Sled dogs race to Wyoming towns this week

Before a sled dog race begins, everything seems electrified. The dogs bark and jump so high it looks like it is the harness that brings them back to the ground. Their tongues hang and they pant, straining against a sled brake, ready to race. It is often an impression people remember when they see their first race. It is a moment that, 17 years ago, changed Jerry Bath’s life.

Kelsey Dayton

Bath was looking for a hobby when he agreed to help with the Lander leg of the first International Pedigree Stage Stop Sled Dog Race. A wild game processor in Lander, the winter months were slow. Growing up on a farm, Bath worked with horses and owned and bred dogs, both as pets and for work. He’d always felt a strong affinity with animals.

He saw the mushers working with the exuberant dogs  and then the small sleds slide off from the starting line, the animals straining to run and pull. Bath was intrigued, so he bought a few dogs of his own.

This week the annual International Pedigree Stage Stop Sled Dog Race begins again. And Bath, 54, is among the 23 mushers who will arrive in Wyoming towns to race. Bath is one of three Wyoming mushers entered in the race. Stacey Teasley of Jackson and Alix Pearson of Bounderant are listed on the roster along with mushers from Alaska, Canada, Minnesota, Michigan and Oregon.

One of Jerry Bath’s sled dogs spends time with the musher at Bath’s Lander kennel. Bath will race in the International Pedigree Stage Stop Sled Dog Race which starts this week. (Kelsey Dayton/WyoFile)

The race, started in 1996 by Frank Teasley, a Jackson resident and Iditarod veteran racer, travels throughout the state after a ceremonial start in Jackson, Friday night, then goes to West Yellowstone, Mont., followed by Alpine, then Pinedale, Lander, then Big Piney, Kemmerer, Mountain View, Lyman and ends in Evanston, Feb. 2.

Teasley started the race as a way to showcase Wyoming and also expose more people to sled dog racing.

Stage stop racing is like the Tour de France. Each day the teams race a course ranging from about 40 to 60 miles at 11 to 13-and-a-half mph. Unlike distance races, like the Iditarod, the mushers and dogs return to town after their timed run where they meet community members at dinners and events and get to sleep in hotels before moving on to the next stage.

When Bath bought his first dogs, he had no intention of racing, let alone ever entering the International Pedigree Stage Stop Sled Dog Race, which is the largest stage stop race in the lower 48 states. It’s like the “Superbowl” of stage stop racing, he said. But after working with his dogs, friends encouraged him to try a small local race.

One thing Bath learned that first race; he has a competitive streak. He entered another.

Bath now enters several races a year. He became a professional-level musher five years ago. The International Pedigree Stage Stop Race was the first he entered in the professional division.

“I just didn’t want to be the last one,” he said.

He came in fifth — the first rookie to ever place in the top five. Since then, he’s placed fifth another time, and seventh and eighth.

Bath now has 17 race dogs, five yearlings, five puppies and two corgies — which are pets, but occasionally pull plastic sleds. His racing dogs are all Alaskan husky, a “mutt with pedigree,” bred for stage stop racing, Bath said. Alaskan huskies are strong, but slight so they are fast. They are often narrow chested, which helps them stretch out when running. They have tough feet, stamina for distance, speed for sprints and perhaps most important, they recover quickly so they are ready to race again the next day.

Jerry Bath holds one of his racing dogs. Bath, a Lander musher, started sled dog racing as a way to pass the winter months and work with animals. (Kelsey Dayton/WyoFile)

The race allows competitors to keep a roster of up to 16 dogs and run up to 12 a day.

Bath creates a plan for the race, factoring in the terrain. In Alpine, the course has rolling hills. Pinedale has short steep hills, with flats in between. Lander’s course is groomed; Kemmerer’s isn’t.

Bath will want to race his smaller, faster dogs on the flat courses and use the bigger ones to pull up the hills. Yet by the second day of racing, his plans are usually moot and dictated instead by which dogs are healthy and which are performing strongest.

He keeps his kennel small so he can offer the dogs individual attention. He sutures the animals himself when they are injured and makes his own foot salve for the team. He also creates his own food mix using meat from his business. To help with hydration he feeds them a soup mixture that includes meat, fats, oil and electrolytes during races. At least once a year he sends his mixture to a lab to have the nutrition analyzed.

The dogs get post-race massages and even see a special chiropractor at least once a year.

Still, he sees racing as a hobby. In the summer he tries to stay in shape, cycling and swimming, but he doesn’t really start training with his dogs until November — late by most racer standards — because work is so busy. It’s a fitness regime designed to get the dogs and himself in shape. He spends a lot of training time running next to the sled.

Bath likes the home stage advantage. His dogs are acclimated. He trains the Lander leg of the race. But sometimes the home course advantage has its challenges. The dogs become complacent, thinking it’s another training run. Or they veer off a side trail they’ve recently run and Bath has to get them back on course.

No matter how many times the dogs run, the palpable excitement that first drew Bath to the sport is always present at the starting line.

Bath tries to exude calm. The dogs read his emotion. If he forgot something he walks slowly to the truck to get it, no matter how pressed for time he feels.

He’s outwardly relaxed even if his mind is rapidly clicking through mental checklists.

And then with a lurch, the race begins. In the stage stop racers begin one at a time, three minutes apart. For a few minutes the musher and his team are racing alone, and then chasing the team ahead and then eventually thinking of the team behind. There is the squeak of snow on runners and the burst of cold air in lungs and a finish line dozens of miles away.

— “Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelance writer based in Lander. She has been a journalist in Wyoming for seven years, reporting for the Jackson Hole News & Guide, Casper Star-Tribune and the Gillette News-Record. Contact Kelsey at kelsey.dayton@gmail.com.

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Kelsey Dayton

Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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