The small city of Ashton, Idaho, goes to the dogs this weekend, as it has for the past 97 years, when the American Dog Derby begins tomorrow, February 14, 2014. This is, unfortunately, one of those years when too little snow and warm temperatures are combining to force some changes in the racing schedule, but the races will go on. If you’ve never seen a sled dog race before, Ashton is the place to be. They’re noisy, fun and exciting and you can get an up close look at winter transportation in the days before snowmobiles.
The first race, run in 1917, was a 55 mile run from West Yellowstone, Montana to Ashton with mushers facing a blinding blizzard the entire way. Deep snow and high winds made the race a challenge for man and dog and caused the racers to hole up overnight because of the deep snows. The next day Ashton entrant Tud Kent won the race in a time of 29 hours and 23 minutes.
The hero of this first dog race wasn’t the winner. That honor went to a bulldog belonging to “Windriver” Smith, who came from “somewhere in Wyoming.” Smith had three hounds, a shepherd and the bulldog as his string and when they hit the deep drifts the hounds refused to go on. Smith put the bulldog in the lead to break trail and the little dog would sometime disappear completely as he burrowed through the drifts. They came in last, but they finished first in the hearts of many of the spectators.
This isn’t the first year the races have had to be adjusted for a lack of snow. In 1920 the race was cancelled due to a lack of snow brought on by weeks of unseasonably mild weather. After race organizers made the difficult decision and word went out Mother Nature’s perverse sense of humor produced six inches of snow the night before the races would have been run. Race organizers vowed to never again cancel a race. In 1938 the race was run on wheeled sleds because of the lack of snow. Mother Nature evened things out when the race did have to be cancelled because of too much snow in 1949. The great winter of 1948-49 essentially shut down southeastern Idaho, along with much of the west, with heavy snows, subzero temperatures and high winds for some 13 weeks, beginning in late November.
If you go to the Derby expecting to see all Husky breeds competing, you’ll be disappointed. There may be Samoyeds, Malamutes and Huskies in the race but you’re just as likely to see a wide variety of various breeds including Setters, Labs, Lab mixes, and various combinations of those and other breeds. In 1926 one team entered was noteworthy because no two dogs were the same size, breed or color. And the arguments about which breeds are the best undoubtedly still go on among the mushers. Early mushers tended to agree that while Husky breed teams with their steady pace and endurance were ideal for longer distances the various mixed breed dogs were better for shorter distances on races of 25 miles where speed was more important. You’ll just have to go to the races and decide for yourself.
One thing you can be assured of at the Dog Derby is entertainment. While sled dogs are well trained they do get excited when they know it’s time to race. Trying to get them harnessed and hooked in to the gang line and keep them all untangled until the race starts can be a trying experience. They bark, bounce, squeal and hurl insults at other teams. You hang on for dear life and hope the rope securing dogs and sled until the race starts is very sturdy. When that rope is released, look out! More than one hapless musher has been left at the starting line because he didn’t have a good grip. And this brings up one of the cardinal rules of dog mushing: Never let go of your sled. Being left at the starting line isn’t as bad as losing your sled and team somewhere along the trail and having to walk back. The dogs don’t stop. I’ve seen races where the dogs came in first but it doesn’t count without the musher.
Once the race is on and the dogs settle in a bit, the unexpected can still happen. The dog sled is light and has only a very basic brake which usually consists of a spring-loaded wood plank attached to the sled bed at one end and has a metal or wooden hook at the back. When the musher wants to stop he steps down on the brake, driving the hook into the snow, and hollers at his team These effforts may or may not work, depending on the size of the musher and the enthusiasm of the dogs.
One year Dog Derby organizers decided it would be great entertainment for the crowds to drop a team of dogs, sled and musher by parachute from a plane. The plan was for the musher, Lewis Price, to then hook up his team of Samoyeds to the sled and ride triumphantly back to the starting line. All went well with the jump – until one of the dogs landed on a rabbit which happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The dogs all went off in happy pursuit of the rabbit, leaving a very frustrated musher to walk back to the starting line. Lewis had a very colorful vocabulary and exercised most of it, which my cousins and I found most enlightening.
They may not drop dogs from airplanes at the Dog Derby any more, but you’ll find plenty of excitement and fun at the Dog Derby. For information on the events and times, check out the Dog Derby’s web site and go have fun!