Snow pack 

When you're a musher in Montana's grueling Race to the Sky, dog is your copilot.

I look at the eight dogs left on my team: Shoshone, Jake, Jag, Otter, Gonja, Tanner, Tok and Sima. It's mid-afternoon, and we're all resting at the Seeley Lake checkpoint. We've made it through the easy legs of the race. We're about to run the hard ones. I miss the four dogs I've dropped.

The team has done several 80-mile runs on trails just across the highway, so they have the training to make the 100-mile round trip to Owl Creek and back. At least, that's what I hope. The conditioning runs were with a dozen dogs, and it's a lot easier for 12 to pull a sled than eight. I know the team can handle the distance. I'm just not sure about the load.

The big question, though, is whether to blow through the Owl Creek checkpoint or stop and rest. Stopping would cost a lot of time. But if I push the dogs too hard, they'll quit and my race will be over.

The options rattle in my mind as we pull away from Seeley Lake at 8 p.m., the dogs fresh after their 10-hour break. I'm not as lucky. Through nobody's fault but my own I snagged only about three hours of sleep over the previous two nights, thanks to chummy conversation with other mushers instead of resting.

click to enlarge TOM ROBERTSON

Running at night tires mushers no matter how much sleep they get. Headlamps create a tunnel world. Eyes strain to see what the beam illuminates. The sled runners make a soft, hypnotic sound as they move through the snow, and the dogs make almost no sound at all.

I fight it, but I can't keep my eyes open. The same thing happened this morning, sledding from White Tail Ranch to Seeley Lake, but it passed quickly with the coming of daylight. This time, daylight is hours away.

I give the whoa command. Almost 200 miles into the race, the dogs are happy to stop. I have at least some expectation that other racers will pass, so I make sure to pull over and keep the path clear when I set both snow hooks, a musher's version of anchors. The dogs quickly curl up side by side along the length of the gang line.

By midnight, the temperature drops to single digits and snow falls lightly. With my back against the sled, I slump my head forward and sleep for a blessed 45 minutes. Then I get up, feed and water the dogs, pack up, pull the snow hooks and give the hike command.

I have no hope of winning the race or even coming close. I am a rookie. I've dropped four dogs. I just hope to finish.

The Race to the Sky is one of the toughest and most scenic long-distance dogsled races in the lower 48, traversing 350 miles of the rugged Rocky Mountains surrounding the Seeley-Swan Valley. Every February, competing teams run 100 miles a day or more, pulling sleds laden with 60 pounds of gear and about 170 pounds of musher in conditions ranging from blizzards and sub-zero cold to midday heat and rain.

I've dreamed of being in a high-caliber race like this since 2003, when I moved to Montana, built a kennel, learned to run dogs and, in particular, learned how to run distance races. But the Race to the Sky is way beyond anything that my dogs and I have ever attempted before.

click to enlarge MICHAEL BERTRAND
  • Michael Bertrand

Most mushers complete a couple of 100- to 200-mile point-to-point races before trying a marathon like this one. Not me. My dogs and I have never run more than 85 miles without the comfort of our familiar, warm beds.

What we've done instead is race in less demanding, two-day heats, where the trails are typically better groomed, the courses are 50 miles or less a day, and the dogs rest at night inside covered kennels on the back of a rig. Heat races are good fun, but they lack the stuff that got me into mushing in the first place: adventure.

Yvon Chouinard defines adventure as something akin to going out and letting birds shit on your head. The Seeley-Swan Valley doesn't hold a lot of birds in winter, but running a team of Huskies for 350 continuous miles certainly presents opportunities for shit to happen.

I've now learned that firsthand. I've had to drop one dog because she wasn't fast enough and another three because of rookie errors.

The nine of us pull into Owl Creek, the 230-mile mark, just as dawn starts to break. It's decision time: Is the team fit enough to pass up this opportunity for rest and slog the hard 50 miles to the next one? Am I?

To buy some time while I weigh the choices, I make small-talk with the bearded, long-haired checker. Randy is also an expert machinist and welder, and the snow hooks he makes are used by mushers throughout the world, including me.

A few minutes pass. Maybe I'm too sleep-deprived to think straight, but nothing is telling me to stop. I ask Randy to help me turn the team around to start the trip back. I'll find out soon enough if I've hung myself with the choice.

As the sun clears the horizon, the dogs and I climb the Owl Creek drainage to the ridge above. I welcome daylight and stow my headlamp. Heavy clouds float above the peaks, and light breaks through only occasionally.

