Blackfoot Valley Dispatch - The Blackfoot Valley's News Source Since 1980

By Andy Bourne
Seeley Swan Pathfinder Editor 

Warm hearts, cold faces

Race to the Sky continues to build mushing community


February 13, 2019

Andi Bourne - Pathfinder

Junior 100-mile musher Nicole Grangroth waves at family from Great Falls as she crosses the finish line. She placed seventh overall and was the only junior racer in this year's Race to the Sky. Grangroth started mushing three years ago with her younger sister Brenna. They have 11 dogs in their kennel, four of which were on the team for the Race to the Sky.

Note: A special thanks to Pathfinder Editor Andi Bourne for letting us run her story and photos, since I missed both the vet checks and the entire Race start. Instead, I spent much of Saturday trying unsuccessfully to dig our only running car out of the three-foot drift in our driveway I didn't quite get through. - Roger

SEELEY LAKE – With temperatures below zero and wind chills estimated at -47 degrees, it was a frigid start to the 34th annual Race to the Sky in Lincoln, Mont. where the 300-mile and the 100-mile races started Saturday, Feb. 9. However, the cold did not seem to bother the dogs and there was a warmth in the community of mushers, volunteers and veterinarians who came together not only to see whose team was the best on the course but also to honor and remember one of the original race organizers Jack Beckstrom.

Lead veterinarian Kathy Topham said she and the other veterinarians were concerned about the effect of the sub-zero temperatures on the dogs. She explained since the cold came on abruptly, the mushers didn't have the chance to train in the cold.

"We are always very concerned that [mushers] train how they run and run how they train," said Topham who has worked with the Race to the Sky for eight years.

While musher Rex Mumford from Huntsville, Utah chose not to start the race because he didn't think his team could handle the cold, Topham said the remaining teams in the 100-mile, "looked fabulous coming across the line."

"Every human is complaining about how cold it was but those dogs weren't. This is what these dogs were bred for and they are at their best in that window where we are uncomfortable," said Topham. "Year after year, I work this race because I think the mushing community is a unique and wonderful group of people. I love interacting with them, I love learning from them, their dogs are amazing and we don't get to work on elite athletes like this at home in our regular practices so it is truly a unique, impactful experience."

At the 100-mile award ceremony, mushers talked about digging out their cold weather gear for the first time in a long time.

Fifth place finisher Laura Daugereau of Stockett, Mont. said it wasn't until she put her neck gator on that she realized she had a mouse problem in the barn where it was stored.

Seventh place 100-mile finisher James Pilcher of Fairfield, Mont. was asked to fill in for Spencer Bruggeman the night before. He said his partner Miriam Osredkar, who finished in eighth place with her team in the 100-mile race, was sewing on his ruff at 1:30 a.m. on race day so "I wouldn't freeze my face."

The conditions on the trail met expectations. The trail was slow and many of the mushers were cold. The teams came into the first checkpoint at Whitetail Ranch near Ovando in a blizzard. Seeley Lake's Roy Etnire said it was probably the toughest run he's ever had coming into the Whitetail Check point.

"That was a tough trail. Everyone deserves everything you did," said Etnire who finished ninth this year, crossing the finish line at 10:50 a.m.

Sixth place 100-mile finisher David Hassiley sported a full beard at this year's race. He said his neck gator was frozen to his beard at the finish. It took soaking it in warm water at the community hall to thaw it.

"That will tell you what the conditions were like on the trail," said Hassiley.

The sole junior musher Nicole Grangroth, a 16-year-old student from Menahga, Minn., wasn't fazed by the cold. She took second place in the 120-mile Junior Beargrease in Duluth, Minn. two weeks ago in similar temperatures.

"I know how to dress for it and was pretty warm the whole time," Grangroth said.

What Grangroth did notice were the mountains and the beauty of the trail.

"I just really loved seeing the mountains. It was amazing. It was so beautiful. It is a lot different than running in Minnesota," said Grangroth.

It was musher Peter McClelland of White Wilderness Sled Dog Adventures in Ely, Minn. who first told her how beautiful the Race to the Sky was and encouraged her to do it. She didn't know anything about running at higher elevations so she didn't train any differently.

"The dogs did great," said Grangroth. "It was some really nice trail. It was set up nicely, all the volunteers and everything was just amazing. We had great help from everybody."

Because she was always smiling, was not complaining and was pretty laid back and mellow, qualities that Beckstrom often demonstrated, the 100-mile adult mushers chose Grangroth to receive the Jack Beckstrom Sportsmanship Award. She was the youngest musher to earn the award, and received an eight-dog gangline sponsored by Adanac Sleds and Equipment.

Stories from the trail included the incredible starry Saturday night, the beautiful sunrise Sunday morning and the first-time racer Minnesota musher Janet Bahe's description of "the trail that never stopped going up." This description is fitting since the elevation gain for the 100-mile race is around 6,000 feet and the 300-mile race gains around 16,400 feet.

Second place 100-mile finisher Jenny Roddewig's fondest memory of the race was seeing seven 100-mile teams, including herself, as they traveled across the flats leaving Lincoln.

"I remember thinking that is really neat because this is by far the biggest field of 100-mile mushers we've had," said Roddewig, of Bozeman, Mont.

Second-time, first place 100-mile finisher Rick Larson of Belt, Mont. choked up as he shared this may be his last race. He came across the finish line at 8:19 a.m. Sunday morning.

"It is a cool old trail," said Larson. "I've been a long distance dog musher [for 25 years] and patience is the key. You get to see a lot of beautiful things."

He couldn't stop the tears as the veterinarians awarded him the Jack Beckstrom Best Cared for Team Award for the overall health of his team, the dogs' excitement and willingness to go on at the end of the race and the interaction between him and his dogs.

"He had a beautiful team that crossed the finish line and they would have kept going or fallen asleep," said one of the veterinarians.

Andi Bourne - Pathfinder

300-mile mushers Cindy Gallea and Damon Ramaker come into Check Point 2 at the Seeley Lake Community Hall just before 8 a.m. Sunday morning. They came in behind Brett Bruggeman of Great Falls, Mont. and Clayton Perry of Power, Mont.

As the awards were handed out, those new to the race were told "welcome to the family." For the salty veterans, who know best what the Race to the Sky family looks like, Beckstom's absence was tangible.

Beckstrom, whose vision was to bring distance dog sled racing to Montana, founded the Montana Governor's Cup 500 in 1986. He had participated in or been part of the organizing board of Race to the Sky since its founding, and was instrumental in bring mushing symposiums to Montana to help educate dog mushers on how to take care of their dogs, including topics on nutrition, training and more.

"He left lasting footprints in the sport of mushing in Montana and beyond," said the emcee at the 100-mile awards ceremony. "Thank you for all coming and joining the family to honor Jack and Pam. Jack did go on one last ride. [300-mile racer] Cindy [Gallea] took Jack's ashes and sprinkled him on the ride. As you run the race next year, you will know Jack is here."


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