Early risers in Enterprise and Joseph have seen it: a beanpole on an orange contraption whisks by their window as they’re getting their first cup of coffee.
What was that? They step out on their porch and in the early dawn light they see not seven tiny reindeer but seven husky dogs pulling the orange painted framework of a dog sled on wheels. The musher –– the beanpole –– is six feet tall.
The sled team has begun conditioning for the Eagle Cap Extreme sled dog races Jan. 17-20.
The musher is Dr. Jerald Rice of Enterprise Veterinary Clinic. The team is made up of his own dogs, some of them purchased from other mushers well- known to Wallowa County sled dog race fans.
He has huskies from the “Skinny Leg Sleddogs” kennel of two-time ECX 200-mile winner Brett Bruggeman of Great Falls, Mont.; the “Silver Sepp” kennel of EXC contender Josi Thyr of Cataldo, Idaho; the “Team Warren” kennel of EXC competitor and winner of the 2017 300-mile “Race to the Sky,” Laurie Warren of Council, Iowa.
Some of his dogs trace lineages back to the canines of Norwegian-born Leonhard Seppala, one of the famous 1925 diphtheria serum run relay mushers whose bravery inspired the Iditarod and owner of “Balto,” the famous serum Husky who completed the last leg of the famous 674-mile “Great Race of Mercy.”
One dog also traces back to dogs raced by four-time Iditarod winner Jeff King. It’s a well-bred team, but “just because your ancestors ran the Iditarod doesn’t mean you can,” Rice noted.
Nevertheless, the dogs had just put in 100 miles over the weekend of Dec. 23-24 and were stoked for more.
Rice has been dreaming of racing dogs for more than 20 years. If he races this year, it will be his first race.
“When I first got started with Tide and Brock, I thought I’d do skijoring with them,” Rice said. “Then I thought, well, if I had four dogs I could run a sled. And it turns out with four or even three I can run the cart with the kids (Jonathan, 9, and Kaitlyn, 7) with me and have a lot of fun.”
Fun with the dogs. Check. Fun with the kids. Check.
He’s got seven dogs now and has run a 100-mile conditioning race in advance of the Eagle Cap Extreme Sled Dog Races.
Clearly, he wants to race. Will he borrow an eighth dog and enter?
“I guess getting dogs and getting into this, the purpose is to have fun — so, my chances (the chances of having fun) are great,” he said.
Realistically, he’s keeping his options open. He also can run the Pot Race (31 miles per day for two days) with just six dogs.
“It will depend on the condition of the dogs,” he said. “I’ll have to make a decision soon.”
He said he doesn’t have unreasonable expectations for himself and his dogs.
“I have a lot to learn,” he said. “I learn things about animal health from mushers. In veterinarian school, we don’t talk about managing dogs for races. The majority of dogs we see in practice are obese couch potatoes that would have a hard time covering a mile or two.”
Fortunately, the mushers who come to Wallowa County, and who have befriended Rice, are all top-notch. Which means they’ve got humility as well as skill.
“We just all try to learn and in general the mushing community is a community that supports one another,” Rice said. “Mushers, I think, do it more for the joy of doing, than the glory of racing. Of course there is the competition of the race ... and they all have their secrets.”
Rice will be gathering secrets of his own to pass on to son Jonathan.
“Jonathan is interested in being the youngest Iditarod winner,” Rice said.
Jonathan will qualify to run the ECX 20-mile Junior Race with six dogs in around five more years.
HERE COMES EAGLE CAP EXTREME
This year’s Eagle Cap Extreme begins with the popular “meet the dogs” vet checks at 9 a.m. in Joseph and 1 p.m. in Enterprise Jan. 17, 2018. Races start at noon Thursday at Ferguson Ski Ridge.
Races include the 200-mile, 12-dog main event, an Iditarod and Yukon Quest qualifier; the 100-mile, eight-dog race; the 31-mile, six-dog pot race (run in two stages Thursday and Friday); and the 22-mile Juniors race Thursday.
The following mushers have already sent in their early registration: • 200-mile race: Jake McCowan, Clayton Perry, Josi Thyr, Brett Burggeman.
• 100-mile race: Hugo Antonucci; April Cox; Christina Gibson; Connie Star and Bino Fowler.
• Pot Race: Dina Lund and Wallowa County resident Morgan Anderson.