By Jeanette Hunter
Winter sunrise takes a while to crawl down into icy Gibbons Pass, but the rising cacophony will assure you you’ve come to the right place. 2020 marks the thirteenth year for the Darby Dog Derby (DDD), hosted by the Bitterroot Mushers. Whatever the weather, it’s a magnificent backdrop for the 2-day gathering. In 2019, it started at a balmy 27 degrees and 50 shades of grey: saged, browned, heathered, and whitened, from the sky to the pines swaying with the wind’s symphony.
From as far away as Oregon and Canada, teams travel to participate in this event each January, competing in 2- to 8-dog sled races and the slightly eclectic sport of skijoring, which requires a dog or two in harness streaking down the trail while attached to a person strapped into cross country skis. You might ask yourself who’d be crazy enough to try this, but try – and succeed! – they do, and somewhere deep in your skull you may find yourself thinking maybe you, too, could release your own inner child in such a manner. Actual kids can also participate in the festivities, due to the generosity of so many of these mushers. The pee-wee race gives 4- to 10-year-olds the opportunity to experience dog sledding, even if their families don’t own a sled and team. Participation is limited, helmets are required, and entry requests are available online prior to The Derby.
The camaraderie between humans and dogs and even among competing teams is strongly evident as enthusiastic dogs are placed in the rigging then led to the starting lines, sometimes with nearly as many handlers as dogs to prevent a premature start to the race. Bright-colored booties commonly cover paws, the human team members frequently take time to stroke or talk to their canine companions, and teams occasionally return with an injured or tired pup carefully packed on the sled. Energy and trust abound at these events.
One would expect to find huskies and malamutes, but the number of rangy, short-haired dogs may surprise you. Their athleticism is highly-valued, and muscular frames tend to generate substantial heat. Additionally, hollow hair is a trait of many of these chosen slender breeds, lending some pretty remarkable insulative qualities, and pups that tend to cool down quickly are carefully blanketed as needed.
Stories abound, occasionally with Iditarod roots. Tawny little Patia often joins in this Montana melee, her mother a canine member of the 2011 winning team in that famous Alaskan race. Quite a few of the dogs are actually adopted from shelters or when other mushers retire. One of the 2017 skijor runners previously belonged to a racer who tragically died in a car accident, and the sledding community rallied to find homes for all his dogs. Teams from across the nation have participated in the DDD, although the majority are from the northwest.
Nicki Arndt, the race marshal, wished for something to be known by all: This couldn’t happen without the strong support of an entire community. In addition to the greatly appreciated financial assistance from many of the valley’s businesses and Mike’s amazing culinary creations for the annual mushers’ dinner at Little Blue Joint, the BEARS (Bitterroot Emergency Amateur Radio Service) team has stepped up each year to keep things running smoothly and, more importantly, safely. Should someone ever be injured or end up (heaven forbid) missing, BEARS would save the day. Members even hiked up the surrounding hills last summer to determine the best location for the repeater for quick and most accurate placement prior to this year’s event. Snowmobilers from the Bitterroot Ridge Runners, seemingly displaced from this favorite recreational area for the weekend, were all in and ready to lend a helping hand shuttling workers, fencing, and trail markers. And while Lost Trail Ski Area keeps this area groomed all season, quite a bit more trail is brought to spec for the derby to accommodate a 23-mile run.
Spectators are welcome and appreciated, but please leave your vehicles where Highways 93 and 43 meet – just a minute’s walk away from the oft-crowded Gibbons Pass parking area and starting point for the race. Another great observation point most years is located 8 miles east of Highway 93 on the north side of Highway 43, where the 8-dog teams circle around and return. Due to the openness of this snowy meadow, visibility is spectacular. Outhouses are available, but bring plenty of warm drinks, food, and clothes, and even snowshoes or cross country skis for a truly delightful and memorable experience. Your own canine comrades may appreciate staying home, due to the cold temperatures and being sequestered to your vehicle. For more information on the upcoming January 18th and 19th event, check out bitterrootmushers.org. Now, mush!