SEELEY LAKE — Sleeping bags and cots lined the walls of the Seeley Lake Community Hall. Tables sat in the center of the room for participants and volunteers to eat, mingle and warm up with some coffee or hot chocolate.
For the 300-mile racers, it was a checkpoint. For the 100-mile participants who finished at the Morrell Creek Trailhead, it was a place to rest and relax until the awards ceremony for the 33rd annual Race to the Sky, Montana's premier sled dog races.
Rick Katucki of Eagle, Idaho was the lone 300-mile team still at the checkpoint as he retired to his truck to sleep and feed his sick dog, Cookie. He left his friend and handler, Jack Doolittle, to tend to the other 11 dogs that were sleeping on beds of straw.
"I forgot how much work it is," Doolittle said. "I did it for him and it's pretty fun."
"My handler responsibility is just to watch over them and make sure nothing disturbs them. I try not to make a lot of noise," Doolittle continued.
Teams started the race Saturday afternoon at the Hi-Country Snack Foods in Lincoln and were set off in three- to 10-minute intervals with checkpoints roughly every 50 miles.
The 300-mile mushers were required to take one, four-hour layover at the checkpoint of their choosing and a mandatory six-hour layover before the final stretch from White Tail Ranch in Ovando back to Hi-Country Snack Foods.
That race is expected to be completed Monday with the final cutoff being noon on Tuesday.
One of the youngest mushers participating was 17-year-old Christina Gibson from Carlton, Washington. She got into dog sledding at the young age of 4 and the reason might surprise you.
"I watched the cartoon movie 'Balto' and I was like, "I want to run and win the Iditarod,"" Gibson said. "I told my mom, she believed me but didn't think it would stick, right? When I was 12, I was still very much insistent that it was what I wanted to do and when I was 13, I got my first dog."
Gibson, the winner of the 100-mile Junior race, now has 10 dogs and said the companionship with them is one of her favorite parts of the sport.
"A lot of the time, it is just us, nobody else is out there" said Gibson, who likes to keep Kit-Kats candy bars in her sled. "So being out there with them and spending time with them and helping them do what they love, cause they love it too."
She added that she ran into a skunk along the way, but it scurried off the trail before it could spray her or her dogs.
The most common dog used is the Alaskan husky, which is not recognized as a pure breed. They are known for their ability to "pull" and are a mix of Northern breeds such as the Siberian husky and German shorthaired-pointer.
Third-place finisher in the 100-mile Adult race, Trevor Warren of Council, Idaho, said dog sledding runs in the family and his mother, Laurie, was competing in the 300-mile race.
"My family used to drive up to Alaska every other year to go moose hunting and my older brother read 'Call of the Wild' by Jack London and started getting interested in dogs," Warren said. "We ended up coming down that year and picking up two sled dogs and it just escalated from there."
He continued to say that running on full moon nights was his favorite.
While every year presents its challenges, Race Marshall Rob Greger was pleased with how this year's event is going.
"The trails and the weather are about as good as it can get," Greger said. "So it's actually going pretty good. We've had a few little oopsies in the beginning and those things happen but it's not major stuff."
Rick Larsen from Belt was the winner of the 100-mile Adult race with Clayton Perry of Power coming in second.