The first thing you notice about Young Living Race to the Sky is the incredible din that starts in an instant. If one dog howls or barks, the rest join in, and then the entire parking lot is an explosion of animal noise.
The second thing you notice is the smell. Sled dogs eat nearly five pounds of high protein kibble, meat and fat per day and even in the Lincoln cold, it’s incredibly pungent. If the wind shifts right, nostrils are assaulted and eyes water.
The third thing you notice is that every single musher seems to shine with the heat of passion for racing in inhospitable conditions with eight or 12 very energetic and very strong dogs.
Clayton Perry is mushing the 100-mile race. Out of Choteau, Perry started mushing dogs in 1998, using them to run trap lines and hunt mountain lions before switching completely into the racing side of mushing.
Perry said he runs “heavy,” and as he packs the rest of his clothes, food, water and other gear, it’s easy to see that even though he’s doing the shorter race, it’s still a massive undertaking.
“It’s an awesome opportunity to go camping with a controlled environment,” Perry said. “Sled dogs are quiet compared to hounds.”
He doesn’t seem to worry about winning as much as the sled rushing through the trees with dogs pulling with all their might in front of him.
Perry’s dogs are unusual. People stop to look at them and ask him why they look so different. He replies that they’re from greyhound, bird dog, pointer, hound dog and husky stock, but the greyhound makes them so rangy and lean. They’re all named for Montana towns: Libby and Butte are the leaders and Archer, Decker, Joplin and three others make up the rest of Perry’s team.
Another unusual dog bayed near Perry. A basset hound named Reuben, like the sandwich, is the unofficial mascot of Skinny Leg Sled Dogs, Brett Bruggeman and his son Spencer’s team that runs out of Great Falls.
Brett is going to be racing his first Iditarod this year, the 1,000-mile Alaskan endurance race that is famous for its trying environments and sheer length.
“Spencer started racing dogs five years ago,” Brett said as he began dressing for the 300-mile race. Dogs were urinating, and a dog named Harley made what Brett called “Chewbacca noises.” Brett ran through his gear, base layers, a huge parka, insulated bib, gloves, mitts and muk luk boots made out of canvas and moose hide that were cobbled by a man in Minnesota. Preparation for this race is just part of the Bruggemans' biggest goal, which is to run the Iditarod together as a father and son team.
Spencer was inspired by Jack London’s “Call of the Wild.”
Because he was born with a congenital defect that shortened his left leg and made it hard for him to get involved in athletics, dog mushing became his sport, and along with his dad they are working to their Iditarod goal.
Talking to Spencer leaves no doubt that he knows more than the average 16-year-old about living in inhospitable conditions far from help or anyone. He’s surprisingly calm about his most recent race’s difficulties when he made a bad turn and the dogs got sick as well.
Spencer explains that sled dogs need to be chosen based not just on temperament and size, but on whether they’re right or left paw dominant, if they’re happy running, and most strangely, if they eat fast. When racing, if they don’t eat, they don’t run.
And all of that knowledge is going to be turned into racing in the “Last Great Race on Earth,” the Iditarod.
The Iditarod’s history goes back to Athabaskan and Inupiaq peoples mushing dogs in Alaska, and later gold miners. The most famous mushing event in Alaskan history though was the 1925 serum run to Nome that inspired the movie “Balto,” a story about a sled dog and the heroic run of an antitoxin to save people who had fallen sick from diphtheria.
That movie is what inspired junior racer Christina Gibson to become a dog musher. “When I was 4 I watched ‘Balto’ and I told my mom I really wanted to do that,” Gibson said as she prepared to start her fourth race this year. “When I was 12 I ran(a dog sled] for the first time and I was hooked.”
“You have to keep mentally strong,” Gibson said. “It’s really important to stay positive around the dogs,” because they feed off the musher’s energy.
Last year’s Race to the Sky winner, Laurie Warren, is working to qualify for the Iditarod in 2019. In Idaho, where Warren runs her dogs and kennel, it’s been warm. Her dogs were shivering a bit in the cold but, as Warren said, they “like the cold.”
Named for Greek and Roman gods, her black and brown dogs are slim and raring to go. In the pantheon of legends, Warren might be going that way too because now she has the taste for mushing, she’s not going to let it go anytime soon.
Warren said that “like a lot of things, it’s very addicting once you get started.”