About 66 years ago, you could hear the howling of dogs and the sounds of a military camp just outside Helena, Montana, during World War II. Camp Rimini War Dog Reception and Training Center was organized in November 1943 and was a haven for enlisted dog mushers and dogs. It was perfect for training with snowy winters, mountainous terrain, and dog mushing was spoken in the evening to knit the soldiers together. During the Camp Rimini War Dog Reception and Training Center mission, over 800 sled dogs, 100 pack dogs, and about 150 men (that were trained to be dog mushers) formed teams for war purposes. Unique breeds were used as sled dogs and pack dogs ranging from huskies, malamutes, Newfoundlands, Great Pyrenees, and even Chesapeakes or Labrador type dogs were used—very large dogs were used. They needed sled dogs that were trained for military maneuvers to navigate the snowy parts of Norway with equipment, soldiers, and supplies. They learned quickly (and sometimes the hard way) how to train dogs and some soldiers were recruited because they could speak fluent Norwegian. About a year and a half later, the invasion of Norway was cancelled and many of these skilled dog trainers and dogs were sent to Greenland, Newfoundland, Baffinland, Alaska and other remote places on search and rescue missions. They retrieved equipment, men, and sometimes bodies, or remains, from downed airplanes and gave the men a proper burial and restored hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of U.S. equipment. The Race to the Sky had a celebration in 1993 for the fiftieth reunion of the Camp Rimini soldiers and invited all the living soldiers to this reunion. Oral histories were recorded by the Montana Historical Society, stories were told, and a German soldier (who was part of that year’s skijoring rely of almost 300 miles) unveiled some important history about the water supplies in Norway and how the German army had their eyes on rendering them useless to Norway. So goes the story of Camp Rimini War Dog Reception and Training Center just outside Helena, Montana. It was one of only two war dog training centers in the United States.The Race to the Sky is celebrating its twenty-fifth year this February. We will also be commemorating the rich history sled dogs played in the formation of Camp Rimini and the soldiers that trained them for war. These were dedicated men and strong dogs that trained in the mountains surrounding Helena and the Race to the Sky salutes those men and dogs each February by starting its 350 mile race on the barracks site.Race to the Sky has been called the Iditarod of the lower 48 and the most challenging race in the lower 48. Iditarod veterans have told us that it was more challenging in stretches than the Iditarod. Mushers are continually impressed with the organization, caliber of volunteers, race officials, and checkpoint staff.Race to the Sky is a volunteer’s race in every stretch. It takes a small army to put this race on each year and to help plan for it year-round. The twenty-fifth year is a milestone. Over the years, the race has put in many miles of trail only to have too much snow to keep the trail open or chinook conditions that melted the trail in front of the mushers and even a forced evacuation from emergency flooding. The race has always been graced with beautiful trails, willing and friendly volunteers, the support of the communities, but has been plagued some years with a smaller than intended sponsorship base. This year, organizers are pulling out all the stops and are planning for a huge celebration including adding a continuous junior race for kids ages 12-18 and traveling 100 miles before finishing in Seeley Lake, Montana.To get a feel for Race to the Sky, a brief history is necessary. Race to the Sky started out as a 500 mile continuous race—the longest in the lower 48 for a number of years. It was certainly one of the most challenging races with seven Continental Divide climbs in its early years. In 1986-1988, it was called the Governor’s Cup 500 Mile Sled Dog Race. In 1989, to commemorate Montana’s Centennial, the Race to the Sky was included in a Montana racing circuit including the Holland Lake Race to the Lake, the Seeley Lake Races, and the 500 mile race. For that year only, it was called the Montana Centennial Sled Dog Race.Right after the 1989 race, the board of directors wanted to find a more permanent name for this race that covers valleys, mountains, treed parks, and some of the most pristine land in all the country. The name Race to the Sky was born after being submitted by a board member and approved unanimously. The name Race to the Sky was hatched commemorating the steep, long climbs that seem to almost take you up to the sky.Since that time, there have been changes of many shapes and sizes for Race to the Sky including adding a 250 mile separate race to the already established 500 mile race in 1991. In 1993, the board of directors changed the 250 mile to a 300 mile and kept the 500 mile race, adding contestants each year.In 1997, the board of directors