was second this year," he says. "The year before, I'd seen him in Willow at the start and had told him 'I'll see you in Nome'. He'd said 'I hope so', and lo and behold he was there first."

Ramsey was soon to forge a deeper connection with the champion musher. Because it can be expensive to get to Nome, there are fewer volunteers, so those that help are given a diverse range of tasks.

Ramsey was asked to act as a shuttle driver, taking food, supplies and people back and forth. He was then given the task of being Ulsom and his girlfriend's personal shuttle driver for two days.

"I got to haul him all over Nome," he remembers. "It was fun getting to know him without somebody sticking a microphone in his face or taking pictures. They're kind of big celebrities down there."

Still popular in parts of Europe, mushing races also take place in western Wyoming and, of course, in Alaska and Canada. Ramsey volunteered in 2018 to help out with the Yukon Quest from Fairbanks to White Horse as well as the Iditarod, taking his camper so he could stay in Alaska a full month.

"Dog mushing is a pretty small community, there's not a huge amount of people in it, but a lot of people follow it," he says.

At this year's Itidarod, Ramsey got to do something a little different. Once the mushers had set out, he was assigned to the remote checkpoint at Rohn.

Around 20 checkpoints mark the route and the teams must check in at each one. Many are in or near communities or native villages, with small hotels and restaurants, visitors watching the teams come through and locals willing to help out.

The one Ramsey was assigned to was located 200 miles from Anchorage, in the middle of nowhere, with nobody at all around.

"There's a small shelter cabin that the Forest Service or BLM maintains, like a snowmobile warming hut. It has a little kitchen area, a wood stove, a table to eat from and four bunks," he says. "We had five tents for sleeping that we set up in the snow."

The number of people at Ramsey's checkpoint varied from ten to 15. Alongside Ramsey and his fellow communications volunteer, this included four veterinarians to check the teams, a race judge and a volunteer to take care of the drop dogs.

Further along the route, he says, it can take up to five days for every team to pass a checkpoint. As Rohn lies fairly close to the start, the mushers were still bunched relatively close together.

"All the dog teams came through Rohn in about 30 hours," he says. "Once in a while there might be two or three traveling almost together, but usually you'd have a team and then ten, 15, 30 minutes until another team comes in."

Ramsey figures that most of the people stationed at Rohn were awake for 36 hours straight once the teams began to arrive. For Ramsey, it was probably 40 hours with the odd catnap here and there.

Among the tasks assigned to Ramsey was to sort out the jumble of 150 drop bags so that each musher could find their own supplies when they arrived.

"Some mushers stayed at our checkpoint for five minutes, some stayed five hours. Some rest here, some rest there," he says. For this reason, he adds with a grin, mushers are directed either to the "short term parking or long term parking" area.

"We can't help them, the mushers are on their own, but we can tell them where are their drop bags, there's a pile of straw, there's a tree to tie up to."

Mushers are required to make two eight-hour layovers and one 24-hour during the course of the race.

"A musher has some leeway as to where he does this. There is one mandatory where he has to take an eight-hour [break], for the other two he can kind of pick and choose within limits," he says.

The reason for the mandatory eight-hour stop, he explains, is to balance out the timing for the musher who started first and one who left last. With a two-minute delay between each team, there can be a gap of a couple of hours between the moment the first and last musher crosses the start line; the first rider is therefore asked to stop for an extra two hours at the mandatory checkpoint to even things out.

Ramsey was at Rohn for a week, helping with the logistics of sorting equipment, dog and people food, drop bags, vet supplies and straw and the 25 aircraft taking all of it back and forth.

"It's amazing the amount of stuff that has to go out," he says.

He was also responsible for counting dogs as they came in, noting bib numbers and times and other data such as whether a musher was leaving any drop dogs. That information was relayed, using a generator that powered a small computer, to Anchorage, where it was posted online for fans following the race.

Not every team will make it to the end of the race, he points out, which makes the posted information even more nail-biting for fans. This year, 55 mushers left Willow and only 45 made it to Nome.

"Things happen: sleds break down, the runners break off, they tip, they fall in the creek," he says. "Sometimes the dogs just quit running or the musher gets cold. It's not a piece of cake, it's wilderness up there."

Courtesy photo

Doug Ramsey offers a bit of encouragement to one of this year's Iditarod competitors.

Each sled has a GPS device and an SOS button; if the musher gets in trouble and hits the SOS button, they are instantly out of the race. It can happen anywhere, Ramsey says, recalling one musher who went off course and scratched no more than 20 miles from the finish line.

"It was fun being at the checkpoint, it really was," he says. "A lot of people know of the Iditarod, but they have no idea what it takes to put the race on because they see the start and they see the finish. They don't see any of the thousand miles in between with all the checkpoints and all the dog sleds."

Will Ramsey return to the last great race a fourth time? The answer is almost certainly yes. But as to what new challenges it will issue to his volunteering skills, only time will tell.


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