For many mushers, sled dog racing becomes much more than an activity. It turns into a lifestyle, requiring long winters spent living with dogs, away from the comforts of town. Mushers say the reward is the bond formed with their canine friends. A first-place finish at the big race doesn’t hurt either.
Flathead Sled Dogs Days, held on Jan. 7-9 in Olney, was born out of a love for dogs. Organizers Brooke Bohannon, Katie Davis and Sean Hard started the event four years ago when they were in their late 20 and early 30s. At the time, there wasn’t a sled dog race in the Flathead, though the 350-mile Race to the Sky in the nearby Seeley Lake area was already well known.
Since introducing competitive sled dog racing to the Flathead Valley, the community has responded enthusiastically, as have mushers from across the West. Last year, Bohannon said more than 30 mushers participated and several hundred spectators showed up.
Bohannon is expecting a similarly strong turnout for both participants and spectators at this year’s race, which begins and ends at a trailhead in Olney, about 18 miles west of Whitefish along U.S. Highway 93. Some spectators are long-time sled dog fans, Bohannon said, but many are newcomers who just want to see what the sport is all about.
“Most of them last year were curious,” Bohannon said. “A lot were locals and some came from Missoula and other places.”
As a community event, Flathead Sled Dog Days has grown considerably in four years. But the race itself has remained true to its roots, keeping the mileage relatively short and sticking to the gorgeous terrain of Stillwater State Forest.
Whereas the Iditarod, the most famed race in the sport, is more than 1,000 miles, Flathead Sled Dog Days is divided into two-day races covering eight miles for four-dog teams, 50 miles for eight-dog teams and 80 miles for 12-dog teams. The teams travel half the distance the first day and then the other half the next day. Seeley Lake’s Race to the Sky, held in February for the 25th year, is 350 miles long.
In accordance with the race’s small scale, the general atmosphere at Flathead Sled Dog Days is intimate, encouraging observers to mingle with mushers and see the dogs before they take to the trails. Bohannon recommends spectators head to the vet check at the Grouse Mountain Lodge on Jan. 7 the day before the race, where the dogs are hanging out in the parking lot.
Another opportunity to see the mushers interacting with their dogs is right before the races begin, which are scheduled for 9 a.m. on Jan. 8 and 9. People can watch the start of the races and then hang out at the trailhead, where there are food vendors and a bonfire. They can also rent snowmobiles or cross country skis and stake out viewpoints along the course. Maps are located at the trailhead.
“It’s a great after-the-holiday, weekend event,” Bohannon said.
Most mushers are adults, though Flathead Sled Dog Days also attracts juniors under age 18 each year. This time around, 15-year-old Jenny Greger is competing against her father, Rob Greger, in the eight-dog division. The Gregers come from Bozeman in south-central Montana.
Jenny Greger is an example of how mushers, no matter their age, dedicate much of their lives to dogs, turning sled dog racing into a lifestyle. Greger has 45 dogs at her Bozeman kennels and has already participated competitively, including at the Green River Classic in West Yellowstone. She is bringing her Alaskan huskies to Flathead Sled Dog Days.
“It will be father and daughter going against each other,” Bohannon said.
Bohannon, Davis and Hard focus their time on organizing the event and don’t participate, though they’re all accomplished mushers. In February, Davis finished the grueling 1,000-mile Yukon Quest. Two years earlier, as a 26-year-old, she completed the Iditarod.
But the organizers are content with sitting this one out. It allows them to step back and take it all in. They’ve come a long way in four years.
“It’s been very well received,” Bohannon said, “by the community in general, as well as the mushing community.”
For more information, visit www.flatheadsleddogdays.com.
This story was excerpted from Escape, the Flathead Beacon’s seasonal magazine, which is on newsstands now.
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