finally settled on a 350 mile trail that had everything a dog musher would want in a race: challenges, long quiet stretches, mountains, meadows, friendly volunteers, a dog-friendly trail, plenty of dependable snow, and the whole outdoors of Montana. Race to the Sky thrived during the early to mid-1990s with sponsors such as Liz Claiborne/Art Ortenberg Foundation, Iams Pet Food, Eagle Pet Foods and many more local sponsors taking care of the purse and growing needs of the race.By the late 1990s, our race manager Jim McHugh hatched a fundraiser that was an immediate success and is still strong today, a Microbrew Review and Cool Dog Ball. It has been a great fundraiser for Race to the Sky in addition to local support for sled banner sponsors, program advertising, merchandise sales, and sponsorships. Cool Dog is the sunglass-wearing husky that has become the Race to the Sky mascot. He has attended many functions in the Montana and Canada on behalf of the Race to the Sky. The race even honored him with a birthday party in which Gus from the movie Iron Will was one of the dignitaries that attended.This year marks the twenty-fifth year for Race to the Sky. It is actually the twenty-fourth Race to the Sky because in 2005 organizers had to cancel it due to a lack of snow. Most years the snow conditions are very good but because Montana is subject to Chinook winds, melting can occur. That said, the race has had its share of below zero temperatures and blizzards over the years. Mushers have to pack mandatory gear for any number of weather conditions.An article about Race to the Sky would not be complete without commemorating the race volunteers. In the early years, it was said that that there was one volunteer for every mile of trail (500) and it can be said over the years that our volunteers are a dedicated, hard-working, and “can-do” bunch to be sure. Organizers don’t even have to ask, they just know what is needed to make things run smoothly. They are the finest around. That includes the board of directors (volunteers), race officials, race veterinarians, checkpoint workers and officials, vet check volunteers, the trail crew for each section of trail. The hospitality of the volunteers and people in the towns along the way is unsurpassed. We appreciate their time and talents that they give so freely to the race each year. The race starts at Camp Rimini (near the old barracks of Camp Rimini War Dog Training and Reception Center), on Saturday, February 13, runs to Butte, Montana, which is the noncontinuous section of the trail. The next day, the race starts under a spectacularly designed huge wooden archway that rivals the Iditarod finish archway in Nome located at Hi Country Snack Foods on the west end of Lincoln, Montana. Here the race takes on the continuous flavor that all its predecessor mushers remember. They remember the warmth of coming into the White Tail Ranch checkpoint, nestled next to the Bob Marshall Wilderness and having some home cooking after running up Huckleberry Pass and down the other side. They are intimately acquainted with the meadows and more open country between the White Tail Ranch and the Seeley Lake Checkpoint and the maze of trails between. The next checkpoint is a wilderness, drop-bag checkpoint that becomes a haven for tired mushers. Spending time resting there is always welcome and good for the soul before heading back to Seeley Lake for a mandatory rest before the finish. After a rest, the teams head for the finish line and have until Wednesday, February 17th to count as a finisher. Many teams will finish Tuesday evening, because there are so many challenges to this race, they have until Wednesday to finish. The event is culminated by an awards ceremony with a room filled with dog mushers, handlers, spectators, volunteers, officials, land owners, sponsors and more. The stories flow about mushers helping other mushers and the comraderie makes everyone smile. It may be just a sled dog race but it represents hours of dedication to their dogs, to the sport, hours of planning, strategizing, fundraising, and lots of sleepless nights in checkpoints over the years. The communities surrounding the race, Helena (they have been a pillar to Race to the Sky), Butte, Lincoln, and Seeley Lake and for several years, Deer Lodge, have helped the Race to the Sky become a famous distance race in the lower 48. Their support has helped this race thrive over the years. It is truly a Montana effort. We draw sponsors and volunteers from all over the country and end up having a great time, making new friends and renewing old friendships.Race to the Sky has been featured on ESPN, the Today Show, CNN, NBC, CBS, ABC, most of the major magazines and has even been covered in Japan and even Aruba to mention a few. Writers love this race because it is personal and they are able to get out on the trail to see the teams first-hand. This past year we received movie credits in Call of the Wild 3D released in June of this year. The movie is a dog-friendly version of the classic and was filmed in Montana