Sled dog races Jan. 18 to Jan. 21
By LISA BRITTON
Of the Baker City Herald
Ray and Buck Potter wanted to boost Joseph's tourism in the wintertime, so they turned to the ready resource of snow and the miles and miles of trails that weave through the Eagle Cap Wilderness.
Those trails, they figured, were perfect for a sled dog race, and five teams showed up for the 100-mile inaugural event last year.
This year's is set for Jan. 18-21, and includes two separate races a 100-mile eight-dog course and a 200-mile 12-dog course that is a qualifying race for the Iditarod in Alaska.
The short route includes a mandatory six-hour stop at Ollkot Campground, and the 200-mile racers will spend their six-hour layover at Cornucopia Lodge near Halfway.
"We've gotten great support from both Wallowa and Baker counties," Buck Potter said.
So far, 15 teams are registered and are coming from Oregon (two from Bend, one from Klamath Falls), Idaho, Washington, Colorado, California and Michigan.
"With mushers, they're notorious for waiting for the last moment to enter. I expect us to have 20 teams," Potter said.
The race begins in Joseph at 5 p.m. on Thursday, but events kick off Wednesday night with a mushers' meeting and a public potluck at 5 p.m. at Joseph Community Center.
Mushers, Potter said, are more than happy to chat about what they do.
"They're chatterboxes," he said. "The thing that's surprised me is most of them aren't coming to the races for the money. They're coming to race and have fun. It's a lifestyle."
Some mushers are even arriving early to visit schools in Joseph, Enterprise and Wallowa to talk about sled dog racing, Potter said.
"Mushers are very community-minded," he said.
On Thursday, Jan. 19, the public can get a glimpse of all the dogs as the canines undergo a veterinary check starting at 8 a.m. on the main street of Joseph.
The race begins at 5 p.m. that night. The starting point will be determined by the amount of snow, but these are the options in order from first choice to last resort: main street Joseph; Wallowa Lake State Park; Ferguson Ridge ski area (eight miles out of Joseph) or Salt Creek Summit (17 miles out of Joseph).
"All those places are accessible by car, no problem," Potter said.
If the race begins at Wallowa Lake, spectators need to be there by 4:30 p.m. because Highway 82 will be closed prior to the start time.
The 200-mile racers will leave first, and teams will take off every two minutes. The mushers will draw numbers Wednesday to determine the order of departure.
Potter estimates the entire start process will take about two hours.
"I highly recommend that anyone who's never seen (a sled dog race) should come see the start of it," Potter said.
The starting point will be set by Tuesday, he said.
The Potters laid out the race course along established snowmobile trails that will be groomed five days prior to the event by volunteers from the Wallowa County and Halfway snowmobile clubs.
"We picked the areas that would be a challenge," Potter said. "The 200 miles we use are probably the toughest 200 miles we've got."
These sled dog teams travel at 7 to 10 mph, he said, and the 100-mile racers will return to Joseph on Friday. The racers will be welcomed with a public taco feed and bingo at 6 p.m. at Joseph Community Center, followed by a dance at 9 p.m. with music provided by Skyline.
The 200-mile teams will start pulling into Cornucopia about 3 a.m. on Friday. Four groups from the Panhandle Snowmobile Club will maintain bonfires at the trail junctions to make sure the mushers keep on course.
"The mushers are coming over Thursday night, and we don't want them taking a wrong turn," said Whitey Bloom, snowmobile club president.
Snowmobilers will also be patrolling the course to offer help if needed.
"Most everybody in the club is involved in some way or another," Bloom said.
The teams will spend at least six hours at this layover spot, and anyone with a snowmobile is welcome to travel the five miles into Cornucopia (snow makes the trip impassable by car).
The 200-mile racers will return to Joseph on Saturday, and an awards banquet will be held that night at the community center. Social hour starts at 6 p.m., followed by dinner at 7 p.m. and a dance at 9 p.m.
The purse is $5,000, which will be divided among all the racers.
The lowest prize will be about $25, Potter said, and Safeway has also donated $1,000 worth of gift certificates.
"Everybody gets something," Potter said.
The award banquet is open to the public. Tickets are $15 for the dinner, or $20 for the dinner and dance, and are available in Joseph at the Sports Corral and Strawberry Mountain Bed and Breakfast, in Enterprise at Lear's Pub and Grill, or by calling 541/432-3125 or 541/426-3300.