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North Wapiti Siberian Husky Kennels
Yukon Quest/Iditarod 2006 - Tales from the Trail

Cripple to Ruby

I know that some mushers charge for their Iditarod journals or only tell the tales in books, but I feel so much gratitude and thanks to all of you who support and follow our adventures that I think I owe all of you these stories.
As you read these entries, I ask you all to remember that none of it could have happened without the support and interest of each one of you.
Please never underestimate how thankful I am.

Cripple to Galena

My experiences in Cripple in '00 were not pleasant ones. It was a miserable, cold and windy place, with no warm sleeping spot and nowhere private to even drop your pants! In '04 things had improved quite a bit and I fondly remember getting a great sleep there, but it was still miserable and cold and not really a place that you wanted to hang out at for long periods of time.

Leave it to Jim Gallea to be behind the crew that changed everything about Cripple in '06 - well, almost everything!

Many of you will recognize Jim's name from following the Iditarod. Jim, his Mom (Cindy Gallea) and his Dad (Bill Gallea) are all Iditarod finishers. I've known Jim since he was about 17 and he has grown up to be a charming, handsome, Iditarod-finishing, soon-to-be doctor (girls take note - this is a MAJOR catch!). Anyway, in '05 Jim and fellow Iditarod veteran Clint Warnke turned Eagle Island into an oasis (okay, an Iditarod-style oasis) on the Yukon River.

This year, Jim roped in another Iditarod veteran, Scott Smith, and took charge of Cripple. Despite temperatures cold enough to make the vet's stethoscopes freeze straight out (I'm not kidding), Cripple was also an oasis this year. Okay, maybe the blow-up palm trees (still not kidding) had handled the cold badly, but there were still 2 warm cabins to sleep in - and miracle of all miracles - 'HIS' and 'HERS' outhouses.

The down point was that the parking spots were pretty crowded and the wind was blowing strong and relentlessly. It wasn't until Ruby that I realized that from my working in such tight quarters, the flame off my cooker melted the sleeve on my Northern Outfitters Prima Loft liner, which I was wearing at the time.

Anyway, the dogs got fed and burrowed down against the windblown snowbanks for a sheltered nap while I headed up to the cabin.

It was a pleasure to find 'Harry' Harrisberg, Martin Buser's 'puppy team' driver, finishing off his 24-hour layover. We chatted pleasantly while I sorted out gear and got organized in a bunk. Soon others, like Paul Ellering, Tom Knolmayer, and Lachlan Clark, came in. All are good guys to share the trail and a cabin with, and in no time, all was quiet as we caught some shuteye.

I woke up quickly when my alarm went off, but it took some doing to get really moving again. I was still tired and the combination of that with the bitter cold made all my preparations ineffective and slow. Finally, about 45 minutes later than I wanted, I headed out into the wind.

For the first time this race, the dogs didn't hit the trail well. With almost 9 hours rest behind them and the kind of temperatures they normally enjoy, I was surprised. The trail out of the checkpoint comes out of the scrub trees the teams are sheltered in and then 'T's' at the end of the makeshift runway. Olena actually tried to head back down the runway back to the checkpoint. I had to sink a hook and run up and pull her back around to the right.

We eventually got rolling, but not with a lot of enthusiasm or punch. I fiddled on and off with leaders and finally ended up with Snickers and Dasher in lead. Olena and Kara both seemed to be having issues with their feet and I bootied both of them. Olena's were serious enough that she didn't feel like leading and Kara has never much cared for leading through wind anyway and the wind was certainly still blowing, although the first part of this trail is rather protected.

Eventually, about 50 miles from Ruby, the trail joins up with a summer mining road. It's not at all maintained in the winter and crosses several ridges that are often glaciated and/or very windy, but still, it is a bit of civilization, which seems like a nice change out here.

It became apparent quickly that the trail was going to be much windier from this point on. Gusts of wind were blowing snow across patches of the road and covering up the trail in a number of spots. Completely 'do-able', but not a fast, easy trail.

At one point the trail dips down across a creek and then scoots back up a hillside. In the dip, the wind was pretty calm and Ed Stielstra, who had passed me a bit earlier, was camped along the side of the trail. He graciously encouraged me to join him, but I was planning on making the trip in one shot, so I thanked him and continued on.

We climbed the hill and out of sight of Ed and if I thought the going at been tough before, things suddenly got much tougher. The wind was blowing at epic levels and the trail was COMPLETELY gone. I mean completely, not even a brief indent where it used to be.

I knew Snickers and Dash had never seen anything like this before and they took one look at the trail - well, lack of trail ahead and stopped dead. Both looked over their shoulders at me with puzzled looks.

