By Jenny Greger
It was still and quiet and dark during those last hours of night before the sun began its climb into the sky. The only sounds on the trail were the jingle of harnesses and panting breaths of 12 Alaskan Huskies as they flew across the snow.
Venus and the moon hung over the mountains ahead of us, reflecting just enough light off the snow so I could turn off my headlamp. We had already traveled 300 miles from Helena and through the rugged Bob Marshall Wilderness, as the team sped toward the Race to the Sky finish line in Lincoln, Montana. One team separated us from a victory in the 350-mile sled dog race.
My dogs bounded down the trail, and when they picked up the pace, I could tell they smelled the lead team.
The first place team was an hour ahead – a daunting amount of time to make up in the final 75-mile stretch between Seeley Lake and Lincoln. But as we rounded a corner, they came into view. I whistled when my leaders Alice and her sister Bella reached the other sled team. They streaked past and never looked back.
The only thing left to navigate was the notorious Huckleberry pass – seven miles of steep climbing in a foot of unbroken, fresh powder. The team behind me was still in striking distance and fully capable of snatching the lead, if given the opportunity.
At the base of Huckleberry, the trail led through an open field where the wind and new snow had eliminated any sign of a path. I could read the trail markers, but Alice and Bella were lost without a packed trail to follow. Confused, my leaders circled back and headed in the opposite direction. Turning them around, we slogged forward as I led the team in my heavy snow boots and exhausted body. I had spent the last 50 hours standing on my sled, steering it for 330 miles, and squeezing in four hours of sleep between checkpoints.
By the time I led my dogs across the field and climbed back on the sled, the team behind us was less than 20 feet back. This was make or break – the moment that would decide first place or second. The team charged along the trail once again with ears pricked toward the summit as we ascended Huckleberry, plowing through the deep snow and tearing away from the competition. Descending into Lincoln, we sped toward the finish where spectators, race officials, and my family were awaiting our arrival.
The sun shone bright in the afternoon sky and fresh snow glistened before us in the last mile before we crossed under the burled wood archway marking the finish line. We were the first ones to lay a path of paw prints across it. An 18-year-old and her 12 dogs had just conquered Montana’s Race to the Sky.
This story was first published in the winter 2015 issue of Mountain Outlaw magazine.