Retired Iditarod musher, now a race official, finds new challenges

TAKOTNA — Karen Ramstead, who long ran the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race with a team of Siberian huskies, has made the transition from 1,000-mile musher to race judge.

Ramstead was sitting at a crowded table in the Takotna community hall Thursday morning, talking with volunteers, when she got called outside to make an official decision about a musher's rest time. It's her third year as a judge, she said.

"One of my early mentors in the sport used to tell me, 'There's two kinds of people in this world: Those who run Iditarod and those who don't get it,' " she said. "So, you know, I get it. And I think that really helps you work with mushers."

Ramstead, from the Canadian province of Alberta, last ran the Iditarod in 2014. She broke her left hand during a brutal trip through the Dalzell Gorge and was withdrawn in Rohn. But even before the injury, she said, she knew that race would be her last.

She had given up on her longtime "litmus test": Each time she traveled the trail, she asked herself, "If you never went through this section of trail by dog team again, would that be OK with you?"

"I figured out a couple of years ago that my answer is always going to be no," she said. "The trail will always pull and there will always be a draw toward it, but it's just time for me to realize that there's some other challenges I want to do."

One of those challenges is riding through Rainy Pass on a fat-tire bike. The other? Shepherding her border collie through its new hobby.


"She had a little midlife crisis last summer and decided she wanted to herd sheep," Ramstead said. "So I've been tagging along with her."

Still, Ramstead holds a piece of Alaska close -- literally. While training her sled dog team in Fairbanks one year, a piece of black spruce sliced into the top of hand and lodged in her skin. With the Iditarod near, she took pain medication and her skin closed around it. Now, it's just a bump.

"My doctor every year looks at it and she goes, 'I can cut that out, you know,' " Ramstead said. "And I'm like, 'I really don't want you cutting into my hand.' And, I just get to carry a little bit of Alaska around."

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Tegan Hanlon

Tegan Hanlon was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News between 2013 and 2019. She now reports for Alaska Public Media.