The 16th annual Eagle Cap Extreme Sled Dog Race in Wallowa County lived up to it’s name this year with a record number of racers (40). Half of the entrants were women and more than half of the finishers were women. Racers came from across the western U.S. and from Europe.
Gabe Dunham, of Darby, Mont. was first across the finish line in the premier 200-mile race. She took third in the race in 2019, but this was her year to claim the top trophy and $1,700 prize money. Her time of 32 hours 10 minutes was a fast time for the event, though not quite a record. After her ECX win, Dunham is headed for Montana’s Race to the Sky and then will compete in this year’s Iditarod.
“We (the dogs and Dunham) have trained for a long time for this,” Dunham said. “We’re ready.”
Josi Thyr, of Olney, Mont. crossed the finish line just 11 minutes after Dunham.
“I could see Josie’s lights behind me,” Dunham said. “And I thought to myself I haven’t trained this hard and come this far to lose the race.”
She didn’t. Dunham encouraged her team. Thyr paused to put two tired dogs on her sled rather than make them run the last few miles. The gap between the two teams widened a bit.
Hometown hero Morgan Anderson finished fifth in a starting field of 12 in her first 200-mile race. She had competed in the Eagle Cap Extreme three times previously. Now a sophomore at Montana State University majoring in wildlife biology, Anderson hopes to run the 200, and its 29,381 feet of total relief again next year if she can find a team of dogs to race.
Mark Stamm of Riverside, Wash., won the highly competitive 100-mile race. The next three finishers crossed the finish line within two minutes of one-another. Only 2 seconds separated third-place finisher Emily Gibson from fourth-place finisher Laurie Warren. Jane Devlin, who won the 31 x 2-mile event in 2018, was in no hurry in this year’s 100-mile race. She took the red lantern award as the last mushier in.
“The trail was pretty slick, and in places where there was a cliff on one side, I treated it more like a training run,” she said. “I wanted to teach my team of young dogs to stay away from the edge.”
Charlotte Burkhardt of Oggau, Austria, won the 31 x 2 race (31 miles on each of two days) with a truly doughty performance. She had won the junior race in 2017 when she was an exchange student from Austria who was living with the mushing-enthusiast Anderson family. Burkhardt thought she’d just come for a visit.
“I wasn’t planning on racing, but just helping Morgan and Craig and helping out with the race,” she said.
But then another musher, Laurie Warren, offered Charlotte a sled and team of 6 dogs to race. She couldn’t resist. Burkhardt won both legs of the 31 x2 -mile mid-distance race. On her way to victory on the second day, the team hit a rough icy patch on the trail coming down Canal Road toward the finish. Thrown off balance, she grabbed the side of the sled and was dragged for what seemed like several hundred yards.
“I yelled at the dogs but they didn’t pay much attention,” she said. “I think they finally realized the sled was harder to pull than usual, and they stopped.”
She got back on the sled and finished with a smile.
Veteran musher Rex Mumford, running in the 200 mile race, experienced a more serious mishap. Just 18 miles from the finish, on what’s known as the Hass Owl Loop, Mumford’s sled began to slide off the trail toward a steep drop-off. He put his leg out to stop the sled from tipping over, but his foot got wedged between two stumps that were covered by snow.
“I could hear the leg bone snap,” he said. “As the sled went over I cut my face, too. It was bleeding and when I looked down and saw blood on the leg I thought it was from my nose. Then I realized that my foot was pointing in the wrong direction.”
Every musher is provided with a “spot” locator that includes a “need help” button. Mumford pressed his. It blinked green. He waited 30 minutes. No one showed up, so he pressed it again, harder. It blinked red. Ten minutes later, Wallowa County Search and Rescue (SAR) was there.
“We got his leg splinted, helped him up the slope and got him into the Honda Rhino (tracked vehicle) where we could keep him warm,” said SAR leader Greg Pour. “He wanted us to just tape the leg up so he could finish, but we said no.”
Mumford insisted on staying with his dog team until another musher could get them back to his truck. SAR volunteer Brian Simmons untangled the dogs, which had scrambled their harnesses into what’s known as a “birds nest” of tangled line and webbing.
“The lead dogs were easy to work with,” Simmons said. “But some of the others were pretty skittish and shaken.” Then musher Laurie Warren arrived along with Dr. Renee Grandi. Warren drove the untangled team to Salt Creek Summit where their truck awaited. Dr. Grandi transported Mumford to the hospital.
“The whole ECX organization and the rescue team did a great job,” said Jim Mumford, Rex’s brother who is also his dog handler. “They were there really fast once they got the signal, and they were very professional.”
Rex Mumford also praised the rescuers and Laurie Warren who took care of his dogs.
“I’m disappointed that I couldn’t finish,” he said. “But this is a great organization and everyone did a great job. I can’t thank you all enough.”
At the Saturday night ECX banquet, Andrew McCormack was recognized as volunteer of the year for his work in maintaining and improving radio and other communications at Fergi. Race head veterinarian Dr. Kathleen McGill took the ECX “Lead Dog” award, and Jerry Hustafa received a standing ovation and the Terry Heinsly award for his work in setting up, maintaining and taking down fences and other guides for racers and spectators.
“I have no idea why so many people work so hard for a dog party,” he said.
Best-kept team awards went to Patrick Roy in the 200 mile race and Laurie Warren in the 100 mile race. Warren also received the Sportsmanship award for helping Mumford bring in his team. Mumford was there, too, after insisting that the ER physicians set his compound fracture without anesthesia so he could attend.
The Eagle Cap Extreme all-volunteer staff of 170 people won accolades from many racers for organization, friendliness, and a well-maintained racecourse.
“This is the best race in the country,” said veteran musher Rob Greger of Bozeman, Mont. “It’s like coming home.”