There has been a new era dawning on Montana’s Race to the Sky for a few years now.
The sun has fully risen.
Well more than half of the 20 mushers gearing up for the 29th edition are new to the state’s longest and most prestigious dogsled race that starts Saturday near Helena and restarts Sunday afternoon in Lincoln.
Gone are the Swingleys and Barrons and Galleas who lent Iditarod star appeal to the Montana race for so many years.
Back are less than a handful of people who’ve ever competed in the 350-mile race, the longest of the three involved along with the adult and junior 100s. The only past 350 champion, two-time winner Mark Stamm of Washington, has entered a sprint team in the adult 100.
That could mean it’s breakthrough time for Laura Daugereau.
The 31-year-old carpenter from Stockett and Port Gamble, Wash., has raced twice in Alaska’s Iditarod, though she isn’t entered this year. Daugereau finished second at the Race to the Sky in both 2011 and 2012 before dropping to fifth in 2013.
Last year’s winner, in record time, was 17-year-old Alea Robinson of Alaska. She finished just before 10 a.m. Tuesday, a few minutes ahead of her mentor Jessie Royer, who at an even younger 17 in 1994 became the first woman and youngest musher to win the race.
The only other entrant in the 350 who has competed at that distance in the past is Brett Bruggeman, a 43-year-old dentist from Great Falls. He earned the Red Lantern award as the final of 10 finishers in last year’s speedy race.
“Laura Daugereau will be hungry for a victory. She’ll really be pushing hard,” predicted Jack Beckstrom of Olney, a former Race to the Sky musher who’s now on the race’s board of directors.
Jenny Greger, a student from Bozeman’s Anduril Kennels, has turned 18 and graduates to the long race after winning Junior 100 titles in 2011 and 2012.
“I suspect that Jenny Greger has some very good potential,” Beckstrom said. “She knows the trail – she’s trained on it for years. Her father (Rob) is her handler and he’s run the race many times.”
Indeed the Greger name remains synonymous with Race to the Sky. Rob Greger raced first 20 years ago and was assistant race steward for several years before stepping away this time to help his daughter run her first 350.
Roy Etnire, a 58-year-old millwright from Seeley Lake, is expected back to defend his adult 100 title. He’s the only Montanan from west of the divide in any of the races. Spencer Bruggeman, 12, of Great Falls is the lone junior musher entered.
Trail conditions look as promising as they’ve been in years. Beckstrom said there’s lots of snow, new and otherwise, in most spots along the route. The forecast is for blowing and drifting snow at the end of the week and for temperatures warming but staying under freezing in the high country.
As usual, pre-race festivities in Helena start Friday with a vet check at noon and a $7-a-plate spaghetti feed at 6 p.m. at the Lewis and Clark County Fairgrounds. The official start to the 350-mile race is Saturday at 10 a.m. at Camp Rimini west of Helena. Those teams will finish the day at Elk Park north of Butte.
The race resumes Sunday at 2 p.m. at Hi-Country Snack Foods near Lincoln, which serves as the finish line a couple of days later as well. Hi-Country is also the starting line for the adult and junior 100s at 3 p.m. Sunday. They’ll race all night and finish Monday morning at Seeley Lake.
The long race continues through Seeley Lake to the turnaround point at the Owl Creek Wilderness Checkpoint near Holland Lake in the Swan Valley.