SEELEY LAKE – Jack London will do that to a kid.
Spencer Bruggeman was 10 when he read London’s “The Call of the Wild,” and he heard the call loud and clear.
“One day, I mentioned to my mom that I wanted to do dog sledding and she said, ‘You’ve been talking to your father,’ ” the exhausted 12-year-old middle schooler said Monday afternoon after crossing the 100-mile finish line in an adventurous debut of the Race to the Sky.
“I said, ‘No, no, he wants to do it?’ ”
Turns out his father Brett, the only endodontist in Great Falls, was reading about the distance dog sled races like the Yukon Quest and heard the call, too.
And so Skinny Leg Sleddogs was born, with two mushers and a family support system.
The kennel gets its name from Spencer, who has one leg smaller than the other due to a birth defect. His older brothers are hulking football player types.
“We decided this would be a sport that would be somewhat suitable for him and his disability; it’s really not a disability, but it’s different,” his mother Suzette said. “It would stimulate his brain because it’s very academic and something that takes a lot of mental power, a lot of strategy, a lot of planning and a lot of work.
“And my husband’s just a doer. He’s a falconer and has all sorts of cool hobbies, so it was right up his alley.”
She was playing worried mom at the time. At midday there was no word from Spencer on the trail from White Tail Ranch northeast of Ovando, where he’d left shortly before 6 a.m.
Last year Brett Bruggeman, in his first Race to the Sky 100, became hypothermic on the return trip to Lincoln over Huckleberry Pass and finally finished at 2 a.m. on Wednesday, earning the Red Lantern Award as the last finisher.
Spencer had different difficulties in his inaugural Race to the Sky. He finally finished with six of his eight dogs at about 3 p.m. He’d turned right instead of left soon after Sunday’s start in Lincoln, navigating a 30-mile loop backward, then taking another wrong turn.
“I was on the right trail for a ways, then it got dark and hard to see the markers and stuff,” he said. “I went all the way back to the start.”
He turned around and started down the trail, but by that time his team was exhausted. The only musher fitted with a GPS spot tracker, Bruggeman made a call he really didn’t want to make: to come and pick him and his team up.
They were trailered to the checkpoint at White Tail Ranch and finished out the race. He left two dogs at the ranch, including one of his leaders, Earl – one of the lead dogs that the Bruggemans’ mentor, Doug Swingley, ran in the 2006 Iditarod.
At 13 or 14, he’s aging beyond the prime of a sled dog racer, but Earl was pressed into duty with both Bruggemans running – Brett with a 12-dog team in the 350-miler and Spencer with eight dogs in the 100.
“We knew this would be his swan song,” Suzette Bruggeman said.
Spencer’s name won’t pop up in the list of finishers but he was presented a miniature Red Lantern for his determination.
Asked how he felt after his first distance race, the younger Bruggeman replied, “Sore, but accomplished. I’m glad I got it done.”
Meanwhile, his father was showing his own brand of resiliency. After last year’s woes, veterans of the race were taking bets Brett Bruggeman wouldn’t return.
He has, with gusto. He entered the 350-miler, and pulled out of the Seeley Lake checkpoint for the Owl Creek turnaround early Monday in first place.
Hours later he left Owl Creek, just south of Holland Lake at 3:36 p.m., 20 minutes behind Laura Daugereau of Stockett, a multi-time runner-up but never a winner of Race to the Sky. Jenny Greger of Bozeman (4:41 p.m.) and Josi Thyr of Cataldo, Idaho (4:59 p.m.), were next to head for home.
They faced a 50-mile trip back to Seeley for the mandatory six-hour layover, then the 70-mile leg to the finish line at Lincoln. Last year’s winners finished before 10 a.m. Tuesday, the first ever to complete the 350-mile course before noon.
The winner of the 100-miler was a familiar face. Roy Etnire, a 58-year-old millwright at Pyramid Mountain Lumber in Seeley Lake, repeated from last year, crossing the line behind the Seeley Community Center at 8:05 a.m. That was more than an hour ahead of second-place Jean Wise of Sand Coulee, who finished at 9:11 a.m..
Next came Clayton Perry of Power (9:31 a.m.), Jim Oehschlaeger of Cincinnati (9:56 a.m.), Laurie Warren of Council, Idaho (11:15 a.m.), and Chris Miller of Garnerville, Nev. (3:40 a.m.). John Kunzler of Vernal, Utah, was still on the trail as dark descended.
Miller, one of several newcomers to the race, missed a turn and went some 27 miles out of his way before Thyr passed him and pointed out his error.
Etnire was the only western Montanan in either the 350 or 100 this year. He got into mushing six years ago, getting his seed dogs from Cindy Gallea, who raced out of Seeley for years before moving to Minnesota.
After incredible winds on Sunday’s leg out of Lincoln, the final run from the White Tail Ranch to Seeley was trouble-free.
“I think the trail was better than last year,” Etnire said. “It turned out to be very fast.”
The monetary award – enough to buy feed for a couple of months – pales in comparison to the real rewards of the sport, Etnire said.
“To watch these dogs perform the last 24 hours, that’s just incredible,” he said.