Sled Dog Racing Returns to McCall During Winter Carnival 2018

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It’s been awhile since our area has hosted a sled dog race.

Back in 1924, having a winter festival in McCall was seen as a way to bring the community together to have some fun in the depths of winter. Locals and visitors participated in a three-day event that included ski racing and jumping, skijoring (behind a horse), snowshoe races, and sled dog racing. Over time, this collection of winter events – and some new ones – morphed into today’s ten-day Winter Carnival. Along the way, however, sled dog racing fell by the wayside.

So what possessed Jerry Wortley, a dog-friendly local pilot who splits his time between Meadows Valley and Alaska, to bring sled dog racing back to McCall, creating a race that will be a qualifier for the Iditarod?

“I’ve been immersed in the Iditarod for years,” says Wortley. (Read about Wortley’s experiences flying with the Iditarod Air Force here.) “It gets in your blood. It’s such a great event, something I look forward to every year.” Adding that it’s not just about the dogs (although he admits that’s a huge draw), “It’s the adventure, excitement, romance, the history, camaraderie and communities coming together every year. With the Iditarod, masses of people get excited. For each community along the route, it’s part of their civic fabric. The more I reflected on all that, the more I thought McCall would be the perfect venue for a sled dog race.”

In 2016, out of curiosity Wortley attended the Monster Dog Pull, the Winter Carnival fundraising event for MCPAWS Regional Animal Shelter where dogs pull a weighted sled based on the dog’s weight over a short course. It’s very popular among spectators. Soon after, Wortley traveled to Alaska to work the Iditarod. Immersed in the excitement of that event, he wondered if McCall could have a real sled dog race. The idea kept swirling in his brain like snow on a blustery winter day. By summer of 2017, Wortley started floating the idea locally, starting with the McCall Chamber of Commerce. With a unanimous thumbs-up from the Chamber, Wortley got down to the business of planning an exciting new event for our area, one he hopes will bring mushing teams from all over the United States and Canada while promoting civic engagement and pride.

Iditarod Race Director Mark Nordman Provides Valuable Assistance

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Mark Nordman (left) and Jerry Wortley discuss race routes. (Photo: McCall Digest)

As a long-time volunteer with the Iditarod, Wortley has become friends with Mark Nordman, the event’s Race Director. Nordman visited McCall in mid-October to view the proposed race route and get a feel for the new venue. He’s impressed. “Seeing the area, hearing about how much snow you get, it looks really nice. If the trail is safe and good for dogs, then I’m pleased, and you don’t know that until you see it first-hand.”

Nordman started as a musher in Minnesota in the 1970s. “I was always enthralled with the North. In 1976 I trained in Yellowknife in Canada’s Northwest Territories and worked as a handler for musher Tim White when he ran Alaska’s Knik 200.”

Nordman got his own dogs in 1978 and ran some races in Minnesota and other states. In 1983, he took his first shot at the Iditarod, coming in 43rd of 68 starters after 18 days and 18 hours on the trail. The event that made his reputation in the sled dog racing world, however, was the Race to the Sky 500 mile race in Montana. After winning in 1987, Nordman got sponsors and realized his expensive hobby might become a way to make a living. In 1988, Nordman acted as a race judge for the Iditarod, and in 1989 he became the event’s Race Marshall, eventually moving to Alaska in 2002.

“Race judges are the eyes and ears of the event. They’re in contact with everyone – mushers, trail breakers, the Iditarod Air Force – and they report to the Marshall.” As Race Marshall, Nordman supervises the pre-race logistics of delivering all of the food and supplies the teams and volunteers need throughout the race course. After the race starts, he spends most event days just ahead the lead mushers, making sure everything is ready as they come into checkpoints, and his nights in one of the four race hubs –  Anchorage, McGrath, Unalakleet, or Nome. “It’s a year-round job,” he says, “although there are a few slower weeks.” And some years, there are extra logistical challenges if there’s not enough snow to have the start in Anchorage. In 2003, 2015 and 2017 the official start had to be moved to Fairbanks. That decision gets made the second week of February, just before the race.

In addition to acting as Race Director and Marshall for Iditarod, Nordman has other “projects” under his belt, helping organize and direct races in the United States and even Argentina, and has assisted with races in Europe. He currently volunteers at multiple races in Alaska. “I can always learn from other events,” he says, and adds that he likes to have a look at events that act as Iditarod qualifying races.

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For a musher to qualify for the Iditarod, they must complete an approved qualifying race of 150-200 miles plus two qualifying races of 300 miles. Once that’s accomplished, a musher is considered qualified for all future Iditarods he or she may wish to enter.

