They’ve etched their names in Race to the Sky lore, a pair of women who helped define Montana’s foremost dogsled race in the 1990s and those who’ve come to dominate the winner’s circle in recent years.
In Jessie Royer’s case, she’s both. The race's first female winner in 1994 at age 17, when it was 500 miles long, Royer reeled off back-to-back wins in 2015 and 2016 before taking last year off to concentrate on her primary goal, winning the Alaska Iditarod. She placed a commendable fifth. Royer is back in Lincoln this weekend for another turn at Race to the Sky.
Cindy Gallea used to be a regular at this race, and at the Iditarod, when she lived in Seeley Lake and worked as a nurse practitioner. She last competed in the Montana race in 2010 before moving to Minnesota. Gallea, who lives in Wykoff, Minnesota, returns for the 2018 race with a protégé in tow, 37-year-old Damon Ramaker of Fountain, Minnesota.
Laurie Warren moved into the inner circle last year. The mule trainer from Council, Idaho, entered her first 300-mile race and claimed a comfortable 82-minute victory. It marked the fifth straight win for female-guided teams in the longer race.
Those three women, along with Miriam Osredkar of Fairfield and Josi Thyr of Cataldo, Idaho, will attempt to keep the string going when a nine-team field takes off Saturday starting at 2 p.m. As usual, they'll leave from the start/finish arch at Hi-Country Snack Foods west of Lincoln.
Another 12 teams are entered in the 100-mile “dash” to Seeley Lake — 10 in the Adult 100 and two in the Junior 100. Among them are two-time champions Roy Etnire of Seeley Lake and Rick Larsen of Belt, who also won the long race in 2010 when it was 350 miles.
For the first time, all pre-race activities are in Lincoln rather than in Helena. Poor trail conditions have ravaged ceremonial starts at Camp Rimini the past four years, though race secretary Pam Beckstrom said its place in dogsled history won't be forgotten.
“We’ll still commemorate Camp Rimini and still talk about it every year as one of two war dog camps in the U.S. during World War II,” she said.
This year pre-race festivities include a free taco feed Friday at 6 p.m. at the Lincoln Community Center, where the mushers will hang out and the public is welcome. That comes after a vet check for the nine 300-mile teams at 1 p.m. Friday near the starting line at Hi-Country.
All 21 teams will head west from Lincoln over Huckleberry Pass, through the Whitetail Ranch near Ovando and on to Seeley Lake, where the 100-milers should finish early Sunday. The rest turn north, to Owl Creek near Holland Lake before turning around and retracing their route.
Mushers and teams will travel through areas burned by the Rice Ridge and Park Creek fires last summer.
Beckstrom called trail conditions “amazing” with new snow in the high country this week when the rest of us got rain. Last year the north leg from Seeley to Owl Creek was scrapped due to avalanche danger. That required teams in the 300-mile race to travel four times between the almost 50 miles between Whitetail Ranch and Seeley Lake.
Notes: The Race to the Sky is an Iditarod qualifier. Beckstrom urged spectators to take part in Friday activities in Lincoln, and in the “circus atmosphere” at the starting line on Saturday. The 2 p.m. “shotgun” start is preceded by a vet check for the 100-mile teams from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. ... For the first time, Race to the Sky has a name sponsor, Utah-based Young Living Essential Oils. ... Teams can be tracked online via GPS markers at racetothesky.org. ... Race merchandise will be available at all race events and at Hi-Country Trading post. ... The 100-mile awards will be presented Sunday at 1 p.m. at the Seeley Lake Community Center. The fastest teams in the 300-mile race could reach the finish in Lincoln by 8 p.m. Monday. That awards ceremony is set for 2 p.m. Tuesday at Hi-Country.