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Iditarod brings touch of normalcy to flood-ravaged Galena

GALENA -- Nine months after the worst flood in 100 years left the Yukon River town of Galena struggling to rebuild, things are slowly coming back to their regular pace. One thing that's helping? The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

"There's so much going on, it takes your mind off of a lot of that stuff," said Kenton Moos, refuge manager with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Galena. "It's a little normalcy."

It's a taste of consistency for the town that has seen little of it in the last few months as it has focused on rebuilding following massive damage from the Yukon River flood.

But despite the destruction this summer, things in the checkpoint are running smoothly for the most part. Still, checkpoint manager Jon Korta said little things have emerged as missing over the last few days. Plastic buckets, for example, seemed hard to come by.

"Nobody seems to have any," he said.

But not much else changed at the checkpoint, short of the lake next door that mushers use to rest their teams. A berm that people used as a walking trail was washed away with the waters, flattening the area out and making it easier to park dog teams.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for Galena came from mushers themselves. Generally, Iditarod dog drivers arrive in the community of 400 Friday night or afternoon at the earliest, but with this year's blistering pace, volunteers manning the checkpoint were surprised to see two-time runner-up Aliy Zirkle pull into the checkpoint just after 6 a.m.

Hours later, the checkpoint still buzzed with excitement. It is one of the few buildings that avoided flooding this spring, though water did surround the building. Adults milled about in the sun, waiting for the next musher to arrive, while children swarmed a pile of snow overlooking the dog yard to get a better look at the mushers parked below. Volunteers lugged bales of straw back and forth and steered mushers toward drop bags neatly stacked around the Larson Charlie Community Hall.

Moos, an Iditarod volunteer himself, recalled the hundreds of church volunteers who descended on Galena this summer to help rebuild homes and buildings soaked with water and buried in muck.

The relatively mild winter has been a blessing for people who are still getting back on their feet, Moos said. The Wildlife Service just moved back into its offices four weeks ago, he said, because the first priority was rebuilding the eight destroyed employee homes.

Wendy Tulloch and her three daughters did their part around the checkpoint Friday, albeit in a different way. Tulloch's daughter, Aubrey, 9, decided she wanted to help Lance Mackey, one of her favorite mushers who's had to skip this year's race, and is raising money to help cover medical costs incurred replacing his jaw and teeth. She and her mom ended up making maple bars as a fundraiser.

It was a little something they could do to help Mackey, who's having a tough year like the Tulloch family.

They didn't get back into their home until December, and Tulloch said that at the elementary school, class sizes still aren't what they were before -- the result of children not coming back to the community after the flood.

Still, the kids are making do, she said. They're having fun with the race, participating in the Idit-a-read program. For every 10 pages kids read, they earn a mile. The goal is to make it to Nome before the race leaders do.

Tamara Huntington, who operates a dog kennel in Galena with her husband Andrew, said in years past it was nice to cheer on a Galena team. That isn't happening this year, with people instead excited to cheer on Akiak musher Mike Williams Jr., who attended school in Galena. Huntington's is one of only two dog kennels left in the community. After the flood three others left or retired, too weary from the flooding to continue mushing.

Huntington said there probably won't be dog races for adults at the Galena Spring Carnival in a few weeks. In past years, eight to 10 mushers would show up to race 16 miles a day for one or two days. Last year there were four, and with only two this year, a race is unlikely.

With about 23 dogs in her kennels, Huntington acknowledged that racing in this part of Alaska can be a challenge, especially after everything the community has gone through.

"It's tough to begin with," she said.

But at least with things like the Iditarod, some of that toughness is starting to be a little more bearable.

"We need positive, fun activities to take our minds off the hard times we've gone through," Korta said.

Reporter Laurel Andrews contributed to this report.

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