It's just after 5 am on a lonely snowmobile trail north of Seeley Lake when a headlamp pierces the darkness. Dog sledding -- mushing as it's called -- is a 24-hour a day sport of endurance.
On this fourth day of the 350 mile race second and third place are separated by only 20 minutes.
In third Tuesday morning is 18-year-old Bozeman musher Jenny Greger. Jenny is a two-time Race to the Sky Junior 100-mile Champion. Tuesdayay she grabbed a much bigger prize, winning the 350-mile race in a neck-and-neck finish in near-whiteout conditions and deep snow.
The 2014 race began with windy conditions on Saturday at Camp Rimini, near Helena. During World War Two, Rimini was a training ground for military sled dogs preparing for an invasion of Norway.
That invasion never came, but it was a big contributor in Montana's mushing history.
After a brief jaunt to Elk Park, the teams drove to the tiny town of Lincoln to begin the main leg of the race. Eight mushers attempted a grueling 350 mile marathon from Lincoln to the Owl Creek Wilderness near Condon and back.
Ten mushers took on a 100-mile race from Lincoln to Seeley Lake.
An icy crust over the snowpack promoted a few tweaked tendons and muscles in some dogs. Temperatures in the low to mid 30s were on the warm side for mushing. The colder it is, the cooler the dogs are and the less fatigued they become.
Besides the relative warmth, mushers had to contend with bulldozing snow off of the trail. Constant snow showers turned the race into a sloppy, slow slog between Seeley Lake and Owl Creek. Four mushers in the 350 mile race withdrew.
After a mandatory 6-hour layover at Seeley Lake, the final 74 miles of trail to Lincoln was drenched with up to a foot of overnight snow. Finally, at 3:09 p.m. on Tuesday, Greger crossed the finish line.
The 2014 Race to the Sky is also raising money for a canine cause. Chapter 1 of the U.S. War Dogs Society has a mission to send a canine care package to every one of the almost 5000 dogs in the U.S. military around the world. These care packages are full of useful items such as booties to keep feet cool on 140-degree desert sand and warm in the ice and snow.
The fundraiser dinner and awards show for Race to the Sky is at ExplorationWorks in Helena at 6 pm. Visit racetothesky.org for more information.
Here are the 2014 race results:
350 Mile Race:
1. Jenny Greger, Bozeman
2. Laura Daugereau, Stockett
3. Brett Bruggerman, Great Falls
4. Bryce Mumford*, Preston, ID
*Bryce is expected to finish on Wednesday
Scr. Garrett Warren, Council, ID
Scr. Josi Thyr, Cataldo, ID
scr. Herb Brambly, Breezewood, PA
scr. Bob Shanahan, Mechanicsburg, OH
100 Mile Race:
1. Roy Etnire, Seeley Lake
2. Jean Wise, Sand Coulee
3. Clayton Perry, Power
4. Jim Oehlschlaeger, Cincinnati, OH
5. Laurie Warren, Council, ID
6. Chris Miller*, Gardnerville, NV
*Chris had quite an adventure after missing the cutoff to his finish at Seeley Lake. His total mileage before finishing? 154.
Scr. John Kunzler, Vernal, UT
Scr. Spencer Bruggeman*, Great Falls
*After getting a bit lost after the start of the race, 12 year old Spencer Bruggeman finished his race after transporting his team to the next checkpoint from the starting line. While not official, he did mush 100 miles, and possibly more!