Rural Fountain man to compete in 2020 Iditar

CHARLIE WARNER/BLUFF COUNTRY NEWSPAPER GROUP Damon Ramaker of rural Fountain is shown with Yentna, who is one of his lead dogs that will be mushing through the Alaskan wilderness in the Iditarod next March.
Charlie Warner

What would possess a person to endure blinding blizzards, gale-force winds, wind chills of minus 100 degrees F to compete in a 1,100-mile sled dog race that could take two weeks to complete? To make matters even more challenging is the route winds across the Alaskan wilderness between Anchorage and Nome in late winter.

“It’s something I’ve been dreaming about for some time,” said Damon Ramaker, who lives with his wife and three children on an acreage just east of Fillmore. “I’ve always been interested in dogs. I took a trip with my family to Alaska when I was in fourth grade where we toured the Iditarod Center and got a ride in a cart pulled by dogs. That kind of planted the seed.”

Damon recalled how he and his brother would hook up their dogs with a horse harness turned upside down to a wagon to replicate their Alaskan experience. He was always fascinated by the “Great White North,” and was an avid reader of Jack London and Gary Paulsen books as well as books about the mushing world.

When Damon and his wife, Kylie, lived in the Twin Cities, they got involved in “skijoring,” which is a sport that involves cross-country skiing, while being pulled by a dog. They actually participated in a number of skijoring races.

Damon and Kylie started a family and wanted to have their kids grow up in a more rural setting. That’s when they moved to Fillmore County. And they wanted to incorporate their kids into this recreation they enjoyed. So they added more dogs and the whole mushing experience began to grow.

Shortly after moving back to southeast Minnesota, Damon got acquainted with Cindy Gallea, who had been competing in the Iditarod for years. Gallea lives on a farm south of Wykoff, near Forestville State Park, with a large team of sled dogs.

“Cindy had been involved in mushing for many years and competed in the Iditarod 13 times. She was thinking about retiring and didn’t have a handler to help her. She asked me if I would be willing to be her handler,” Damon said. That’s when he got involved in mushing in a major way.

Between Gallea’s dogs and Damon’s, they had more than three dozen sled dogs. They started working together to prepare their dogs for future competitions. Because southeast Minnesota only has a snow cover for a few months each winter, sled dogs are harnessed to a four-wheeler and the team pulls the musher on gravel roads. Damon said they actually have to put the ATV into gear to slow the team down. The dogs are so strong that if the four-wheeler wasn’t in gear, it would get going too fast.

“If we didn’t have it in gear, we’d wear out the brakes,” he noted with a smile.

The dogs are started out with short two- or three-mile runs pulling the four-wheeler and the runs are increased to much greater distances throughout the summer and fall seasons. By the time there’s snow on the ground, Damon and his dogs will be setting out on 50-mile training runs on area snowmobile trails.

Competition mushing takes a city of support to participate in, according to Damon. He said if it wasn’t for his wife, his family and friends, it would be impossible to do. It is a major commitment that takes him away from his family quite often.

One just doesn’t sign up to compete in the Iditarod. To qualify, a musher and his team must complete two sanctioned 300-mile races and one at least 150 miles long. Damon has competed in major races in Montana and northern Minnesota. He also served as a handler for a race in the Yukon and traveled with Gallea to the Iditarod last year, where he served on the support team at the beginning of the race.

Competing in the Iditarod is a long, well thought out process. Besides having both the dogs and the musher in excellent physical shape, there’s figuring out just how much food, medicines, first aid materials, clothing and tools for making repairs will be needed on the trail. These must be transported to Anchorage, which is the beginning of the race. Each team must start out with 14 dogs and, when crossing the finish line more than 1,100 miles later at Nome, the race must be completed with at least five dogs.

There are many reasons why a team doesn’t finish the race with 14 dogs. Sickness, injuries and fatigue all factor into the attrition. And once the race begins, the musher and his or her team are on their own. There are 21 to 25 checkpoints along the way, depending if the race is on the southern or northern route. The distance between the checkpoints varies from about 30 to 50 miles. Food and supplies are airlifted to the checkpoints and many of the teams will spend time at each checkpoint resting, tending to injuries, fixing equipment and refueling bodies.

“Once the race begins, it’s just you and your team. And it can be so quiet out there. The dogs get into a rhythm and all you hear are the dogs breathing and the runners of the sled moving across the snow,” Damon observed.

The Iditarod begins the first week in March, with 60 to 75 teams competing. Damon figures starting that late in winter gives the mushers more winter weather to prepare their teams, the days are longer to provide more daylight and the weather might not be quite so harsh.

Damon explained that he and his team will be facing arctic cold, but it helps to dress in layers and he makes sure to bring enough clothes and equipment to see him and his dogs through.

Damon plans to take about six weeks off from his job as an emergency room nurse at Saint Marys Hospital in Rochester for the race. There’s all the packing and then the long drive to Anchorage before the race. He figures it will take him about two weeks to complete the race and then return back to Fillmore County.

Competing in the Iditarod and reaching Nome will be a dream come true for Damon. “Kylie knew once I met Cindy (Gallea) I had my sights set on the Iditarod,” he said.

And when Damon crosses the finish line in Nome next March, Kylie and their three children, Ruby, Lucy and Walter, will be waiting there to share in the moment.

“Oh yes,” said Kylie, “we plan to all be up there when he finishes the race.”

Damon added that this has been a family endeavor and they all want to share it together. “So they’ll all be there, waiting at the finish line.”

Besides the monumental physical and time requirements of participating in the race, which is considered to be the “Super Bowl” of all mushing events worldwide, there is the financial aspect as well. Damon is working on securing individual and corporate sponsors to make this experience a reality. He has made a number of presentations at area schools and libraries, featuring several of his sled dogs.

“I want to do all I can to teach and inspire people about this sport. It has become my passion,” he added.

For more information on upcoming presentations, preparation updates or how you can help support Damon and his team, log on to



The Iditarod is terribly cruel to dogs. FACTS:

I grew up in Alaska and am fortunate to work with Damon in the ED.  Dog Sleddinng and the Iditorod in particular is not for the faint of heart. It is an endurance race the commemorates the use of dog sleds to get medication to an isolated community when there was no other way.  Yes,  the dogs and racers go through extreme conditions, but the health and care of the dogs are  foremost. If you have seen sled dogs respond to their owners,  or jump for joy when the sled comes out you understand how much these dogs love to pull.  So excited to hear Damon will be running in the Iditorod!!