>Mushers, Start Your Engines!

>Quite often when I travel and I tell people I’m from Montana, they’ll think they are the first to make a joke about the state being where “that Unabomber guy was from, right?” Believe me, I’ve heard them all. People have weird ideas about Montana; I always get a reaction. Sometimes dismay like, “Why would you live there? Do people actually live there?” to “Oh my god, you’re so lucky to live there!” Others have no idea where it is geographically, which is also bizarre. A guy I met in SFO thought it was next to Kansas. “That’s Missouri, actually.” “It is? Where’s Montana then?”

Anyway, this past weekend Julia and I ventured north and east to spectate on a tradition that fits perfectly with a respectable and suitably outdoors-based image of Montana: dogsledding. I’m talking about the 25th Annual Race to the Sky, which would be starting the 300 mile leg in Lincoln at noon on Valentine’s Day. So we ventured to Lincoln Saturday afternoon to spend the night and then check out the dogs on Sunday. And yes, Lincoln is where the Unabomber was living. It isn’t that far for us, just a little over an hour’s drive, and it is a gorgeous one.

The sun was starting to set, which makes it a dangerous time for encountering wildlife on the highway. We saw countless deer, and a couple big bald eagles feasting on deer carcasses alongside the road. Thankfully we didn’t encounter any bears. We did pass a group of about thirty or so elk; they were moving in a line, and where they were gathered wasn’t in a spot I could really photograph them, though I did get shots of a couple. I love to see the mighty wapiti.

We took luxurious accommodations at the Blue Sky Motel in Lincoln. Hey, it may not be fancy, but $50 + tax ain’t too shabby!

It wasn’t long before Julia had the heater blasting full bore, then she slipped into her sexy pjs and got busy . . . sewing? That’s right, folks. Writers like to act all pretentious with their laptops in coffee shops so they can “work,” let alone packing around greasy moleskins and the like, but my girl won’t let a little romantic overnighter get between her and TCBing as time allows.

If there was any romantic buzzkill going on, it was the sound of snowmobiles roaring up and down the street at night, which was odd because there really wasn’t much snow out there along the main thoroughfare — just tracks and skis scraping over pavement, rocks and ice. It was pretty loud; it sounded like they were right outside the window! Peering out our front window the next morning, it turned out they were!

It’s been years since I went snowmobiling. We used to do it all the time when I was in junior high and high school. Usually it would be me, my mom and my dad. Most often we’d go up to Seeley Lake where a friend of my dad’s had a cabin, then we’d go roaring around out there in a big group. I have fond memories of that. I wonder if my dad does, though, given that for every hour we spent out here —

grainy output from my dying scanner of Mom, circa early 80s

— he probably spent two in this position:

grainy output from my dying scanner of Dad as snowmobile mechanic, circa early 80s

After packing up our suite at the Blue Sky, we headed for the site of the day’s dog-related festivities, which were being hosted on the grounds of the Hi-Country Trading Post. That is where they package and sell all manners of deee-licious meat products (jerky, salami, summer sausage etc. of beef, elk, bison, etc.)

We arrived an hour or so before race start. The junior mushers — five teams of youths 13 – 18 — had already left. A short distance from the trading post, Absaroka Dogsled Treks were setting up four teams of dogs, offering rides for $35. These were something like five mile treks too, so it would have been pretty cool to do.

The dogs were chilling out patiently, waiting to get in on the action.

They were brought out two-at-a-time per sled and fixed in their traces.

Once in position, these dogs really voiced their excitement and desire to get on the damn trail already!

So you can imagine what it sounded like once more dogs were getting put in position.

Can’t imagine? Dig this video, then, which will show you even though my camera proved to be pretty inadequate for capturing particularly high quality video.

A woman next to us was talking about what it’s like at the Iditarod, where you literally have thousands of dogs all getting put in position, and resulting noise. I hope to witness that one day, sooner than later! Moments later, they were off!

After the joyride teams were away, we wandered through the area where the race dogs were being readied. Again, when they were just chilling before being harnessed, they were as docile as you can imagine, half of them sleeping where they sat, or just people watching.

Every team had a guest to ride along with them. I’m not sure of all the details, but I believe these valuable posts were auctioned off at the banquet a couple nights prior, but I could be wrong. And I also think the riders may have only been for the leg from start to the first checkpoint. Again, I could be wrong. But here is one of the contestants explaining how it all works with her guest rider.

One of the great things about the sport is the number of women involved, both as helpers with the teams and actual mushers competing right alongside, and beating, the men.

Then it was time to head for the starting gate, where people queued alongside the trail up the big hill that started the race. The first team was put in position, and those dogs were very excited.

Moments later they were off, and the race was officially underway!

All too soon it was over, and everyone headed back down the hill. It sure seemed like a great time was had by all.

I really can’t overstate how awesome this was. I’ve been a distant fan of this sport since I was probably ten years old. It’s clear to me it is time to be a much less distant observer. Each contestant is carrying a GPS, and you can log onto the website to see the positions of each racer. This was the image this morning when I first started this post.

The Missoulian was there and had an excellent article in today’s paper. Check it out here. They have pictures, and the Race to the Sky website has some too.

I had a blast. I can’t wait to do something like this again. Getting out and doing stuff like this is like pushing the reboot button on my soul, as woo-woo as that sounds. I tried to share my enthusiasm with some of our crew, but they didn’t seem too interested.

Oh well.

6 thoughts on “>Mushers, Start Your Engines!

  1. April

    >It's hilarious how little people know about US geography. A guy flew out here to buy one of my dad's cars and drive it back (to Ohio) or somewhere and then backed out because he didn't realize it was so far… As an adult, how do you book a plane ticket without looking at a map if you've never been to your destination?Also, I LOVE dog sled races! I have never seen one in real life, but those dogs are amazing. I bet it was so noisy when they were getting ready to go! Very cool!

  2. Nikki Valiant

    >I'm embarrassed to say I am just awful with the geography of our country. I know the coasts, and that's about it. The rest of it I simply dismiss, as well, "the rest of it."But I do know that Montana is someplace up north, and very, very cold. Great post, as always.

  3. Chris

    >Judging from the winter everyone else in this country is having, in regions far more south than us, I'm afraid the secret may get out that Montana ain't all that in the winter weather department anymore. It'll be a sad day when people in Virginia and Texas start coming up here for the damn winter.


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