“It’s an expensive hobby,” Nordman admits. He wants to see sled dog race events create awards that entice mushers to participate, “whether it’s a home-baked pie or a big check.” This will be the challenge for the McCall Ultra as it works to get word out that another race has been added to the circuit. How to attract mushers to travel to McCall for a race? One hope is that mushers will already be in the region because of nearby races, like the Eagle Cap Extreme 200-mile race in the Wallowa Mountains near Enterprise, Oregon (January 18, 2018) and the Race to the Sky in Lincoln, Montana (northwest of Helena; February 9-12, 2018). Nordman is helping Wortley with ideas to promote the McCall Ultra Sled Dog Challenge, and both are hoping to get some “name” Iditarod people who also have ties to Idaho involved in the race’s inaugural running.

Nordman emphasizes that dog safety during the event is absolutely key, the number one concern. Clearly, if the dogs aren’t enjoying themselves or if there’s any sense that their welfare isn’t paramount, the race won’t succeed. Second, according to Nordman, is bringing in the community, getting locals involved and invested. As an example, Nordman described how during the Iditarod, the checkpoint village of Takotna – with about 40 full-time residents – gets everyone involved in some way, from providing a steak dinner to every musher, and baking pies, to having the kids earn t-shirts for helping with jobs of ever-increasing responsibility for each year they participate, starting with poop-scooping and advancing to keeping fires going. “For Alaskans, the Iditarod is the Super Bowl, World Series and Indy 500 all rolled into one,” Nordman says, adding there are villages on the Yukon River where a dog dish or dog booties used by famous mushers Rick Swenson or Susan Butcher are displayed on a shelf, held with as much reverence as a pair of Michael Jordan’s shoes might garner in a big city in the Lower Forty-eight.

Local snowmobile clubs are very involved at most sled dog events, according to Nordman, which in addition to providing much-needed logistical assistance, helps promote the concept of sharing trails among different users. Nordman adds that the Iditarod as well as many of the existing races around the country have done an excellent job involving school kids and teachers, senior centers and local residents, providing educational and volunteer opportunities. “The Iditarod Teacher on the Trail program is a huge part of the event,” Nordman says. Since 1998, one teacher from anywhere in the United States is selected to follow the Iditarod race on the trail, getting outside their classroom walls to experience the event up close, interacting with mushers and dogs, race personnel and volunteers, villagers at checkpoints, and other educators. A curriculum has been created for teachers anywhere to use, enhanced by the experiences of each year’s Teacher on the Trail.

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Because sled dogs are an “expensive hobby” the viability of races tends to go up and down with the economy, Nordman says. Even mushers who make a living at racing because they have sponsors and win purses have reduced the number of dogs they keep. “Professional teams used to have 60 dogs,” says Nordman. “Now they have 30, and are bonding more with the dogs they have.” There are more recreational racers today, and short races – speed mushing – are more popular, attractive to those in the sport as hobbyists. “But even they can qualify for the Iditarod, so long as they finish their three qualifying races,” says Nordman. “The Iditarod is unique that way; anyone can race with the best in the world. There’s no pro class. I couldn’t run the Indy 500 after just a year of driving race cars.”

Another little-known aspect of sled dog racing is research that’s conducted on the dogs. Nordman knows firsthand that valuable research can be done on endurance dogs. “We did research on my own dogs,” Nordman says, “with the University of Oklahoma. The research was focused on cold weather-induced asthma in athletes. Other studies seek to understand why dogs get so strong after each race, getting stronger. Answers involve nutrition, training… It all helps to improve the health of athlete dogs as well as pet dogs.”

Nordman has confirmed that the McCall Ultra Sled Dog Challenge is a certified Iditarod qualifying race.

Designing the McCall Ultra Sled Dog Challenge Course

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Northern portion of race route.

Wortley’s planning started with the Forest Service to determine a race course, most of which would be on the Payette and Boise National Forests. Forest Service employees provided valuable route suggestions to avoid conflicts with high-use snowmobile trails. From there, Wortley met with Valley County Parks and Recreation; the local snowmobile club with their Wellington Snow Park facility; the McCall Winter Carnival events coordinator; the owners of Bear Creek Lodge (the preferred official start/finish location); and Ponderosa State Park, where mushers and teams can stay prior to the event and where a ceremonial start is planned prior to the actual race so that spectators can see the teams up close as part of Winter Carnival festivities.

Wortley has a preferred route planned, but is waiting for permission from private land owners to allow access over a portion of it. If that access is allowed, the race will be roughly 230 miles in length, with the official start/finish at Bear Creek Lodge, northwest of McCall. If access is denied, Wortley’s back-up route is approximately 200 miles with the start/finish on West Mountain Road just north of Tamarack Resort. With either route, mushers will first head south to the Wellington Snow Park near Smith’s Ferry where there will be mandatory six hour rest stop before they retrace their route back north to the finish. Wortley is working on the timing of the race start so that the mandatory rest near Smith’s Ferry will occur in the morning, allowing spectators to see the teams and the community of Smith’s Ferry to create their own coordinating event (for example, a pancake breakfast).

“Ponderosa State Park has been so accommodating,” says Wortley. “The Forest Service has been great to work with, the snowmobile club has been great; everybody’s been so positive, telling me ‘Whatever you need.’”

