Mark Stamm has had his share of trials along the dogsled trail, but nothing on the scale of this.
The 58-year-old musher from Washington watched last August from the fairgrounds in Tonasket, Washington, as a plume of smoke mushroomed up the Chewilikin Valley toward Tonk Mountain – and his dog kennel and weekend home.
The largest wildfire in state history, one that surrounded nearby Omak on three sides, claimed seven houses in the valley that day. Stamm’s was the sixth in line.
“It happened so fast,” Stamm said this week. “I pretty much lost everything.”
Everything, that is, but the most important things: his life and his dogs.
They’re all in Helena and Lincoln this weekend to make the 300-mile run in the Montana Race to the Sky. For Stamm, who was here last year to run the 100-miler, it’s his first crack at the Race to the Sky's featured race since he won it in 2009.
A commemorative run scheduled for Friday evening at Camp Rimini outside of Helena was scrapped due to warm weather and deteriorating conditions. But the school visits and vet check will go on Friday morning at the Helena YMCA.
And Saturday’s timed start is still set for Hi-Country Snack Foods near Lincoln beginning at 2 p.m.
Stamm, who also won in 2007, is in a field of eight with their 12-dog teams in the 300-miler that starts and ends in Lincoln. The winner is anticipated to finish sometime Monday morning or early afternoon.
They’ll be joined at the starting line by 13 others who’ve entered in the adult and junior 100-milers, which end early Sunday at the Morrell Creek Trailhead near Seeley Lake.
The field for the long race includes defending champion Jessie Royer of Darby, who followed up her victory in Montana last year with a personal best fourth-place finish at the famed Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Alaska in March.
Stamm is bringing over a young team, including seven 18-month-old Alaskan huskies that made their maiden voyages three weeks ago in the 200-mile Eagle Cap Extreme near Joseph, Oregon.
Stamm saved them from last summer’s wildfire. They’ve helped pull him through the dark times since then.
He was in five hours away in Seattle, where he works as a yacht painter, when the fire in the massive Okanogan Complex spread in the direction of his property northeast of Omak.
It’s “way out in the wilderness,” Stamm said. “So far out they won’t insure me.”
That was Wednesday, Aug. 19, and he hurried to Omak and spent all that night trying to get to his kennel.
“I really got scared. They had all the roads blocked off,” he said. “I tried logging roads, and went in a back way, but I ended up driving right into the fire.”
Friend and fellow musher Scott White was monitoring the fire on his computer in Seattle.
“Scott finally texted me at about 6 in the morning and said he thought he’d found a road,” Stamm said. “I went way out of the way” to reach the dogs.
The flames were closing in around him when he arrived at his kennel around 8 a.m. that Thursday.
“I just got the dogs, loaded them up and beat feet out of there,” he said.
Safe in Tonaskat with his precious cargo, Stamm knew what the mushroom plume up toward Tonk Mountain meant. He returned the next day to a scene of devastation. The house and “lots of other stuff” were gone, he said.
“It was pretty bad,” recalled Stamm. “I kind of just started fixing fences and digging up stumps.”
Then the mushing world pitched in. This year marks the 40th since Stamm, then 18, entered that world.
“I tried to get out once, but it didn’t work for me,” he said.
Stamm set out to replace his wood cabin with one made of cinderblocks. Dean Stickney, another veteran Washington dog musher, loaned his 2 1/2-ton Army cargo truck to haul the blocks and other materials up to the remote site.
White was a big help. The custom-home builder from the Seattle area has been running and handling Stamm’s dogs from Black Thunder Kennel since 2003.
The cabin’s still not complete, but Stamm said he got it closed in just before snow fell.
In September, he received a package of racing harnesses from Martin Koenig and Roy Etmire of Seeley Lake and Jim Malin of Bellingham, Washington. With the harnesses and some old gang lines that White supplied, Stamm could resume training his pups.
“I had a young team, and I knew they’re going to be pretty decent, but you’ve got to give them experience while they’re young,” he said. “Me and Scott are going to do the Yukon Quest next year and the year after Iditarod. If I don’t get them experience now, they won’t be ready.”
They got their shakeout at the Eagle Cap 200 in January, a race that included six of the eight 300-mile teams at Race to the Sky. They included Brett Bruggeman, an endodontist from Great Falls who won it for the second year in a row.
Stamm finished fifth – emphasis on “finished.”
“I didn’t really push it,” he said. “Now (the young dogs) know there’s an end to it.”
Stamm’s first Race to the Sky was in 1987, when it was called the Governor’s Cup and the race was 500 miles long. The 300-mile version is a lot better, in Stamm’s eyes.
“Before I took these pups to Eagle Cap, they hadn’t really gotten off the property. They’d never been in a truck,” he said. “By the time we were coming back, we were turning them loose and they were self-loading themselves."
“It’s fun watching them grow up," he added. "Now, they really trust me. They’ve been to war in the 200, and I think they’re a little more mature.”
Stamm had a more seasoned team when he covered the 300-mile Race to the Sky course in less than 48 hours in 2009, winning by a margin of more than two hours.
It wasn’t as smooth a run in 2007, but the results were the same. In his 11th try he won for the first time. That came a year after he led the field out of Camp Rimini and lost the trail in wind and snow, “following trail markers that weren’t there,” he said later. After going some 80 miles out of his way, Stamm withdrew before the next day’s restart at Lincoln.
He didn’t even make it to the start line in 2008. The week before the Race to the Sky, Stamm’s handler lost control of the truck and rolled it while transporting Stamm and the dogs in a stage race in Wyoming.
“I went out the back window on the first roll,” Stamm said this week.
Amazingly, he, the driver and the dogs emerged unscathed, although one of the latter was lost. Stamm said they found it three days later, unharmed and huddled in a snow fence not far from the accident site.
The 21-team field for this year's Race to the Sky is down from 29 starters a year ago. It includes eight teams in the 300-mile race; 10 in the adult 100 and three in the junior 100.
Back to defend their titles are Royer in the 300 and Spencer Bruggeman, 14, the lone entrant in the junior 100 who crossed the line in Seeley Lake before any of the adult 100 competitors in 2015.
Royer and Stamm are both in line to become the first three-time winners of the featured race at Race to the Sky. Royer first won the 500-miler as a 17-year-old in 1994. Stamm's victories in 2007 and 2009 were both at 350 miles. Other two-time champions are Linwood Fiedler (1986, 1988), Greg Swingley (1989, 1992), Cliff Roberson (1996, 1997) and John Barron (2004, 2006).
Mushers this year range in age from 14 to 63 and come from four states and two foreign nations, Canada and Sweden. Miriam Lindstahl of Stockholm, Sweden, is one of nine females entered. She's a 19-year-old visiting student who is handling for Anna Bolvin and George Knudsen in Porcupine Plain, Saskatchewan. Bolvin is accompanying Lindstahl in her first race, the adult 100-mile race.