This year’s Race to the Sky will be the first to be held without one of its founders, Jack H. Beckstrom.
Beckstrom died unexpectedly last March at age 64. Pam Beckstrom, his wife, said the annual sled dog race in northwest Montana was her husband’s vision 34 years ago.
“He wanted to introduce long-distance mushing to Montana,” she said. “So him and his friends got together at Seeley Lake and organized the first event.”
That first event, then known as the Montana’s Governor’s Cup Sled Dog Race, took place in February 1986. It was a 500-mile race that was a qualifier for the Iditarod. While Race to the Sky may have changed its name and dropped the distance to 300 miles, it has held the qualifier distinction for the last 34 years.
Jack remained on the board of directors and was part of the organizing committee until his death. Pam remains part of both.
Pam said the race will be held in her husband’s honor this year. Additionally, the good dog care award and sportsmanship awards will carry Jack’s name going forward.
“Good dog care and being a good sport were always very important to Jack,” Pam said.
In addition, Pam said the National Forest Service is looking into naming a section of the race trail for Jack. She said a new bridge being built in Lincoln will be named for him too.
Earlier this month, the organizing committee was very concerned about the conditions for this year's race since not much snow had hit the area. But race organizers say the Lincoln Valley has received plenty of powder since then, creating prime conditions for the event.
“The mushers were sad at first when they thought there might be a limited race,” Pam said. “They want to run these beautiful trails.”
Pam praised the excellent cooperation between the Forest Service and area logging operations servicing and clearing the trails for the race.
The notoriously challenging race will see mushers take on the same route as last year. They will start in the Lincoln Valley before going over Huckleberry Mountain to arrive at the first checkpoint at Whitetail Ranch off the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
Mushers will then go from Whitetail Ranch to Seeley Lake and then on to Owl Creek, where only mushers and officials will be. Mushers will be required to take a mandatory six-hour rest and a floating mandatory four-hour rest before returning to Seeley Lake and finishing the race.
The 100-mile adult and junior races will have a mandatory six-hour layover before finishing at the Seeley Lake community center.
So far, the race has 22 teams competing from Montana, Minnesota, Wyoming, Oregon, Utah, Idaho and Ontario, Canada. However, Pam said there could be more because teams have about one more week to sign up. She said she had around eight teams sign up in the past week and expects more.
Just like last year, the pre-race festivities will be held in Lincoln to accommodate racers. Pam said organizers didn’t want racers to drive from Helena to Lincoln the night before the race as they did in the past.
The 300-mile vet check is scheduled for 1 to 3 p.m. Friday, Feb. 8, at Hi Country Trading Post, 1 Lincoln Gulch St. in Lincoln. Later that evening, the pre-race banquet will be held in the Lincoln Community Hall, where Butte chef Barbie Nelson will be cooking up an enchilada dinner. The banquet is open to the public.
The 100-mile vet check will take place from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 9, at Hi Country Trading Post. Teams will hit the starting line at 2 p.m. beginning with the 300-mile teams, followed by 100-mile junior teams and then 100-mile adults.
In the past, the banquet was held in Helena but was moved to Lincoln for the benefit of mushers. However, Pam said Helena has always been and remains an important part of the race.
“We have so many things we need out of Helena each year,” Pam said. “The community has always been so supportive.”
Race to the Sky also honors soldiers and dogs from Camp Rimini each year. The camp is located just outside Helena.
Additionally, many in the Helena community volunteer to help with the race each year.
“We could never have done this race without volunteers,” Pam said. “The dogs are the heart of the trail and the volunteers are the heart of the race."
Pam said she meets some of the nicest people through the event. One of those is new race manager Chris Jewett. Pam said this is Jewett's first year tackling management duties; they picked her up after she volunteered for the race last year.
Race fans are welcome to come and visit with mushers during the pre-race banquet, award ceremonies and early on race day. Those who can’t make it to see the mushers off can follow them via GPS tracking on racetothesky.org. Pam said this feature is not only interesting for race fans, but is also an important safety device for mushers.
One thing Pam asked is that people be considerate and not bring their own dogs on race day.
“It causes a lot of noise and confusion and it could cause issues for race teams,” she said.
Anyone who must bring a dog is asked to leave it in the car until after the races have started.