Students meet sled dogs prior to Iditarod journey

GRETCHEN MENSINK LOVEJOY/CHATFIELD NEWS Damon Ramaker of Wykoff takes his dogs for a run around the schoolyard to show the students what it's like to be a musher. Ramaker will take his dogs and equipment to Alaska to compete in the 2020 Iditarod sled race in March.
Gretchen Mensink Lovejoy

“Do you know what kind of dogs these are?” asked Damon Ramaker, standing atop the Chatfield Elementary School hill, paying no attention to the damp, pre-snowstorm winds biting at his face and freezing the steam landing on his beard as he exhaled.

Mittened hands shot up. “Husky sled dogs?”

The 2020 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race contender affirmed the answer, explaining, “These are Alaskan huskies. There are many kinds of huskies, and most people think of the gray dogs with the blue eyes – a lot of people think of Siberian huskies. Mine are Alaskan huskies, and they love to run a long time and go really fast. They’re pretty durable dogs. What drives their breeding is not what they look like, but how fast they can run.”

Ramaker and his children, who attend Chatfield Elementary, had the privilege of showing their family’s very athletic canines and sled to the students Friday, Jan. 17, in the schoolyard just outside the preschool playground, sharing what they know about harnessing the energy of enthusiastic runners and Damon’s participation in the Iditarod dog race beginning on March 7.

The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is an annual 1,000-mile sled dog race from Anchorage to Nome, over very rough, but beautiful, terrain entirely within Alaska. Mushers and a team of 14 dogs, of which at least five must be on the towline at the finish line, typically cover the distance in eight to 15 days. The Iditarod began in 1973 as an event to test the best sled dog mushers and teams but evolved into today's highly competitive race.

Ramaker is the owner of the Deep Root Kennel, hailing from the bluff country of southeastern Minnesota where a team of dogs running down the road is “met with looks of bewilderment and curiosity,” according to his official Iditarod biography. He lives near Wykoff with his wife, three children and many dogs in a yurt they built in 2016.

For the past seven years, Ramaker has worked as an emergency department nurse at Saint Marys Hospital-Mayo Clinic in Rochester. Prior to that, he worked at Fairview Medical Center in Minneapolis.

While dogs have always been a part of Ramaker’s life, his interest in dog-powered sports started in skijoring with his rescue and hunting dogs in 2007. He spent the last five years learning and working with Iditarod veteran Cindy Gallea, from whom he caught the mushing bug. Gallea, 67, also living in the Wykoff area, completed her 15th and final Iditarod last year.

“On their first encounter, she warned him that once you step on the runners of a sled, there is no turning back. She advised him to consult his wife before doing so, to which she offered her full support, most days. He greatly looks forward to the challenges and triumphs to come as he travels across the amazing state of Alaska with a team of his buddies,” noted Ramaker’s Iditarod biography.

His appearance at Chatfield Elementary School was one of many educational opportunities his family has provided for area children and community members.

He told the students last week he has 31 Huskies in training and will hit the Iditarod trail with 14 of them. His first ride was on a wheeled cart, he added.

“I’ve always been interested in dog-powered stuff, and I met a gal who was in dogsledding and I worked with her to get her dogs ready for the Iditarod, which is a 1,000-mile race,” he said.

His dogs are a mix of ages from 2 to 9 years old. They start their training in September or October when it gets cold.

He described how he stands on his sled’s runners, gives his dogs the signal that it’s time to run and then showed the students the snow hook, or anchor, that’s driven into the snow to keep the team from departing when he’s supposed to be stopped for any reason. “

“There’s a jacket for every one of the dogs to wear, but they mostly wear them only at rest stops when they’re sleeping or if it’s really cold, like -10 to -20 degrees,” he said.

Ramaker held up a metal bucket, telling the students, “This is a dog food cooker. It’s a five-gallon bucket, and you put boiling water and regular dry dog food in here, and then you add some beef to make some big dog stew so that while they’re resting, they get a little bowl of food.”

The race has 22 checkpoints on the northern route between Anchorage and Nome, and it’s 30 to 80 miles between checkpoints. At 20 of the checkpoints, teams can refuel.

“We’ve already shipped all our stuff up to Alaska. There are snacks for our dogs when we rest, like chicken with the skin on it, the same kind of chicken we eat, or they have beaver meat,” Ramaker said. “This is my sleeping bag – it’s kinda big and bulky – and at some checkpoints, they’re like a little village where you can dry off and take a snooze, let your dogs rest. There are other stops where there’s nothing out there, but at every checkpoint, there’s straw that we put on the ground for the dogs to sleep on. It keeps them nice and cozy, and that’s when we feed them and get them ready to run again. I sleep in my sleeping bag in the snow, next to the dogs.”

Keeping warm and safe while driving a team of dogs requires that he wears the right clothing and takes care of his dogs so that everyone gets to the finish line or is flown home to recover from getting sick or hurt on the trail.

“I wear layers – there’s puffy layers underneath to keep me warm, and then I wear a parka with a hood on it,” he said. “Can anybody guess what kind of mittens these are?”

The stout brown fur mittens slung behind his back on a cord garnered numerous guesses from the students, with “bear” being one of them, but ultimately, he informed the student who said “beaver” that that is the right answer.

He showed the students the features of his sled that keep him and his team on track.

“There’s one person on the sled, only one,” he explained. “There’s room on the sled for a dog if I have to put one on there, and I have to tie them in because the last dog who was put on the sled didn’t want to be on it and he tore out the zipper because even if he’s hurt, he’d rather be out running than riding on the sled. We race 14 dogs and we have to have six at the finish line. If they get sick or hurt, we leave them at a checkpoint, and they’re flown home from there.”

Students and teachers had the opportunity to ask further questions of Ramaker, and one inquired, “How fast do they go?” He replied,

“In the beginning, because they’re so excited to be running, they start out at about 10 miles per hour, but we use the brakes to slow them down, so after a while, they do an average of 8 miles per hour.”

As the wind became too cold for most to stand outside much longer, Ramaker took his team on a circle of the schoolyard and invited the children to meet his dogs.

“I just like being with the dogs to accomplish a goal,” Ramaker concluded. “It’s connecting with our dogs…that’s the great fun.”