RIMINI – Tales of the Yukon and Jack London stories lured Great Falls dentist Brett Bruggeman, 42, and his 14-year-old son, Spencer, to take up sled dog racing.
Saturday morning, Brett’s team was pulling and yapping in their harnesses – excited to hit the trail as he waited his turn at the Race to the Sky starting line near Rimini.
Brett’s on his second 350-mile Race to the Sky, while Spencer makes his inaugural run in the junior 100 mile, starting in Lincoln today.
Unbeknownst to each other several years ago, both Spencer and his dad were avidly reading adventure books about mushing.
For Spencer, the sport has a special appeal.
Due to a birth defect, Spencer’s left leg is smaller and skinnier than his right, preventing him from playing a lot of team sports. But now he’s found the perfect sport.
His father picks him up after school on Fridays, and they head into the back country with their dogs and sleds, running until midnight and then sleeping in the wilderness. They run all day Saturday, getting back home late at night. Now they’ve got the whole family involved and operate Skinny Leg Sleddogs kennel.
Spencer, his mom, Suzette, and his lead dog, Mojo, were all at the Rimini start, helping with Brett’s team.
Brett and the other mushers held their lunging teams in check – waiting for their starts as a cacophony of howls and barks filled the air.
Dressed in a rainbow array of parkas and snow boots, some clutching coffee cups, others pulling children on sleds – several hundred race enthusiasts gathered to cheer the teams out of the gate.
Leading the race pack was Laura Daugereau, a young carpenter from Stockett, who is in her eighth Race for the Sky. She’s finished second three times.
Saturday, she was running 12 dogs out of her Night Runner Kennel 0f 22 dogs. It seems that’s an appropriate name, since much of her training is at night on a trail by King’s Hill Pass.
The dogs are as competitive as she is, she said. “I run Alaskan huskies of very particular bloodlines.”
“It’s a great race,” she said. “I’ve been racing 20 years – two Iditarods and four coast to coast – involving races from Oregon to Maine.
Camaraderie is one of the things she loves about Race to the Sky. “We’re all friends. It’s a fun trail, a technical trail, but you keep coming back because of the people.
“I like being outside, being with animals and traveling in the wilderness,” she said of what first drew her to the sport.
She relishes her time in the backcountry: “It’s beautiful and really quiet and peaceful.”
This year’s race is “definitely a hot race,” she said of the 40-something temperatures on Saturday. “It’s a hard trail. Teams that conserve energy are the ones that win.”
Trail conditions should be good, said Shelby Goodman, the official race starter. “It’s crystal snow,” and once mushers break through it, there is sugar or powder snow underneath. “It should be a fast trail.”
Not only was the trail ready, but so were the dogs, according to one of the four volunteer veterinarians for the race Kathy Topham of Ohio. This is her third year working Race to the Sky.
“Everyone looked fabulous,” she said of the Friday afternoon vet checks. Topham was at the race start just in case any mushers had any last minute problems.
Mushers are very vigilant about the health of their dogs, she said. They don’t want to race a dog that isn’t in top form, or they’ll wind up having to put it in the sled and carry it.
“I’ve never had to argue with a musher in the 14 years I’ve been doing this,” she said.
This year’s race drew 18 mushers from across the country – eight in the 350 Mile, nine in the Adult 100 Mile and one in the Junior 100 Mile.
This is about the same number as last year, said Pam Beckstrom, the race’s public relations director.
Now in its 29th year, the Race to the Sky commemorates the sled dogs and soldiers who trained at Camp Rimini. This year marks the 70th Anniversary of the Camp Rimini War Dog Race Reception and Training Center.
Sunday’s restart of the 350 mile is at 2 p.m. in Lincoln at Hi-Country Snack Foods. The 100 mile race start follows at 3 p.m.
The first finishers of the 350 are expected Tuesday, Feb. 18, in Lincoln. And the 350 Awards Ceremony is 6 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 19.
For more race information, visit www.racetothesky.org.