In mid-January, as mild weather dissolved Portland’s last melty snowmen, eastern Oregon bundled up for yet another ice storm. But closed highways, unplowed roads, and “hurricane-force weather" proved no deterrent for one hardy pack of travelers—the far-flung participants competing in the 13th annual Eagle Cap Extreme dog sled race.
By start time on Thursday, January 19, all of the race's registered mushers—the term for these human captains of highly trained dog teams—had made it to the snowed-in parking lot of Ferguson Ridge Ski Area near Joseph, Oregon. Joining this year’s 24 competitors (who hailed from Bend, Bozeman, and even Alberta, Canada) were 230 lithe, fluffy huskies: the “marathon runners” of the dog world, says longtime race volunteer Troy Nave. Present to send them off were throngs of schoolchildren, local news media, race officials, and volunteers, like Nave, long ago bitten by the mushing bug.
Proof that the dog teams share in the excitement? That’s clear, Nave says, from the group howl that erupts the moment the first harness slips over a husky—a howl that continues unabated till the final sled launches from the two parking cones that serve as a starting gate.
Eagle Cap Extreme mushers compete in four races: one for juniors ages 14 to 18, a “pot race” where competitors pool money for a chance at the winnings, a 100-miler, and a 200-miler that takes upwards of 35 hours and serves as a qualifier for the sport’s most elite races: Alaska’s Iditarod and the binational Yukon Quest, both arduous, 1,000-mile backcountry treks.
Iditarod hopefuls received a good test of their skills—and endurance—at this year's race through the Wallowas. Mushers battled to stay on course through gusts of up to 80 miles an hour, thigh-high trenches of fresh “sugary” snow, and treacherous ice pack that sent several sleds sliding into trees.
“The drama was phenomenal,” says Nave. “We had hurricane-force weather and by far the closest-ever race finish, yet no dogs got hurt, no people got hurt.”
To see the drama yourself, check out the slideshow above. (And for even more dog sled action, find photos of the 2013 race here.)