SEELEY LAKE – Spencer Bruggeman probably had the most exciting weekend of any of his classmates at North Middle School in Great Falls.
The 13-year-old 8th grader was one of 29 dogsled mushers that took part in this year’s Race to the Sky.
The 30th running of the annual race had two distances, 100 miles and 300 miles. Because of warmer temperatures and less snow, the course had to be altered slightly, with the revised trail as well as the start and finish lines being located near Seeley Lake.
Assistant race marshal Rob Loveman said the trail conditions are a bigger factor slowing down mushers than just the warmer than average temperature. He said they are seeing a trail that is icy and hard with patches of bare ground as opposed to thicker, softer snowpack.
“But it’s a long-distance endurance race. You have to be able to deal with what’s in front of you,” Loveman said.
Bruggeman – the only racer in the 100-mile junior category – not only won his division, he finished faster than any of the adults. He said this year was better than his first Race to the Sky last year, when he made a wrong turn on the course and ended up running his dogs an extra 20 miles, only realizing his mistake when he saw the start line coming up in front of him.
He said he wasn’t sure what his plans are for future years of the Race to the Sky. He still has a few years to go before the age limit of 16 to bump up to the 300-mile version.
After crossing the line, he and his older brother Chase, who helps Spencer as a dog handler during stops, fed the animals and checked their feet for cuts and bleeding. Bruggeman said he was looking forward to getting some food and sleeping – he’d been running on only two hours' rest since Saturday morning – but wouldn’t do anything for himself until his dogs were safely packed away.
The race began Saturday, with the 100-mile mushers finishing on Sunday and the fastest of the 300-mile sled dog teams likely to cross the line Monday. Jerry Bath from Lander, Wyoming, won the adult 100-mile race.
Bruggeman said his family has been training their dogs for this year’s races since September.
“We had 1,000 miles on the dogs before they even got on the snow, just running them in front of four-wheelers near our house,” he said.
Sled-dog racing is a bit of a family affair for the Bruggemans. Shortly after his son finished in the 100-mile race, Spencer’s father Brett Bruggeman pulled into the Seeley Lake checkpoint, about 120 miles into his 300-mile journey. This is his third year participating in the Race to the Sky.
Like the other mushers who chose to use the pit stop for one of the mandatory breaks, Bruggeman started by unhitching his dogs and removing their boots. Barry and Marilyn Bruggeman, Spencer’s grandparents, helped Brett feed each of the animals and break off pieces from a bale of straw to make a dry bed for each of them.
Mushers mount plastic strips to the underside of their sled runners to help them slide across the ice smoother. Bruggeman said he hit patches of bare ground and gravel on the trail Saturday that tore his to shreds, yet another repair he had to make before heading off again.
Brett and his father took coats from his bag and fastened them around each of the dogs before they laid down, and Brett checked the animals' feet for cuts and stretched the muscles in their legs. Unlike the other racers, Bruggeman didn’t take the opportunity to get a few hours of sleep before starting off again. He’d been up since Saturday morning, and didn’t think he would have another hour of rest until after the race.
One of the biggest hurdles to overcome in the longer race is the effects of sleep deprivation, Loveman said. When they have a rest stop, most riders work as quick as they can to get through their maintenance tasks and see to their dogs.
“Every minute you save is another minute you can sleep,” Loveman said.
Other mushers stopped at the Seeley Lake checkpoint just long enough to register a time and go through a mandatory bag check to make sure they were carrying everything from an axe and parka to extra booties for their dogs.
As soon as her check was finished, Aiyana Ferraro had handlers pull the leaders of her 50-foot long, 12-dog team around to face the trail to the next stop in Owl Creek. This year was Ferraro’s first in the 300-mile classification.
“All right, I’m ready to go, lead them out,” she yelled.
When the weather is warmer than usual, like in this weekend’s race, dogs are more likely to become overheated and dehydrated.
“These guys are seeing the signs and taking care of their dogs,” said Kathy Topham, one of the veterinarians checking out the animals at each pit stop and the end of the race.
Musher Martin Koenig, one of the racers in the 100-mile race, said he had to stop several times on the course to give his dogs water.
“When they start biting at the snow, you just have to stop,” he said.