The best part of the Eagle Cap Extreme sled dog race, according to organizer Troy Nave, comes half an hour before race start, when more than 200 Alaskan huskies fill the parking lot at Ferguson Ridge Ski Area with a cacophony of joyous howling.
“You have to succumb to it,” said Nave, who serves on the event board of directors. “The excitement is so contagious.”
Mushers from across the Northwest and Canada will head deep into the Wallowa Mountains for the 13th running of the Eagle Cap Extreme, beginning Thursday, Jan. 19. Kickoff is at noon for the 200-mile and 100-mile races, as well as the first stage of the two-day pot race, which runs 31 miles both days. The 22-mile juniors race and second leg of the pot race will begin at noon on Friday, Jan. 20. All races leave from Ferguson Ridge, about nine miles outside of Joseph. A shuttle bus will be available at 9:45 a.m. on race days.
The public can also meet and greet mushers during a potluck at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 18 at the Joseph Community Center. No pets are allowed at the potluck or in the race area.
Despite having no history of dog mushing in the area, Nave said the Eagle Cap Extreme has become part of the fabric of Wallowa County. It is one of only two sled dog races in the lower 48 states that serve as a qualifier for the Iditarod and Yukon Quest, the two largest mushing events in the world.
“It’s kind of amazing that something like this is right here in our backyard, off the beaten path,” Nave said.
Dogs and mushers will have their work cut out for them. The 200-mile course features 26,000 feet of elevation gain, running up to Salt Creek Summit and back down to the Ollokot Campground for a required six-hour layover. Teams then work their way out to Twin Lakes and PO Saddle overlooking Hells Canyon, before finishing back at Fergi.
Brett Bruggeman, of Great Falls, Montana, has won the 200-mile race the last two years, and returns again in 2017. In 2015, he finished the course in 30 hours and three minutes.
“He’s phenomenal,” Nave said. “He’ll be the guy to catch, yet again.”
A total of eight mushers will compete in the 200-mile race, eight in the 100-mile race and seven in the pot race — including locals Morgan Anderson, of Enterprise, and Susan Parraga, of Joseph. Parraga was the first local musher ever to enter the Eagle Cap Extreme, while Anderson previously competed in the junior race.
There is only one contestant in this year’s junior race, 15-year-old Christina Gibson of Riverside, Washington.
Nave said interest in the Eagle Cap Extreme grows every year, and its reputation continues to build.
“Our purse isn’t as big as some of the other races, but (mushers) are drawn back by the community support and the route,” Nave said. “We’re going over some of the most scenic terrain anywhere.”
Conditions should be in great shape for this year’s races, with approximately two to three feet of snow over the course, including two feet of packed snow at Fergi. Cold weather should persist until race day, Nave said, which is good for the dogs.
“We’ve had three months of absolutely fantastic weather,” he said. “Mother Nature has been great leading up.”
An awards banquet will cap off three days of racing, starting at 5:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 21, back at the Joseph Community Center. Tickets are $20 for the general public, including dinner and entertainment. There will also be live and silent auction fundraisers to benefit the nonprofit Eagle Cap Extreme.
Nave said the event is a labor of love for directors, volunteers and the entire community.
“We have a lot of support,” he said. “It’s a privilege to be around these canine athletes.”
Contact George Plaven at email@example.com or 541-66-0825.