They say a sled-dog team is at its best from zero to 10 below.
It could get much colder than that this weekend on the trail of the 34th Montana Race to the Sky.
Twenty teams will be pulling at their traces to get started Saturday afternoon west of Lincoln, where the temperature might chin its way up over zero at the 2 p.m. shotgun start.
The National Weather Service on Wednesday was calling for temperatures into the minus-teens on Saturday and Sunday nights, with wind chill values of 32 below early Sunday morning.
That’s when the leaders should be sliding toward Seeley Lake, the finish line for the 100-mile race and a pit stop for the 300-miler.
“The key is if the wind chill is bad, you don’t want that cold air breathed in by the musher or the team,” said Pam Beckstrom, race publicist. “The mushers will come with warm enough clothing. That’s a requirement. They all have to have Arctic parkas, sleeping bags, dog jackets and things like that.”
Beckstrom is shouldering extra duties this year. Her husband, Jack Beckstrom, died unexpectedly in his sleep last March, and the 2019 race is dedicated to him.
Sportsmanship awards for both the 300-mile and 100-mile races have been named in his honor, and the Forest Service is planning to name a stretch of the trail for Beckstrom.
It was largely Jack Beckstrom’s vision that resulted in the first Race to the Sky in 1986, when he was president of the Montana Mountain mushers and the race was called the Governors Cup. Beckstrom competed in that first 500-miler and was a part of every race since. He was treasurer and chairman of the board when he passed away.
The first Race to the Sky without him kicks off Friday with a vet check for the 300-mile race from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. That’s at the start-finish line behind Hi-Country Trading Post two miles west of Lincoln. A pre-race banquet is set for 6 p.m. at the Lincoln Community Hall. The public is welcome to both events.
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There’s a vet check for the 100-mile teams Saturday before the race from 10 a.m. to noon. The start at 2 p.m. is the time and place for fans to get the best feel for the event before the teams disappear over the hill and into the mountains. Their route goes west over Huckleberry Pass to Kleinschmidt Flats and the first checkpoint at the Whitetail Ranch, then through backroads to the outskirts of Seeley Lake, where the 100-mile teams finish at the Morrell Creek trailhead. The 300-milers stop over at the Seeley Lake Community Hall on Highway 83, then turn north another 50 miles or so to the turnaround point at the Owl Creek primitive checkpoint just south of Holland Lake.
They’ll retrace the route to the finish line in Lincoln. Winners in three of the four years since the race went from 350 miles to 300 have finished after 7 p.m. on Monday. Trail conditions could change that — Iditarod veteran Jessie Royer crossed under the log archway in freezing rain three years ago at 8:39 a.m. Monday.
Royer won for a record third time that year, then added a fourth victory last year, when she ran the Race to the Sky streak of female winners to six.
The Montana native, who’s entered in her 17th Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Alaska next month, is up north this week running the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Whitehorse, Yukon.
Cindy Gallea and Gabe Dunham will be shooting to keep the streak of women winners intact.
Gallea, of Wykoff, Minnesota, is an Iditarod veteran who was a frequent entrant in her neighborhood race when she was a nurse practitioner in Seeley Lake. She finished second in each of her first two tries in 1995 and 1997. Gallea moved to Minnesota after the 2010 race and returned to Race to the Sky only last year, when she placed sixth.
Dunham, of Darby, is in her maiden voyage at Race to the Sky, though she’s been mushing for 19 years. She recently placed third at the Eagle Cap Extreme 200 in Wallowa County, Oregon, and received the best-kept team award.
The favorite’s mantle in the 300 falls to Brett Bruggeman of Great Falls. The second-place finisher at Eagle Cap, Bruggeman followed that up with a win at the Idaho Sled Dog Challenge in McCall last week. In six previous starts in the Montana race, Bruggeman has four top-three finishes. He placed second behind Royer in 2016.
Bruggeman’s 17-year-old son, Spencer, is also making his seventh start. He’s entered in the 100-mile race after beating everyone, including his dad, in the Eagle Cap 200 in Oregon. Spencer will join a crowded 100 field of 13 that includes two past winners of the Race to the Sky’s longer contest. Rick Larson of Belt won in 2010 and Jenny (Greger) Roddewig of Bozeman topped the field in 2014 at age 17.
Notes: The Race to the Sky is an Iditarod qualifier. Two entrants will be in the field for the classic race in Alaska that starts March 2. Brett Bruggeman finished 39th in his first Iditarod last year. It’ll be Gallea’s 15th start. Her best finish was 33rd in 2003. ... For the first time, Race to the Sky will have a professional drone pilot shooting overhead video that will be displayed on racetothesky.org. iFlyBigSky of Helena will handle the shoot. ... Once again Brett Bruggeman is sponsoring live GPS tracking of the race on racetothesky.org. Updates will be posted on the website three times a day. ... The 100-mile awards will be presented Sunday at 1 p.m. at the Seeley Lake Community Center. The awards ceremony for the 300-mile race is set for 2 p.m. Tuesday at Hi-Country. That’s also the final cutoff for all participating teams.