For now, staying awake is not a problem. The team trots along slowly but steadily. All of them pull well except for Sima. A slack tug line tells me the diarrhea I noticed earlier has gotten him down.

At our next break, Sima refuses water and food. I pull up a fold of his skin and let go, observing how quickly it bounces back. He's clearly dehydrated. I realize I should have started him on anti-diarrhea meds sooner. Another rookie error.

We rest for a full hour rather than the normal 20 minutes so I can see if he will drink. He doesn't.

I rearrange the gear—a royal pain—and make a spot in the sled bag for Sima to lay down. The seven dogs remaining will now be hauling his 45 pounds along with me, the gear and the sled.

But they're game. We arrive at Seeley Lake at 4 p.m., 20 hours after we first set out. The run took longer than I'd hoped, but given all of my mistakes, that's okay. I won't hang for at least another day. The dogs and I settle in for a nice nine-hour rest before starting the final 72 miles to Lincoln.

click to enlarge TOM ROBERTSON

Huckleberry Pass looms at the end of the race like a final exam before summer. The trail ascends 1,600 feet in about six miles—not too steep by hiking standards, but after about 330 miles it's Everest for a dog team. I want to reach the summit by noon so we can avoid the predicted warm midday temperatures while climbing. Forty degrees might be comfortable for a musher, but it's hell for sled dogs.

Sima's dehydration and diarrhea force me to drop him from the team at Seeley Lake. He's drinking and eating again after his rest in the sled, but racing's out of the question.

The remaining dogs and I start the last leg in total darkness, just after 1 a.m. They hesitate a bit at the start. Some of them aren't pulling, but they eventually warm up, work out the kinks and find their rhythm.

When they spot a snowshoe hare, the team breaks into a full run to chase it. I haven't seen more than an easy lope out of them since the stretch from Lincoln to White Tail Ranch two days ago. It's good to know they have something in the gas tank.

As we pass White Tail Ranch, at the base of the long climb up to Huckleberry, I glimpse another team ahead. With the possibility of overtaking them—or helping them if they're having problems—I push the dogs hard. We move at a good clip, but I never see the other contestant again. I find out later it was a random musher who wasn't in the race.

The hard push, however, helps us summit before noon. "Hey, guys, it's all downhill from here," I tell the dogs, happily. But I'm wrong. Several small climbs follow and the afternoon sun hammers us. The warmth makes the sled runners stick in the snow, and the going is painfully slow.

I'd expected the last 15 miles to Lincoln to be a smooth, easy downhill. In fact, my mind had been fixed on it. Sensing my frustration, the dogs get distracted. They try to check out every sound in the woods, hoping it's something they can hunt; they stop and examine spots to mark. The lousy snow continues to grab the sled runners, which at times brings them to a halt. Each time, I pull their butts up by the tug lines and yank while shouting, "Hike!"

The dogs are working too hard for me to actually get angry, of course. I insist that we keep moving but apologize for telling them we were done climbing. They might not even vaguely understand what I'm saying, but telling them out loud makes me feel better, and seems to make them feel better, too. When I yell out the hike command, I see a bunch of tentative tail wags.

click to enlarge TOM ROBERTSON

We muddle forward in fits and starts. Finally, after what feels like 600 miles, we reach the marker that tells us to turn off the snowmobile trail onto a track that's packed down for the race. The last five miles of trail into Lincoln is just wide enough for a dogsled or two as it winds through the trees. We slip in and out of shadows, trotting easily toward the finish line. Everything is good. Spent but relieved, I even say to nobody in particular, "I'm enjoying this!"

I feel like I've scaled a mountain. Just like on a hard climb, the tension only lets up when a safe return is assured. And we've made it. The dogs and I managed to wipe off the inevitable bird shit and keep going, sometimes in spite of ourselves. Only a few miles of forest trail remain, like those last easy steps into camp. Mushers call this "sacred ground."

Jake has the lead. Otter and Shoshone are next. Then Jag and Gonja. Finally, Tanner and Tok follow at the wheel position. Jake still can't keep himself from looking off to the side of the trail for something to hunt. But entering the homestretch, he steps up and the others pull behind him.

I am totally in awe of these guys, my team.

We're all exhausted when we reach the finish. A couple of the younger dogs seem interested in continuing, but I surely am not. I get congratulations from the few staffers left to check my team and the one other that finishes behind me. My handler, Aaron, starts taking dogs off the gang line and attaching them to tie points on the truck. I help give each of them a bowl of cold, clear water. We load the gear and sled, and finally put the team back in the kennels. Happy in their boxes, the dogs drop off to sleep. And as Aaron drives home, so do I.

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