LINCOLN — Flanking both sides of the roped off starting area, the bundled-up crowd waited as their breath formed white clouds above them in the minus 15 degree temperatures. The bootied paws of the dog team pounded and scratched the snow as they tugged against the ganglines. A brief silence fell before the musher yelled, “Gee!” and the 12 dogs lunged forward in unison, pulling the sled and musher off the line to mark the start of the 34th annual Race to the Sky at Hi-Country Snack Foods in Lincoln.
“You can feel the energy at the start,” said Chris Jewett, race manager. “The dogs go bonkers once the ganglines start coming out.”
The crowd cheered as the first team pulled away and the next team of dogs started yipping and barking as they took their place on the line.
“Once the dogs are on the trail, they quiet down and are all business," said Jewett. “It’s funny to see the transformation.”
The Race to the Sky is a long-distance sled dog race that commemorates the Camp Rimini War Dog Reception and Training Center just outside Helena. This year’s Race to the Sky is dedicated to Jack Beckstrom for his lifetime commitment to the sport of mushing and bringing distance mushing to Montana. He was the original organizer of the race in 1986 and was part of every single race until his unexpected death in March 2018.
Unseasonably warm temperatures and a severe lack of snow in the weeks leading up to the race had many of the organizers scrambling to prepare a plan B. But several recent snowstorms and a severe drop in temperatures arrived just in time.
“Mother Nature did decide to cooperate with us after all,” chuckled Pam Beckstrom, race secretary and wife to Jack Beckstrom. “There are very good trail conditions. The cold weather has helped set them up nicely.”
The notoriously challenging race has gone through several distance changes over the years but now features three different competitions. There is the 300-mile race, the 100-mile junior continuous race, and the 100-mile adult continuous race.
The route goes west over Huckleberry Pass to Kleinschmidt Flats and the first checkpoint at the Whitetail Ranch, then through back roads to the outskirts of Seeley Lake, where the 100-mile teams finish at the Morrell Creek trailhead. The 300-mile racers stop over at the Seeley Lake Community Hall on Highway 83, then turn north another 50 miles to the turnaround point at the Owl Creek checkpoint just south of Holland Lake.
“This race is not for the faint of heart,” said Jewett. “It’s a hard race to run with a lot of mixed terrain and the mushers have to be in as good of shape as their dogs.”
According Beckstrom, there were six entries in the 300-mile race, 13 in the 100-mile adult and one in the 100 junior. Competitors herald from Montana as well as Wyoming, Oregon, Minnesota, Washington, Idaho, Utah, and Ontario, Canada. As an Iditarod qualifying event, Race to the Sky tends to draw mushers from all over.
For David Hassilev from Priest River, Idaho, it is his first year competing in Race to the Sky in the 300-mile race. He said he'd heard about the event from other mushers and had always wanted to try it.
Rick Larson, of Belt, had to pause for a moment before responding that he thought it would be his 11th year at Race to the Sky. For him, the “challenging race course” is what keeps him coming back year after year.
With wind chills around 37 degrees below zero Saturday afternoon, both mushers and dogs will be challenged by more than just the race distance.
“It’s going to be a test for dogs and for humans,” said Hassilev of the cold temperatures.
“It’s gunna be cold, but it’s good for the dogs and good for us,” said Larson.
Regardless of weather, Beckstrom explained that completing a distance race all comes down to the level of teamwork exhibited. The musher, handler, dogs, and veterinarians must all work together to achieve a successful run.
Each year a team of International Sled Dog Veterinary Medical Association veterinarians are on-site to care for the dogs throughout the race. After a snowstorm in Minneapolis delayed the arrival of some of the vets, all finally arrived on-site in time for their vet checks.
Dr. Cathy Davis, who runs the canine rehabilitation department at Alpine Animal Clinic in Helena, is part of the vet team for the first time this year.
“I’m excited for the whole thing,” said Davis of helping with the event. “I haven’t been exposed to this type of work in person before.”
Davis shared that the vets will examine the dogs for any signs of injury to their limbs, as well as for exhaustion, hypothermia, and hyperthermia. She explained that distance races are hard on the dogs’ muscles and backs and puts additional stress on their hearts. The booties that many of the race dogs wear work to prevent frostbite, cuts on their pads from the ice and getting snow stuck between their toes.
In wanting to help better share the experience of the race with the public, Beckstrom shared that this year’s event will feature aerial footage presented by iFlyBigSky of Helena. Footage shot will be displayed on racetothesky.org
“It should provide a very interesting perspective on the race,” said Beckstrom.
Another special addition to this year’s race was a special Race to the Sky coffee, brewed especially for the event by Montana Coffee Traders in Whitefish. With the extreme temperatures, many attendees at Saturday’s start were grateful for the warm beverage.
With the 34th Race to the Sky well underway, Beckstrom can finally pause for a few moments to just take it all in.
“Jack always said that I was the face of the race,” said Beckstrom. “I said he was the heart and soul of it.”
According to Beckstrom, Jack “worked tirelessly” on the race every year and wore many different hats. He was a board member, musher rep, treasurer, race marshal, fundraiser, and a regular dog musher and competitor. While Beckstrom admitted that the mushing community was “reeling” after Jack’s untimely passing, she takes comfort in seeing his work live on.
“Everywhere you look with this event, his footprints are here,” said Beckstrom. “His vision clearly continues.”
While the teams have many chilly miles ahead still, the public can monitor their progress at racetothesky.org for live GPS tracking by Brett Bruggeman of Great Falls and aerial footage from iFlyBigSky. Updates will also be posted on the website three times daily.
The 100-mile awards will be presented Sunday at 1 p.m. at the Seeley Lake Community Center. Awards for the 300-mile race are set for 2 p.m. Tuesday at Hi-Country Snack Foods, which is also the final cutoff for all participating teams. The public is welcome to attend all events.
“When you finish this race … it’s something really big that you can say you did,” said Beckstrom.