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Some of North America's best mushers are competing in Idaho Sled Dog Challenge

Idaho Sled Dog Challenge
The Idaho Sled Dog Challenge is celebrating its 5th year.

“Mushing” through hundreds of miles of central Idaho in freezing weather is daunting enough. Add on several challenging climbs, and that's a race only a few are willing to endure.

Jessie Royer has won the race twice. She’s also been an Iditarod top-10 finisher.

"This is not a 300-mile race," she said. "This is a 500-mile race that’s jammed into 300-miles."

Dave Looney, co-founder of the Idaho Sled Dog Challenge, described the race even further.

"We have over 40,000-feet of vertical that they have to climb. It’s really difficult.”

Just prior to the multiple-event challenge, Looney visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about how some of the best mushers in North America are making their way to our region to compete.

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It's Morning Edition. Good morning. I'm George Prentice. It is fair to say that the Iditarod is known as the world's most famous sled dog race. This year, it glides off in early March in downtown Anchorage. What a lot of people may not know is that there are thrilling sled dog races across our region this month and next, And that most certainly includes the Idaho Sled Dog Challenge. And here to talk about that is the co-founder of the Idaho Sled Dog Challenge. He's Dave Looney. Dave, good morning.

DAVE LOONEY: Good morning, sir.

PRENTICE: First off, I am fascinated by mushers., I've attended and covered more than a few. They are thrilling as a layperson. But talk to me… this is more than a hobby because it's a major commitment in time and resources.

LOONEY: It is a tremendous lifestyle to take on the role of being a serious musher. Obviously, folks have smaller teams, and they can graduate up. But when you start talking about people that are competing in the top ten of the Iditarod, they may have 50 or 70 dogs in their kennel. And they're very into the breeding. They spend their days talking and working with dogs and training them to be able to run like they can.

PRENTICE: I know veterinarians are very much a part of the operations in your team and the care for those dogs is primary.

LOONEY: It's really at the center of everything we talk about. It’s how to make sure that the dogs are well cared for. The mushers, of course, are very interested in the dogs that are their family members to the mushers and the veterinarians. That's their profession. So, our veterinarians are top quality. They've been on the Iditarod. They know what they're looking for and what kind of injuries happen to them. And so, to the mushers… I've seen mushers look at a team in 5 seconds, 12 dogs in front of them say, “Yep, that one's got a sore tendon on the right front leg.” Looking at in 5 seconds at a team of dogs of 12 and saw immediately which dog needed aid.

PRENTICE: So, talk to us about the layout of the Idaho Sled Dog Challenge And indeed, it's more than one event.

LOONEY: Yeah, and we keep changing things a little bit. Jerry, the other co-founder, always wants to throw a loop at me and I'm kind of the Trails logistics guy. So every year I try and wring his neck when he… well, let's do this differently. And this year we have brought back the ceremonial start, which is going to take place at the Activity Barn in McCall on the 28th. And they've got the events and times are on the website for Idaho Sled Dog Challenge. But I believe that the first start is at10 and that'll just get people out and get them to see the dogs. And it's on Sunday. So, the kids are easy to be there. They don't have to worry about school and all that. So, I think that's the main reason we wanted to bring the ceremonial back just so that people could get to it and see the spectacle. The first year we did it was in Ponderosa State Park, and we had the most visitors they've ever had at any event. We ran out of parking. People couldn't get there. We had 2000 people in Ponderosa Park to come see the start. We have the Warm Lake race, which is also going on prior to that, which is just a quick stage race out of Warm Lake. That's the 25th and 26th, I believe. And then the main race starts from Cascade on the 30th. And there'll be a 10:00 launch of the 300-mile race and then a 2:00 launch of the 100-mile race.

PRENTICE: 300 miles. Wow. Can I assume there's a lot of… well, more than a few climbs. There are a lot of ups and downs there.

LOONEY: In fact, Jessie Royer, she's won a race twice and she's been an Iditarod top 10 finisher. I don't know how many times. She told me at the end of the race, I think last year or the year before, she said, “This is not a 300-mile race. This is a 500-mile race that's jammed into 300 miles.” And we have over 40,000 feet of vertical that they have to climb up and down. It's really difficult on the dogs.

PRENTICE: You need a special permit from the Forest Service? You've got their full cooperation?

LOONEY: We do. The Forest Service has never blinked an eye. They love having us. And we do have to get a permit. But they're very supportive.

PRENTICE: So, you have competitors coming from all over?

LOONEY: We do. We have had people come from Alaska, Minnesota, Canada, Colorado, you name it, from all over.

PRENTICE: So, the big race again starts on the 30th.

LOONEY: It does. That's correct.

PRENTICE: How long would it take a musher to travel 300-miles?

LOONEY: Well, they don't do a lot of sleeping, as you can imagine. And the dogs don't need a ton of rest because of the health of the dogs. We force them to rest probably more than they need. But mushers need more rest than the dogs do. If you just set out, “Hey, go run 300 miles and give them a flat course,” I'm sure it'd be a different number. But with the checkpoints and the requirements and everything else, I expect it'll be four days for 300 miles.

PRENTICE: Is there any weather event that would get in the way of doing that?

LOONEY: Our biggest concern is if we have a real huge dump of snow. If we get a couple of feet of wet snow or something like that, that will make the trails really difficult because of the vertical. I mean, the dogs can break trail. But just like you and I, if we go out walking through the snow and it's light and fluffy, it's easier than if it's not. And so, if we have an impact out there where the drag on the sled is so much that 12 dogs can't haul the sled up the hill, they've got to climb. Now we've got a problem. We have trackers on the sleds. We can see when they've come to a stop and if they're there for how long. And we're watching the weather. And we've got teams of guys to go out with the snow machines and trail packers to break trail for them. If it comes down to that weather, that means we've got to rescue them and connect the snow machine to the lead dog and take the gang line and pull them out or just pack the trail. And if we can just pack a trail and let them run the race, then we'll let them run the race. It's got to be fairly significant for the dogs not to be able to do that. But it can happen in this climate.

PRENTICE: We can follow the race online. But again, there is nothing like being in person. So, the ceremony will start on the 29th at the Activity Barn.

LOONEY: Correct.

PRENTICE: And the official start race on the 30th. And where do we go if we'd like to see the official start?

LOONEY: The official start will be at in Cascade. The 300-mile race will start there at 10:00. They will travel down to Smiths Ferry. So, if you just want to drive to Smiths Ferry, just look at the tracker online and find out when the dog teams are there. They'll be pulling in and resting in Smiths Ferry. They'll come back to Cascade and then they'll go north, and they'll end up all the way up at the Y checkpoint in New Meadows. Then   they'll come back to Cascade. That's the 300-mile. The 100-mile will start at 2 in the afternoon. They will leave Cascade and they'll go north. Eventually headed to Y, but they'll stop at the Platt… warming hut. That's a great checkpoint to see. It's just well laid out and kind of semi-remote at the end of the road there. And then from that, they'll go over to the Little Ski Hill. They'll rest a little bit there. That'll be in the middle of the night. So, it'll be a cool scene, but it may not be a great time to run out there because it'll be late at night or early in the morning. And then they'll leave there and they'll finish at Y and that'll be the finish there for the 100-mile race.

PRENTICE: Wow. Dave Looney is the co-founder of the Idaho Sled Dog Challenge. Dave, great good. Thanks for giving us some time this morning. And folks, if you've never done this before, it's a bucket list thing to do. Dave, this is so swell and thanks for giving us some time this morning.

LOONEY: Thanks, George, for all you do.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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