I sunk my snowhook and battled against the wind to the front of the team, making sure to talk happy and upbeat to the dogs on the way - I didn't want them to think anything was wrong. After taking a minute to give the girls ear scratches, I stepped out ahead of them to show them where the trail was and promptly crashed through the snow up to my hip. After flaying around a bit, I did manage to find the trail again (you could figure out you were on the trail only because, due to the packed base, it was the only spot you didn't crash through). I took a few steps down the trail to show it to Snicks and Dasher and then got back on the sled and pulled the hook. With only slight hesitation and a few glances over their shoulders, the girls found the trail and we made it across the few hundred feet of missing trail. I stopped and heaped praise on them for their brilliance.

Within a very short stretch, we were faced with another completely blown-in area. This time the girls sorted out the trail all on their own. Pretty much the entire rest of the way to Ruby was like this - one blown-in section after another. I'm surprised that I didn't frostbite my tonsils, as my jaw was hanging open most of the time I was so impressed with the job my team was doing finding the trail and punching through drifts. The odd time when I thought I knew where the trail went better than they, I was proven a fool; eventually I just smartened up and just let them find the trail without offering my pitifully inadequate human input.

ŠPenny Blankenship for
©Penny Blankenship
More cartoons by Penny

A number of times the wind moved the sled to the edge of the trail, where it was really easy to get sucked off the firm base (especially when you couldn't see where the edge actually was) and into the heavy, bottomless drifts lurking at the sides. That would require considerable effort by both dogs and musher to get us back underway.

With the weather as it was, the run was slow going and taking longer than I anticipated. If I had realized this before, I would have taken a break with Ed, but now we weren't finding anywhere out of the wind to shut down for a while and powering through was really our only option. Some of the dogs began having issues with their feet, particularly Olena and Kara, so in addition to the booties, I also put the two of them on antibiotics as a safeguard.

The team eventually began to get discouraged with the wind and I tried a number of leaders, having brief success with some, but eventually going back to the combination of Snickers and Dasher.

As we were closing in on Ruby I began seeing some odd tracks on the trail. It took me awhile to figure out they were from one of the 'Idita-sport' Extreme competitors. These guys are REALLY crazy, if you ask me! They walk, ski or cycle down the Iditarod Trail. Anyway, this was one of the walkers. The dogs were actually enjoying having a broken trail to follow for a while and we were all bummed to catch him quickly; however, he was oblivious to our approach. I hollered out 'TRAIL' but he didn't hear me. In normal trail conditions the dogs would have just scooted around him, but they were in no hurry to be breaking trail again and happily settled in behind him. The speed wasn't great, but it was a nice mental break for the dogs and there wasn't much I could do about it anyway. I occasionally yelled out 'Trail' and after about 10 minutes he heard us and about jumped out of his skin. He asked how far behind him the other walker was (I think there were only 2 of them still on the trail) and I told him I passed him coming into Cripple. We passed by and now he had the pleasure of a broken trail to travel on.

About 3 miles outside of Ruby the trail joins up with a plowed road to the dump. It is downhill and usually very icy. This year was no exception. I was stomping on my drag brake and claw brake for all I was worth to keep the sled under control and the dogs at a reasonable pace. Going too fast on an icy, downhill trail is a sure way to hurt shoulders on dogs!

Oh, and did I mention that at the bottom of the hill is a sharp corner into Ruby?? I thought I had things under control, but ended up kissing the ice as I rounded the corner. I very quickly (mostly because we are near houses and someone might be watching) up righted everything and the team and I climbed the hill up into the village of Ruby.

Out of Ruby and on to the Yukon River

My respect and awe for my dog team, which was already huge, had grown a large amount on that trip over from Cripple.


Images of Ruby

Cripple to Nome Trail out of Cripple After Cripple - Almost to Ruby

Updated:  Sunday 3/12 5:22am AST




Time In

Time Out





Time Out




Jeff King/30


3/11 18:10:00

3/12 00:21:00





3/11 13:06:00


 24   8


Doug Swingley/5


3/11 18:21:00

3/12 00:57:00





3/11 13:27:00


 24   8


DeeDee Jonrowe/31


3/11 20:28:00

3/12 03:30:00





3/11 15:27:00


 24   8


Aliy Zirkle/26


3/12 03:24:00

3/12 03:37:00





3/11 22:11:00


 24   8


Hugh Neff/57


3/12 02:31:00

3/12 04:10:00





3/11 21:55:00


 24   8


Paul Gebhardt/84


3/12 01:50:00






3/11 20:42:00


 24   8


Lance Mackey/24


3/12 02:08:00






3/11 19:58:00


 24   8


Jamie Nelson/79


3/11 17:53:00






3/11 11:10:00


 24   8


Karen Ramstead/76


3/11 19:35:00

3/12 04:14:00





3/11 05:18:00


 24   8

Weather Snapshot - Ruby at the time of webpage update

Ruby to Nome Ruby to Unalakleet

News from Ruby
Dropped dog was



Karen's Diary - Yukon Quest/Iditarod 2006 Edition

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