LINCOLN - Eighteen minutes before the first musher shot from starting line at the restart of the Race to the Sky, Alea Robinson began lifting her sled dogs, one by one, from their individual crates stacked atop her rig.
Slender and a multitude of colors, the anxious dogs shook off straw from their coats as they were clipped to the truck and readied for the race. Among Robinson’s team of 12 sled dogs were Jaguar, Portia and Ferrari, siblings from the “sports car” litter.
Near the back of the truck were two blondies – Gojo and Borax from the “soap” litter. Gojo stood closest to the sled and couldn’t help but show her excitement for the impending start of the race through a melody of whines and yips.
Robinson, 17, is one of 10 mushers running the 350-mile Race to the Sky, the oldest dog sled race in Montana that began Saturday with a 52-mile leg and restarted from Hi-Country Snack Foods on Sunday just west of Lincoln. After a Monday checkpoint in Seeley Lake, the race is expected to wrap up Wednesday in Helena.
A high school senior from Eagle River, Alaska, Robinson is racing under the careful watch of veteran musher Jessie Royer, the first woman and youngest winner of the Race to the Sky who is back for the first time since winning it at the age of 17 in 1994.
Royer, now 36, met Robinson 12 years ago in Alaska when Robinson’s family hosted Royer for a dog sled race. Both have since raced many times in Alaska and are preparing to race the Iditarod and Junior Iditarod set to being in early March.
All the dogs racing for Robinson were trained by Royer, who is leading a younger team of dogs through the Race to the Sky this year.
“All (the dogs on) my team have finished the Iditarod,” Robinson said as she calmly worked to get ready for the restart of race Sunday.
Royer and Robinson’s teams showed their strength during the first leg of the Race to the Sky as Royer, of Darby, won the leg from Camp Rimini to Elk Park in 5 hours and 43 minutes. Robinson was second with a time of 5 hours and 47 minutes to finish the 52 mile leg.
“It was a really good trail. The dogs did really well,” Robinson said of the first leg.
The next mushers to come in were Laura Daugereau, Warren Palfrey, Gerry Walker, Nicholas Mears, Billy Snodgrass, Mark Ibsen, Brett Bruggeman and Josi Thyr.
Race organizer Jack Beckstrom expected it to be a competitive field this year.
Palfrey won the race last year and Daugereau has been a runner up several times.
“She has a real hunger to win,” Beckstrom said of Daugereau.
As always, the weather will play a large part in the race. A storm dropped about 4 inches of snow on Lincoln on Saturday night giving the ground a light cover and allowing for the race to restart right at Hi-Country on Sunday.
“I think we’ll have some winter,” Beckstrom said. “It’ll stay cold at night which is important. ... Mushers plan their stops in warmer parts of the afternoon.”
The mushers’ first checkpoint from Hi-Country is at White Tail Ranch. Beckstrom figured it would take most mushers about 5 hours to get to White Tail.
From there, the mushers head to Seeley Lake.
“There’ll be mushers coming and going day and night,” from Seeley, Beckstrom said, making it the best place for onlookers to get a glimpse of the action throughout the race.
Royer doesn’t anticipate winning the Race to the Sky. Instead, she’s using it as a warm up to the Iditarod, the 1,000 mile dog sled race through Alaska that begins March 2.
“I’m here as a stepping stone to Iditarod,” Royer said. “I can see our times being very similar but we may end up resting more. ... I’m not here to try to beat them. I have Iditarod in a few weeks. But I’m not going to be lollygagging.”
The Race to the Sky is a good chance for her younger team of dogs to get used to the flow of a race.
“It’s getting them used to running, camping and eating. That’s the same as Iditarod,” Royer said.
Rick Royer was one of the helpers in charge of calming the dogs and holding on tight to the ropes as they were harnessed in front of Jessie Royer’s sled.
“It’s new. Before I was always home with the cows and calves,” said Royer, who is mostly retired from ranching near Philipsburg. He tracks Royer’s Iditarod races through GPS.
It was around 1991 when veteran musher Doug Swingley, of Simms, gave Royer her first dog sled ride near Georgetown Lake.
“Jessie and her mom went up in 1991. They took a couple rides in the sled and was it,” Rick said. “I was told it was going to be horses or dogs. Now it’s both.”
Royer is a wrangler for Triple Creek Ranch in the summer.
Like Royer, Robinson has been racing since she was young. In Alaska, kids start off with smaller teams of dogs.
“I was a little nervous when she did the Junior Iditarod,” said Lois Rockcastle, Robinson’s mom who was helping get the dogs ready. “She can take care of herself.”
Robinson gave Rockcastle a quick hug as she made final preparations to leave Lincoln. All her dogs got a quick bit of love, too, before Robinson settled in behind the sled and they set off toward White Tail Ranch.
Royer’s sled was next to leave the gate.
A set of clouds had moved in by then, covering the afternoon sun and spitting snow into the air.
“The mushers will be happy to have the cloud cover,” Beckstrom told to the crowd over the public address system. “The dogs run much better when it’s cold.”