On a crisp, chilly Monday morning, Laurie Warren prepared her teammates for their upcoming race, checking joints and feet for any sign of injury, doling out vitamins and chopping whole, frozen salmon to serve as breakfast, lunch and dinner on the trail.
Those teammates, a collection of hardy Alaskan husky mixes bred for speed and stamina, lay curled atop their wooden dens at the Warren family’s Council ranch, their tails thumping as Laurie approached. They were resting after spending weeks training for the Idaho Sled Dog Challenge, the frozen trek they’ll embark on Wednesday morning.
Laurie weaved her way through the rows of dogs — 26 of them in all — offering belly rubs and head scratches. Intermingled with the 11 dogs that make up Laurie’s team are a handful of retired racers, as well as the dozen dogs comprising her son Trevor’s team. He’ll compete in the McCall race against Laurie and a field of 12 other mushers, many of them accomplished sled dog racers.
Laurie, 55, isn’t intimidated.
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“I have the hometown advantage,” she said. “I know that mountain like the back of my hand.”
Putting Idaho mushing on the map
It’s the second year for Idaho’s newest sled dog race (a smaller race has been held in Ashton since 1917), and the event is already expanding. Last year, the race, then called the McCall Ultra Sled Dog Challenge, offered a 237-mile course that took 10 teams from the Bear Creek Lodge south to Lake Cascade State Park, where mushers doubled back to return to the lodge.
This year, competitors chose between a 150-mile or a 300-mile course, trekking through McCall, Council, Donnelly and Cascade and gaining a cumulative 50,000 feet in elevation along the way. The field of entrants swelled to 14 racers, including several mushers who’ve completed the Iditarod in Alaska, a 1,000-mile race that has become synonymous with sled dog racing.
The course expansion makes the Idaho Sled Dog Challenge the only 300-mile qualifier in the lower 48 states for the Yukon Quest race, another 1,000-mile course in Alaska even more rugged than the Iditarod. Some have called it “the most difficult sled dog race in the world.”
Jerry Wortley, who has worked as a search-and-rescue pilot for the Iditarod, created the Idaho Sled Dog Challenge last year. He said it’s unusual for new races to quickly become sanctioned qualifiers.
“We had a lot of assistance from the Iditarod as far as getting the race to the standard it needed to be,” Wortley said.
The Idaho Sled Dog Challenge also joined a circuit of races in the Northwest — along with Oregon’s Eagle Cap Extreme and Montana’s Race To the Sky — to form a triple-crown event, which organizers are calling the Rocky Mountain Challenge Cup.
The trio of Rocky Mountain competitions are each sanctioned Iditarod qualifiers — race hopefuls must complete three shorter races to prove they have the skills to attempt the two-week trail in Alaska.
It’s part of Wortley’s plan to put Idaho on the sled dog racing map.
“Our experience from last year really surprised us,” Wortley said. “(The race) touched the soul of that community. I think it will become part of the identity of Idaho.”
He hopes to make the race, which is part of the McCall Winter Carnival, “the premier race in the Western United States.”
He said continued support at the Idaho Sled Dog Challenge will draw mushers from the Northwest and Midwest, eventually offering a larger cash purse for the winner. (The 300-mile winner will take home $2,000, while the 150-mile winner will claim $1,800.)
“The sled dog community overall is really great,” Trevor said. “Everybody knows everyone.”
And that community is taking root in Idaho, Trevor said, no doubt aided by the arrival of a new event. The Warrens know a handful of families who are starting out with a few dogs, getting a feel for what Laurie calls a lifestyle.
“You can’t just toss ‘em in the closet in the offseason like a kayak,” she said.
Race means new opportunities
“It’s every musher’s dream to run the Iditarod,” said Laurie, who qualified with a win at the 2018 Race to the Sky.
But obligations kept her from entering the 2019 race, as she’d originally hoped. Mushers are advised to spend several months training in Alaska prior to the Iditarod, in part to learn the terrain and also to help their dogs adjust to the climate and any potential illnesses unique to the area. For Laurie, who has a pack mule training business to run and is preparing to send Trevor to trade school this year, that’s too big of a time commitment.
“I can’t go up [to Alaska] in the fall and stay all winter. My life is too involved,” she said.
Now her strategy is to wait until some of the younger dogs on her team gain experience before attempting Iditarod, provided the other pieces fall into place. But she doesn’t feel rushed — there’s no expiration date to Iditarod qualifiers, and Laurie said if she stays fit, an additional five years or so won’t hurt her chances. If she enters, she would be only the third Idaho musher to do so in more than 20 years.
“If nothing else, at least I qualified,” she said.
And she could add another big qualification to her resume if she does well in the Idaho Sled Dog Challenge this year. She’s completed half of the requirements for the Yukon Quest race, and a timely finish this week would make her eligible to run the brutal Alaska trail.
“I’ve always thought it would be cool to have a sled dog race back here,” Warren said, referencing the area’s history of racing. “It’s exciting to have a trail in our backyard.”
‘The best companions’
The competition has been only a part of what drew Laurie to the sport. She started nearly a decade ago when her oldest son, Garrett, took an interest during a trip to Alaska. The Warrens began building a small kennel, and Trevor soon followed in his brother’s footsteps.
The long, tense hours of waiting for the boys to return from runs spurred Laurie to dip her toe in the water. She looked at the slower, less-skilled dogs that remained home while her sons trained and decided she’d “just play.”
Her sons encouraged her to enter a 4-mile race at the Darby Dog Derby, and her interest snowballed. Soon the Warrens were racing against each other, bonding during the hours spent training.
Those hours also forge a relationship between musher and dog. Warren said most of her huskies are connected in some way, and she can trace their lineage back several generations.
Maya will lead Laurie’s team at the Idaho race, joined by Athena, Hera, Hazel, Cobalt, Surf, Venus and four others. Trevor’s team includes Inca, Aztec, Neptune, Pluto and Juno, accompanied by six others. On the trail, the Warrens spend hours and hours with only the company of their dogs — and they wouldn’t want it any other way.
“You just hear the dogs panting and the patter of their feet,” Laurie said. “The solitude is fantastic, and I can’t have a better companion than my dogs.”
If you go
The 300-mile race kicks off at 11 a.m. Wednesday at the Bear Creek Lodge in McCall. The 150-mile race begins in the same place at 11 a.m. the following day.
Race officials estimate that sled dog teams will start crossing the finish line between 11 a.m. and 11 p.m. on Friday. There are multiple checkpoints where teams will stop during their trek. The checkpoints are accessible for spectators hoping to cheer on the mushers.
Find more details and maps of the courses at idahosleddogchallenge.com.