on some of the trail Race to the Sky uses near Lincoln. It was filmed in a musher’s home and the people of Lincoln got to know the cast and crew by name.Only one Alaskan has ever won Race to the Sky (Dean Osmar). Over the years, mushing legends have won Race to the Sky–like Linwood Fiedler (from Montana when he won the 1986 and 1988 Race to the Sky), Mark Nordman (1987), Dean Osmar (1990), Doug Swingley (1991), Robin Jacobson (1993), Jessie Royer (1994), Frank Teasley (1993-300 mile race and 1994 300 mile race), Jason Barron (2003-350 mile race), and John Barron (2004 & 2006-350 mile races). They may have won their races but so many others became winners for finishing what they set out to do. The race has been a race that mushers participate in to qualify for Iditarod or they just want the experience of running it like Rick Swenson, Terry Adkins, Lloyd Gilbertson, Rick Larson, Karen Ramstead, John Schandelmeier and Billy Snodgrass. They wanted to run it to see the country and be part of a unique Montana experience. Whatever the reasons, their successes are etched in Race to the Sky history. All the past participants will be invited to Helena for the twenty-fifth year celebration this February. It should be a party to end all parties.What do the Race to the Sky mushers say about this race? “The Race to the Sky is a great race—the scenery is spectacular, the race is very well run and the trails are fun but also a nice challenge. It is a great qualifying race for Iditarod with parts of the trail very similar to what one may see on Iditarod. Good food—helpful volunteers—overall a distance race one should not miss!” Sue Morgan, Race to the Sky veteran. “The Race to the Sky is a true modern day adventure. From running historic dog mushing trails by Rimini to high altitude climbs like Huckleberry, the Race to the Sky has the trails and organization that make it a great mid-distance sled dog race.” Dee Ogden, Race to the Sky veteran. “The first race I ever ran was the Race to the Sky. It was both difficult and rewarding. I have raced everything from Iditarod to the Beargrease and the Race to the Sky is as good as it gets. I can’t wait to run it again. Great mountains, veterinarians and organization.” Billy Snodgrass, Race to the Sky veteran. Race to the Sky is fortunate to be able to run on state-owned lands, private, and other federal public lands. Although not always easy to have 350 miles of trail, the trail crew secures trail each year for the race and makes it happen. They are hard-working and very dedicated and very committed to making sure the trail is safe for dogs and mushers.We invite everyone to come on February 12-17th, 2010, to celebrate twenty-five years of comraderie. We celebrate all that have made this a great race.Race to the Sky has always had a vision to share the sport of mushing with the public and educate them about working dogs. The fact that we commemorate Camp Rimini is just one more way we can share the rich history dogs have played in our lives over the years. Montana Sled Dog, Inc. (parent 501(c)3 nonprofit) is dedicated to teaching and has a dog mushing symposium each September. In addition, mushers are called to schools in Helena to present talks on mushing and Race to the Sky to students. Many of the schools in Helena are now teaching “teamwork” units or outdoor survival along with using the Race to the Sky Educational Curriculum, and one of two Race to the Sky Educational Trunks to supplement their discussions with their students.As a personal note, this year marks a culmination of twenty-five years of volunteerism for Jack and I. We have been part of every race. Jack was one of the original planners, he has raced it numerous times, we have both been involved in the planning and organization of it, and we met at this race. We have made friends with some of the most amazing people through the Race to the Sky. Isn’t life truly remarkable? It has certainly been a great run and will continue to be Montana’s premier winter event. To be part of the twenty-fifth anniversary celebration, contact Race to the Sky at www.racetothesky.org, e-mail info@racetothesky, or call Pam at 406-881-DOGS. It should be a celebration to beat all celebrations.Pam Beckstrom has been a volunteer for 25 years, been a board member, Race Secretary for 23 years, and authored a book on the Race to the Sky history, ‘Twenty Years and Still Going to the Dogs: Montana’s Race to the Sky,’ Beckstrom, P. (Race to the Sky 2006) (All proceeds have gone to Race to the Sky) Pam also wrote the Educational Curriculum for the race, started the host family program, race marshaled (along with husband Jack) and is involved with the musher in the schools program and getting the educational trunk program set up. Jack and Pam operate Adanac Sleds and Equipment their dot com dogmushing supply business for over 30 years. They are both integrally involved in seeing the sport grow and educating the public about working dogs. Contact them at Adanac, www.adanacsleds.com.
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