Eagle Cap Extreme organized to the gnat's eyebrow
Ah, the joyous barking of sled dogs anticipating the trail greets spectators each year at the staging area for the EagleCap Extreme Sled Dog race.
This year was no exception with an extraordinary 16 teams awaiting the race’s start.
The race runs like a well-oiled machine, yet what appears seamless is actually due to years of tweaking the system and the thousands of volunteer hours it takes preparing and planning a safe and orderly event.
But enough of the mechanics. Yes, the race is for the racers, but it is also geared for the spectator. The week starts with an avalanche training on Tuesday night, continues with the veterinarian checks and a mushers’ potluck on Wednesday, the race’s start at Ferguson Ridge on Thursday and the denouement Saturday of awards and banquet is all just plain fun. This year was no exception.
Next to race’s actual start, the vet checks provide an opportunity for kids and adults to pet the puppies and meet the mushers. Though the dogs provide the entertainment, it’s the diligence of the mushers raising and training and caring for the dogs that makes the sport what it is.
Judging the snowpack from the arm chair one would think there wasn’t enough snow for the race. But for those of us who have ventured to Fergi, McCully Creek or even Salt Creek, where the snow is needed for the race, there was between enough and plenty.
Fergi’s been open every weekend since the beginning of the year and as the elevation increases on the sled dog route, so did the snow.
All but one of the 100- and 200-mile teams completed the course. This year not one teenager, but three brought their dog teams to compete. Jenny Greger of Bozeman, Mont., a mere 16 year old, was born to mush and won the 100-mile race. The 200-mile race was championed by 27-year veteran Billy Snodgrass.
I know very little about sled dog racing, but I do skijor (cross country ski with dogs harnessed and tethered to my waist) with my own two crazy mutts. Getting them going in the same direction at the same time is no small challenge. The Lab is a good boy and stays on target, dutifully trudging forward. The Chow Heeler? Well, she was built for hunting and chasing and is more difficult to keep on task.
I sympathized with one of the first mushers out of the gate who had to stop and untangle one of the dogs from the herd and get him going again. Some years the teams haven’t adhered to the course’s start and have veered a little to the left, but along the miles and miles and hours and hours of trail they cover the musher and team synchronize and develop a rhythm.
The pre-race mayhem is simply something to experience. Though the race itself is organized to the gnat’s eyebrow, the dogs’ enthusiasm is palpable. Dogs are dogs whether they are well-trained sport dogs or a foot-of-the-bed companion, and I enjoy seeing them inciting play with each other before the race.
This year, with a brand-new camera and the experience of a couple race starts under my belt, I landed the peach spot for capturing the teams coming across the start line. Despite a foggy morning, the sun shone bright, the wind was still and I snapped discernible pictures of each team for the first time.
My job is unusual in that I get to watch and record what others do for work and play and like my co-worker in the home office says, “It beats working for a living."