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January 28th, 2020, marked the start of the 3rd annual Sled Dog Challenge held in McCall, Idaho and the surrounding towns. This was also the second year that this race is part of the Rocky Mountain Challenge that includes the Eagle Cap Extreme in Oregon (Jan 22-25) and ends with the 350 mile Race to the Sky in Montana (Feb 7-11).
There are a couple of things that make the race in Idaho unique and exciting. It is the only Iditarod and Yukon Quest qualifiers in the lower 48 states! The qualifying races are over 300 miles long and are a true test of both the Musher’s and the dog’s stamina and strength. Another interesting fact is that the Idaho Sled Dog Challenge’s course includes over 46,000 feet of cumulative elevation gain. Now that’s impressive! The 100 mile race isn’t long enough to be a qualifying race but still a challenging race and important experience for both the musher’s and their dogs. There was also a junior race that was a 37 mile sprint from McCall to the Wye checkpoint just outside of New Meadows.
The races wind their way through snowy forests and wide-open plains covered in several feet of snow. The route includes the towns of McCall, Cascade, New Meadows, Donnelly, and Smith’s Ferry. These towns are near the mandatory checkpoints that all teams are required to stop at so equipment and animals can be checked for safety and health reasons. Each of these towns has numerous volunteers, supporters, and fans of all ages that come out to help and cheer on the mushers and their furry friends.
Watching the teams get their gear and dogs ready was very exciting and interesting. Seeing the teams prep their dogs and how they cared for them was a beautiful thing. Each one of the dogs has a name and a unique personality. Some of the animals were literally bouncing up and down with excitement while others were more calm and reserved. Each dog also has its own position in the lineup. The lead dogs follow the musher’s commands and keep the pace, swing dogs make sure the team follows the turns began by the lead dogs, and the wheel dogs pull and steer the sled. Each position is crucial in the safe running of a race.
These races are quite a production and the community comes together to help make everything run smoothly and efficiently. The race director and coordinators rely on over 125 local volunteers and a handful of veterinarians to ensure a safe and fun race for everyone, both racers and spectators alike. The fans are also a fun part of the event. Children from nearby schools hopped on buses and made their way to the start line to cheer the teams as they embarked on their journey. It’s quite the scene when teams get the green light for take-off. The dogs are yelping and barking as loud as the kids are hootin’ and hollerin’ for the dogs to be let loose and do what they love most… RUN!
This year’s conditions were challenging for everyone involved. With the recent heavy snowfall the track was difficult to keep groomed and in tip-top condition but through the massive volunteer efforts and a lot of miles put on snowmobiles the route was kept in excellent condition. The weather was also quite warm for this time of year. The sled dogs prefer cold temps and cold snow to make the quickest race times. However, on Friday the sun was out and the snow was heavy and soft. This made the times slower and the dogs were really having to put in maximum effort to keep the desired pace. Typically on a fast course, the sleds will cruise along at about 10 mph, this day the speeds were closer to 5 mph. But, all the teams persevered and made the most out of the clear blue day.
A special congratulation goes out to 15 year old Seppa Francis of Kuna, Idaho, the race’s first junior racer. She finished at the Wye checkpoint to a crowd of cheering fans and supporters. Everyone was extremely impressed at this high school student’s resolve and bravery to weather the elements and lead her team to a great finish. One note to Seppa’s race was when Kevin Daugherty, racing out of McCall, Idaho, was about 4 miles down the trail en route to Cascade from the Wye checkpoint found Seppa, stranded on the trail with a dog that didn’t want to run, and was too big for the rest of the team to carry in the sled. Kevin stopped, loaded the dog into his sled, gave some of his gear to Seppa to carry, then mushed back to Wye with them before continuing on his race. This is a great example of the sportsmanship and camaraderie that exists in the mushing community. Kevin earned the red lantern (last place) and the Warren G Brown Sportsmanship award.
The second day of the race was a little cooler and overcast which helped the teams increase their pace. The 100 mile race’s finish line was in Cascade next to the Lakefront Restaurant. The winner of the 100 mile race, Laurie Warren a resident of Council, Idaho, pulled in around 10 am and looked very happy and very exhausted with a huge smile and lots of hugs for her team. Several other teams came trotting in not far behind her. The 300 mile racers were farther behind and ended up finishing the race at 2am at the Wye Checkpoint. A huge shout out to Jessie Royer and Josie Thyr, the only 2 teams to finish the grueling 300 mile trek.
Special recognition goes out to all of the many sponsors, volunteers, fans, and mushers in making this such a special and memorable event every year!
So next year around this time be sure to GO! and support this awesome local race! Meet the mushers and the dogs for a truly unique and fun time! You can see more of the action and learn more about the race by following the links below.
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