Dog sledder speaks about trip to Nome
RIVER FALLS, Wis. -- On Tuesday, Jan. 24, at 7 p.m. in the lower level of the River Falls library Wisconsin native, Jim Ryder, will speak about his incredible journey to Nome, Alaska.
In early 2011 Ryder traveled solo, by dog team, 800 miles from Nenana to Nome. His trip replicated the original Serum Run, which follows part of the Iditarod Trail.
The Serum run goes along the same route that was taken by a sled-dog relay that carried the diphtheria antitoxin to Nome in 1925.
Portrayed in the movie Balto, the original run was a grueling event, with deaths and injuries to both dogs and mushers.
One of 13 children, Ryder was born and raised in Eau Claire. He credits his parents with instilling in him a sense of adventure.
"I grew up when you could go out and explore," Ryder said. "I was given a lot of freedom."
In 1995, this father of three boys, one girl and grandfather to three, and his wife, Liz, moved to Madeline Island.
While on Madeline Island, Ryder and his wife ran a dog sled adventure company that offered rides around the area.
Always looking for an adventure, Ryder took up the offer of his hero, adventurer Norman Vaughn, to join him on the Serum Run. Unfortunately, Vaughn died before the two could go.
In Feb. 2010, Ryder decided that he needed to complete his mission. He applied online to compete in the Serum Run the following year.
During that summer, Ryder competed in the 2-mile Bayfield to Madeline Island open swim and also rollerbladed two marathons.
Training in the Apostle islands helped get him and his dogs used to the types of weather he would face in Alaska. It also helped him learn to the read the signs of nature.
Numerous blizzards in 2010 helped Ryder and his dogs get ready for the conditions they would be facing on the trail. "I wanted to go out in bad weather, so the dogs thought it was just another day."
"Alaska was not a shock to them (the dogs)."
Leaving on Jan. 5, 2011, Ryder arrived in Alaska three weeks prior to the run, so as to acclimate to the drastic temperature drop.
"It was minus 30 or minus 40 prior and that acclimated me. It was better than if it had been warmer," Ryder said.
Prior to his adventure, the only thing arranged was the trapper's cabin he would be staying at for the first three weeks.
When Ryder arrived he found out he was placed on the alternate list for the race. "They didn't think my dogs could keep up -- they were too slow," Ryder said.
Not to be deterred, Ryder decided to go it alone. He sent dog food to six villages along his route.
With a plan in place, Ryder's number one rule was to
"It was going to have to be something big to stop me," Ryder said. "I'm going."
On Feb. 15 at 5:30 a.m., Ryder left from Nenana, southwest of Fairbanks, -- the temperature was minus 43 F.
"It was so cold, I could see a cloud of vapor a mile back from our body heat," he said.
Delayed by a blizzard, Ryder and the dogs ran out of food two days from their next refueling village. Ryder hunkered down to sleep, when another musher happened by with fish for the dogs.
Ryder also recalled the time that he was travelling over Norton Sound trying to outrun an incoming storm.
"We had been going for 21 hours. We would go until the dogs got wobbly, then we would take a 10 to 12 minute nap in the snow and go again. It was a beautiful moon-lit night run."
Ryder credits his dogs for always doing what he asked of them. "With all the years of experience we really put it together for this trip," he said. "I didn't push them."
Although he never thought he wouldn't make it, there were times when things looked bleak.
At one point, Ryder was severely dehydrated and really weak. He knew there was a cabin up ahead, but he was struggling.
Ryder stopped the sled and tried to find snow to drink, but there was none. He got back onto the sled and clung on with his head down.
As the dogs led him, he began to see little golf-ball sized snowballs. He was so weak that he was only able to suck on them. At long last he found the cabin.
At times lost and going for days without human contact, Ryder said, "It was a struggle of survival with no exit plan."
Ryder counts himself lucky, he traveled with ten dogs, and all 10 dogs went the 800 miles.
Carrying 500 to 700 lbs. of gear on his sled, it took Ryder six weeks to complete the sometimes grueling course.
Along the trail Ryder not only celebrated his 60th birthday but also lost about 20 to 25 pounds.
Ryder said his experience was a "life-changing and spiritual" journey that he loved doing, but it was time to let go.
After his adventure, Ryder sold his dogs and equipment to an Alaskan family and returned home to begin his "life without dogs."
Since moving to River Falls in May, he has been relaxing and enjoying living closer to his children and grandchildren.
Ryder says that "... River Falls is a nice town and he is really excited to be presenting his incredible tale the public at the library."
Dexheimer is a reporter for the River Falls Journal (Wis.), which owned by Forum Communications Co.