SEELEY LAKE — After being on the trail for more than a third of the 300-mile Race to the Sky, musher Brett Bruggeman summed up his race experience succinctly.
“It’s cold. It’s very cold.”
Bruggeman may have been understating things. The second race day of the 34th annual Race to the Sky began Sunday with a temperature of 11 below zero in Seeley Lake, and race managers said overnight windchill had it feeling like minus-47.
The cold is a “huge equalizer” Bruggeman said. While his team would ordinarily be running around 9 to 10 mph, they were averaging 7 so far.
But despite the bitter cold Bruggeman, a dentist from Great Falls and likely the favorite to win the 300-mile distance, went down the line waking up his dogs after a mandatory six-hour rest at the Seeley Lake Community Hall to get back on the trail.
When he arrived hours earlier, Bruggeman fed the animals (he uses a combination of pork, chicken skin and salmon) and laid out straw for them to sleep on. With the help of a handler, Bruggeman fit booties onto the paws of all 12 dogs and under the guidance of a race veterinarian checked out one that appeared to have woken up a bit sore before getting the all-clear to get moving.
This is Bruggeman’s third race in two weeks, after winning the Idaho Sled Dog Challenge in McCall and coming in second at the Eagle Cap Extreme 200 in Oregon, where he finished two seconds behind his 17-year-old son Spencer. Spencer was scheduled to run in the shorter 100-mile distance of the Race to the Sky but pulled out because of an illness.
Bruggeman said he appreciated the frigid temperatures. Last year he competed in Alaska's 1,000-mile Iditarod and is planning to return this year. The Idaho and Oregon races were in warmer weather, and Bruggeman said it’s been good to get his team some more experience in the cold.
“A lot of mushers their second year in the Iditarod have problems. They maybe get a bit cocky, run their dogs too hard and run into issues,” he said.
After a final rundown of the mandatory item checklist of everything the mushers are required to carry, Bruggeman slung on an arctic parka and pulled on his mittens. He let out a whistle and the dogs, already wearing jackets themselves, began to howl.
It was time to run.
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Race marshal Rob Greger said the cold weather this weekend has its benefits and its issues.
“When the dogs are running, the cold temps are OK. They love it. But when it’s time to rest. Not so good. That’s why you see them with the jackets and blankets on out there. Even for them, this is cold,” he said.
Kathy Topham, one of the veterinarians who checks on the dogs during layovers, said there haven’t been any major issues so far.
“We just get to be out here taking pictures. It’s always a good day when the vets are bored,” she said.
The Race to the Sky began at the start/finish line near Lincoln on Saturday, with a temperature of 16 below zero and a 35 mph wind blowing. Greger said once the teams get back into the trees the wind dies down and the cold is more manageable.
Throughout Sunday morning, the 100-mile distance finishers slid past the finish line for the shorter distance near the Morrell Creek trailhead, led by race veteran Rick Larson who picked up his third such title in a row.
The five mushers in the 300-mile distance will likely start crossing the line sometime Monday evening, after heading to Owl Creek from Seeley Lake before retracing the course back to Lincoln.
Mindi Askelson, one of the board members for the race, said this is always a special weekend for her and the Seeley Lake community.
“We love how much the community turns out to support this,” she said Sunday at the community center. “They showed up here in the kitchen at 5 a.m. and they will be here past midnight to make hot, custom orders so all the mushers have a warm meal when they pass through.”
This year’s race is dedicated to Jack Beckstrom, one of the founders of the Race to the Sky who died last spring. The awards for best cared for dog team and best sportsmanship have been named after him.