IT STARTS WITH ONE SIBERIAN HUSKY, or maybe an Alaskan, a dog who thumps her tail when you sing “Hey, Jessie” and scratch her on the rear. Then she whelps a litter, and kennel creep sets in. Now you’ve got three dogs with pizzazz, then it’s seven, yapping, howling, reeling for a run.
You start to talk the casual talk with mushers Jack and Laurie Beckstrom. You buy a sled, a sleek affair, white ash, long runners and fast. Now, you’re talking lead dogs, point dogs, swing dogs. You’re learning tuglines, ganglines and brushbows. You’re taking the kids touring on the weekend behind athletes called Spunky, Boo, Minerva and Spud, who looked like a potato when he was a pup. You’re hooking up the team at night, stretching the distance, running by headlamp in the dark, 50, 70, 80 miles at a crack. Your kennel’s up to 43.
Then, one day, on a lark, on a dare, on a secret hunch, you sign up to make the grand tour, to crisscross the Continental Divide for 350 miles between Helena and Missoula, to run Montana’s Race to the Sky.
“BRUTAL AND BEATIFUL,” you’ve heard the race called. You’ve read 1997 Race to the Sky winner and three-time Iditarod runner Cliff Roberson’s take on the trail: “This is a very tough course. … This course makes the Iditarod mountains look like hills.”
And you know what musher Debbie Jayo said about weather: “That last section of trail got pretty nasty during the blizzard. There were times the leaders would look back with their eyes crusted shut from wind and snow. But they kept feeling their way along the badly drifting trail. I was so proud of those guys.”
STILL, YOU'RE COMMITTED. You start training your dogs in earnest in August. Wake at 5 to run a team, work a full day as camera shop owner or instrument mechanic, like Karen and Mark Ramstead. Run another team at night; feed and doctor the dogs; bed by 11 or 12. At it again the next day and the next, weeks into months, the dogs not caring if it’s Christmas or the Fourth of July as long as they’re on the run.
“You’re the vet, cook, bottle washer, babysitter, trainer and coach,” says Jay Hockensmith, 1996 racer and farmer. “But mushing is like a virus that no antibiotics will cure.”
It’s the dogs, of course. It’s their epidemic enthusiasm, their dedication, their dependence, their doggedness. They won’t run for just anyone who jumps on a sled and shouts, “Ready, hike!”
“The dogs wouldn’t stand for it,” says race veterinarian Dr. Jerry Abelsen. “They are not going to perform for someone they don’t know and trust. It’s a two-way street when it comes to dogs.”
You arrive, like a gypsy, on the week of the race. Camper, dog trailer, truck load of gear, belly of butterflies. Talk is of trails and weather. It’s 50 degrees and flooding, a wallow of slush. Or maybe snow squeaks to hard pack at 30 below.
Camping canine-style requires packing along everything including the kitchen sink and 720 dog booties.
FRIDAY, IT'S VET CHECK, the dogs humiliated and mournful, resigned to the doc’s probing hands. He talks; they listen. “You guys are in great shape, top notch, and ready to run.”
The start’s at Camp Rimini where sled dogs trained for the invasion of Norway in 1942. Your dogs seem to sense it. They churn up such a racket of howling and yelping, such a dither of jumping and leaping, you dig in the snow hook to prevent a false start. Wait for your cue, then lurch into the dark, headlamp carving up night, dogs quieting to harness, sled runners hissing against snow and then ice.
Already you’re watching their bodies for talk: the list of a tail, the slope of an ear, the way a shoulder rolls, or a foot leaves the ground. Watching for scuttlebutt of stress and of hurt. Two thousand miles of training these friends has taught you the language dogs know how to speak.
You’re thinking of layovers and rest stops. Pulling off booties, spreading straw for bedding, pouring more water, letting dogs sleep while you check their shoulders and feet. Dabbing ointment on pads, wrapping wrists, massaging hips. Waking them when they’re wound down, cooled down, ready to wolf down the meat you’ve slabbed off with a knife. Maybe then you’ll think of getting some sleep.
Now you’re out there gliding through trees, trailing to Lincoln, talking to dogs: “Come on Nipper. Good boy, Tom. Way to go Ali. Just take us on home.”
Editor’s Note: The 2014 Race to the Sky will run February 14 – 19; www.RacetotheSky.orghttp://www.RacetotheSky.org.