Wortley’s long-time connection with the Iditarod means that Nordman is willing to help with many of the details, including race rules and the logistics to successfully run the race.

Race Agenda and Details: January 28 – 31, 2018

This first year, Wortley says the race will have a maximum of twelve teams, each team having up to twelve dogs. The cap on number of participants is to ensure a quality first-time event; Wortley anticipates future growth in the number of teams racing. The timing of the McCall Ultra fits nicely between two other sled dog races in the region – the Eagle Cap Extreme and the Race to the Sky in Lincoln, Montana – giving teams adequate rest between races should they wish to participate in more than one event.

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Southern portion of race route.

Wortley predicts that mushers and their teams will arrive in McCall on Thursday or Friday before the race. Ponderosa State Park has offered some space to mushers needing it. Wortley hopes to have pre-race programs, perhaps with school kids, at Ponderosa during that time frame, similar to what the Iditarod does, drawing the community into the event. On Sunday, January 28 of Winter Carnival, a couple of hours after the Monster Dog Pull (so participants in that event can take their dogs home – can’t have pet dogs too close to the racing dogs) Wortley plans a ceremonial race start with mushers taking their teams on a short loop for spectators to watch. If the ice on Payette Lake is solid, the teams will start on the lake near downtown, heading north in a loop on the lake, eventually entering Ponderosa State Park and running south along one of the cross-country ski trails to finish back at the start. If the ice isn’t safe, then they’ll do a loop within Ponderosa State Park.

The actual race will start in the afternoon on Monday, January 29th, timing it so that most teams will reach the mandatory six-hour rest at Wellington Snow Park near Smith’s Ferry in the morning hours of Tuesday, anticipating that most teams will take 10-12 hours to reach Wellington. Wortley hopes people will come out to see the teams at Wellington as well as two checkpoints along the route.

There will be signs on the route alerting snowmobile drivers to dog teams on the trail. The Forest Service and the snowmobile club both see this event as a way of promoting shared use of groomed roads during winter.

If the race route start/finish is at West Mountain Road north of Tamarack, Wortley says there will be plenty of parking there and hopes to provide shuttle service as well. There’s a Valley County shed with restrooms at that location where spectators can stay warm. Even if the preferred route that starts/finishes at Bear Creek Lodge is allowed, spectators can still watch the teams come through two road-accessible checkpoints along the route.

Volunteers Are Needed to Make This Event a Success for the Community

Beyond finding the right director (or co-directors), Wortley is currently thick into the myriad details of putting on such an event – creating a non-profit entity, obtaining insurance, seeking sponsors, and collecting and coordinating volunteers. Wortley is well aware that a good sled dog race doesn’t happen without an experienced race director. While Wortley will do all he can to assist and is acting as interim director, the timing of the McCall Ultra Sled Dog Challenge conflicts with other obligations so he’s actively searching for a local community leader to act as official race director. Wortley also needs experienced race judges – at least two – and is working with Nordman to recruit them, including at least one who has Idaho ties. Similarly, the race needs one or two experienced race veterinarians to ensure dog safety and health – Wortley’s number one priority – and at least one current Iditarod vet will work the race this year while also helping train local vets for future years.

Wortley and Nordman have created a Volunteer Plan addressing the tasks volunteers will tackle, such as fundraising and securing sponsors, marking the race route, logistical support for the mushers during the race, communications, etc. Some volunteers will be needed during the race, others before or after. For example, Wortley figures 48 volunteer dog handlers will be needed to help hold the dog teams (four people per team) at the beginning of the ceremonial start on Sunday, January 28th, as well as at the official start on Monday, January 29th, a brief but exhilarating job. For this first year, the time frame for recruiting volunteers is tight. Wortley knows that for the race to be a success, he needs dedicated volunteers for several leadership positions including the following:

  • Race Director
  • Fundraising and Sponsorship Committee Chair (goal is $20,000 for prize money and expenses).
  • Advertising and Promotion Committee Chair
  • Community/School Programs Committee Chair
  • Ceremonial Start Committee Chair
  • Race Start/Finish Committee Chair
  • Logistics, Equipment and Supplies Committee Chair
  • Checkpoint and Trail Committee Chair
  • Awards & Banquet Committee Chair

Committee Chairs will need to recruit additional volunteers to support each committee.  Those interested in volunteering can find more detailed information, including task descriptions, volunteer application forms and sponsorship forms on the McCall Ultra Sled Dog Challenge website. The race also has a Facebook page where updates and additional information will be regularly posted between now and race day.

About the author

Rebecca Wallick

Rebecca is a freelance writer and publisher living near McCall, Idaho. A Seattle native and recovering attorney, she much prefers the quiet, slow pace, and distinct seasons of the West Central Mountains, enjoying the skiing, hiking and running opportunities provided by the nearby Payette National Forest. Rebecca is a Contributing Editor with Bark magazine, and the author of Growing Up Boeing: The Early Jet Age Through the Eyes of a Test Pilot’s Daughter (Feb 2014).

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