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The rugged landscapes of Idaho have long been associated with adventure and exploration. In the heart of the snow-covered West Central Mountains, an extraordinary event unfolds each winter that showcases the remarkable partnership between humans and their canine companions – the Idaho Sled Dog Challenge.
The Idaho Sled Dog Challenge (ISDC) is an annual long-distance sled dog race that stretches from Warm Lake and Smiths Ferry to Cascade and New Meadows, challenging participants both physically and mentally as they navigate through some of Idaho’s most breathtaking but demanding landscapes. Now in its sixth year, the ISDC has become a centerpiece of the region’s winter calendar.
What started as 10 teams and a single, 237-mile race has grown to three races: a 300-mile continuous-format race that serves as a qualifier for the famed Iditarod and the Yukon Quest, a 100-mile race, and the Warm Lake Stage Race.
Race organizer Jerry Wortley says they make refinements to the races each year based on feedback from the mushers, and they feel like the event has hit its stride. “This past year, we got As across the board from all the mushers,” says Wortley, who adds that the mushers like the trail, the flow of the race and the set up at the checkpoints.
The race now draws about two dozen teams and nearly 1,000 spectators. An impressive 238 volunteers stepped up to help support the event in 2023, and that enthusiastic volunteerism is part of what led to the race’s motto: “Spirit Unleashed”.
“This is so much more than just a dog race,” says Wortley. “It’s about the community coming together, the spirit of the mushers and the spirit of the dogs.”
The ISDC is part of the Rocky Mountain Triple Crown, which kicks off the with the 200-mile Eagle Cap Extreme near Joseph, Oregon and ends with the 300-mile Race to the Sky in Lincoln, Montana. It’s not unusual for mushers to run the races – which happen about a week apart from late January through mid-February – back to back to back.
42-year-old musher Jesika “Jes” Reimer competed in the 100-mile race in all three triple crown events last year, taking second place honors across the board. She says the Idaho Sled Dog Challenge is her favorite.
“The trail was incredible,” says Reimer, who trains her kennel of 12 dogs in the mountains of Northern California. “We had fresh corduroy all the way to the first checkpoint…the views, the mountains, the terrain, it is all so beautiful. Plus my dogs love charging the hills and hairpin corners.”
Reimer also appreciated having the ceremonial start the day before the actual race, so she could share her dogs with the spectators without being distracted by the typical pre-race preparations. “We had all the dogs dropped and the gear down and anyone from the public could come chat with us,” says Reimer.
The enthusiasm of the local community is also a big part of what makes the event a favorite of Nicole Lombardi, who took first place in all three 100-mile Triple Crown events last season.
“My favorite thing is the community involvement with the kids, getting welcome bags with the kids’ art on it, seeing them line the racecourse and cheer us on,” says Lombardi.
An estimated 750 local students braved single digit temperatures to watch different parts of the 2023 races.
“It’s energizing. It’s meaningful to be able to share with the younger generations, to maybe spark something in them to continue the sport,” says Lombardi.
Event organizers are looking to build on educational opportunities and youth involvement. This past summer, the ISDC partnered with the Idaho STEM Action Center and had two of the Iditarod’s Teacher on the Trail™ veterans as keynote speakers for the iSTEM Action Center’s Summer Institutes Series. The presentations included sample lessons on how to bring sled dog racing into the classroom through STEM education. An estimated 400-500 Idaho educators had the opportunity to listen to those presentations. The ISDC is currently working with the University of Idaho and the Iditarod Education Department to develop a professional development course as an option for educators to earn CEUs and is planning on hosting the Iditarod’s Summer Teachers Conference in McCall.
Youth outreach isn’t the only way organizers are working to get more people involved in the event. This year, five of the six race checkpoints are road-accessible. Viewing the race from a checkpoint gives a different, more immersive perspective than a spectator gets at the start or finish.
“That’s really where they can see the dog care, how it all functions, and talk with the mushers. They’ll get a much better feel for everything that goes into the race by visiting the checkpoints,” says Wortley.
While the Idaho Sled Dog Challenge is quickly building a reputation for excellence, it also has a reputation for producing female champions. Women have taken first place honors in eight of the 10 races they’ve staged since the event’s debut in 2018.
“I can’t tell you why, but I think it’s pretty cool that they’re dominating this race, because it’s one of the toughest qualifiers,” says Wortley.
“I think the beauty of longer distance running is that sex or gender doesn’t matter so much. It’s more about how in tune you are with your dogs, how you’ve trained, what you can bring out from them,” says Reimer. “There are no male and female classes in dog sledding. With mushing it doesn’t matter where you carry your muscle, it’s about how well we’ve trained the dogs because they’re the muscle.”
Triple Crown champion Nicole Lombardi pointed out that a lot of the female mushers train in mountainous terrain, so that may help them and their teams show up better prepared for the ISDC course. “I don’t know,” adds Lombardi with a chuckle. “Maybe ask one of the guys.”
More info: www.idahosleddogchallenge.com
All photos courtesy of Melissa Shelby and the Idaho Sled Dog Challenge