Sled dog teams race across Eagle Caps

January 21, 2007 11:00 pm
Dean Fairburn of Garden Valley, Idaho, is first to arrive at the check station mid way on the 200-mile course. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).
Dean Fairburn of Garden Valley, Idaho, is first to arrive at the check station mid way on the 200-mile course. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).

By LISA BRITTON

HALFWAY — Dean Fairburn glances at his watch when asked how long he's been into sled dog racing.

"Almost 24 hours," he says, the hint of a grin crossing his weary face. "I could drive a car cross country and only go six hours before falling asleep. Behind a dog sled I could go forever."

Behind him, Faiburn's team of 12 dogs curl up on piles of hay for a much-deserved rest after racing 100 miles from Joseph to Halfway for the third annual Eagle Cap Sled Dog Race.

He was one of four mushers who entered the 200-mile race. Seven others raced eight-dog teams along a 100-mile course that went from Joseph to Ollokot Campground and back.

All teams took off from Joseph at 4 p.m. Thursday, and raced through the night to their respective turn-around spots. The teams were required to take a six-hour layover at the halfway point.

Fairburn, of Garden Valley, Idaho, was the first musher to glide into the resting spot at Halfway, located about six miles from Cornucopia at a spot easily accessible to the public.

As he chats, Fairburn's thoughts are on the well-being of his dogs, and he pours water chock full of chicken meat and skin into plastic bowls nestled in the snow — treats he calls "pup-sicles."

Nourishment is the first order of business along the trail and at checkpoints, and the mushers waste no time digging out protein-rich treats for their dogs.

John Greenside of Truckee, Calif., tossed beef patties to each member of his team, and Liz Parrish of Fort Klamath gave her dogs hefty frozen chunks of liver (which she buys in 50-pound blocks).

Greenside and Parrish, second and third to arrive at Halfway, pulled in around noon. The fourth team was run by Laura Crocker of Pioneer, Calif.

The 200-mile course was a qualifier for the Iditarod, a 1,150-mile sled dog race across Alaska.

"It's a dream," Fairburn said. "Give me $20,000 and my wife's blessing, and I'll do it."

Fairburn entered the world of sled dog racing in 1992 when he was teaching in Holy Cross, Alaska.

"An old musher got me started," he said.

He moved to Idaho in 1999, and he continues to train and race his 13 dogs.

"Just one spare tire," he said of having only one extra canine for his 12-dog team.

And these dogs, by the way, aren't burly monsters that lug the sled along the trail.

"They're all lean and mean, all muscle," said Dr. Kathy Jackson, one of the veterinarians who checked each dog as they pulled in from the trail.

The dogs are predominantly Alaskan and Siberian huskies, and look like they have not an ounce of fat on their frames.

"How many marathoners do you know who are fat?" Dr. E. Turner Lewis said as he checked over Parrish's team.

The Eagle Cap Sled Dog Race brings in five veterinarians from around the U.S. to make sure the dogs stay healthy as they traverse the trails of the Wallowa Mountains.

All teams undergo a vet check prior to the race, and vets staff the checkpoints at Ollokot and Halfway.

"First thing is watch them come in," Jackson said.

The vets inspect each dog for hydration, heart rate, appetite, attitude and any sign of lameness.

"A clue is if an animal comes in with their head down and not looking around," Lewis said. "It might not mean anything, but we might want to spend a little more time with that dog."

Though the dogs looked pretty tuckered out after their 100-mile trek through the night, Fairburn said it's tough to hold them back when they're ready to go.

"Give them four hours and they're like ‘what's your problem? Let's go!'" he said.

The mushers are happy to oblige.

"It can be the neatest thing you can possibly do," Greenside said. "And you do it for the dogs — it's what they're made to do."

Parrish, who runs a pet-friendly bed and breakfast during the tourist season, makes sure to keep her dogs conditioned when racing time nears by hitching them up to a four-wheeler.

"Dirt training is important for discipline," she said.

She trained house dogs in agility exercises prior to entering the world of sled dog racing in 1997. She has her sights set on entering the Iditarod next year, she said.

"I do this because I love training dogs, and making the team work (together)," she said.

And night running is a favorite for these mushers.

"They run better at night, and it's cooler," Fairburn said, his breath freezing in the chilly morning air.

Parrish said it's surreal to race through the woods in the dark.

"The dogs come alive. It's another dimension," she said.

Of course, night isn't the best time for sight seeing.

"I hear it's pretty country," Fairburn said with a smile — just before he laid a sleeping bag on his own pile of hay and caught a few winks beside his sled dogs.

More information about the Eagle Cap Sled Dog Race is available on the Internet at: www.eaglecapsleddograce.net.