He nibbled on snow to keep from nodding off, but Brett Bruggeman of Great Falls turned the 34th Race to the Sky dogsled race into a yawner.
Through epic dumps of snow and some of the coldest days and nights in race history, Bruggeman led a field of five almost from the start to win the 300-miler early Tuesday by more than three hours.
“It’s been a long time coming,” said Bruggeman, who has mushed in every Race to the Sky since 2013 and finished as high as second in 2016. “It was great to win and even better to see how nice and happy the dogs came in.”
Siblings Greg and Slugger and their father, Plugger, led Bruggeman’s winning team under the finish archway at Hi-Country Snack Foods near Lincoln at 6:02 a.m.
Darby’s Gabe Dunham, competing in her first Race to the Sky, was next at 9:18 a.m., followed by Clayton Perry of Power at 9:38 a.m. The final two teams guided by Damon Ramaker of Fountain, Minnesota, and Cindy Gallea of Wykoff, Minnesota, crossed at 11:39 a.m. and 11:40 a.m., respectively.
Bruggeman, 48, snapped a string of seven straight wins by female mushers in Race to the Sky. It marked the first time the top three finishers were Montanans.
It was the second win in 10 days for Bruggeman, who's preparing for his second 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail race in Alaska next month. He captured the Idaho Sled Dog Challenge in McCall, Idaho, in early February after finishing second to his son, Spencer, at the Eagle Cap Extreme in Oregon a week earlier.
The Montana win was “kind of bittersweet,” Bruggeman said. “Usually I’m running with Spencer.”
The 17-year-old is the main reason Bruggeman got into sled dog racing in the first place. Together they started their kennel, Skinny Leg Sled Dog, a nod to a birth defect that kept Spencer from competing in mainstream sports. He came down with the flu last week after the Idaho race and had to turn over his team in the 100-mile race to James Pilcher of Fairfield.
Brett Bruggeman said he owed much of his success to handler Miriam Osredkar, and a "pit crew" consisting of Pilcher, Willy Stewart and Trevor Ose.
"I want to thank my wife (Suzette) for putting up with us and for letting Spencer and I do this," Bruggeman said. "And Spencer for getting me into it."
Teams took off Saturday afternoon in temperatures between 15 and 20 below zero and howling winds.
“By far the coldest Race to the Sky I’ve been in,” Bruggeman said. “Usually it’s a pretty warm race, but this was actually good. I wanted to have some cold weather for once to hopefully get me ready for the north in Alaska. The dogs did fine. They seemed to relish the cold weather to the point.”
Bruggeman had a full team of 12 dogs until he dropped one at the last checkpoint Monday night. Given the conditions, it was a successful race for man and beast.
“It presented a lot of challenges, with cold and a lot of snow,” he said.
The combination made for slow going. In the five years since Race to the Sky went from a 350-mile race to 300 miles, it was the first one to spill over into Tuesday.
“We had snow machines most of the time during the race going out in front of them,” race secretary Pam Beckstrom said. “It’s been snowing most of the time, so I’m sure Brett ran into some deep stuff.”
Averaging 7 miles per hour for much of the race, Bruggeman took 8 ½ hours to go the final 51 miles from the final checkpoint at the Whitetail Ranch, over Huckleberry Pass and down to Lincoln.
“I got really tired this race as far as trying to stay awake,” he admitted. “There were a lot of times during the last leg, maybe because we were going so slow, that I kept dozing out and had to eat snow to stay awake.”
The race was dedicated to Jack Beckstrom of Olney, who died unexpectedly last March of a heart attack. He had a lifelong impact on dog mushing in Montana and was one of the organizers in the first one in 1986, when it was called the Governor’s Cup 500 and started on the steps of the Capitol building in Helena.
It was Beckstrom’s lead husky Jingles who was first to depart in that inaugural race. Like this one, it was plagued by massive snowfall and blinding wind. The 500-mile race was shortened by 60 miles as mushers and their sled dogs were trucked from Lincoln to Blossburg at the base of Mullan Pass north of the Helena.