Twenty-one years ago, he thinks, Steve Riggs was flipping through the Thrifty Nickel and saw an advertisement for a used dog sled.
Then a 40-year-old with two young Siberian huskies, Riggs had a thought.
“You know, I’ve always wanted to try that,” he recalled. “So I bought the sled and I was hooked.
“And then two dogs turned to three dogs, and then to four dogs, and then to six dogs, and then to nine dogs.”
As the years went on, Riggs kept adding dogs; dozens and dozens of them. And while he kept adding dogs he kept sled dog racing, moving eventually to generations of Alaskan huskies, a breed engineered for the sport.
Today the 61-year-old Olney resident still races, and this weekend a more than 83-mile sled dog race, the Flathead Classic, will take off from nearly his own backyard. When it does, Riggs and his team will be right there at the starting line, blazing a trail neither he nor his 10-year-old lead dog, Calico, has ever taken before.
“I’ve never seen the other side of that trail,” he said. “It will be interesting.”
THE FLATHEAD Classic leaves from Dog Creek Lodge in Olney at 8:30 a.m. Saturday and meanders nearly 42 miles to the Polebridge Mercantile and Bakery. Sunday, again at 8:30 a.m., teams in the six-dog, eight-dog and 12-dog races will pick back up and travel the way they came, completing the longest sled dog race in recent memory in Northwest Montana.
The organizers of the Flathead Classic have been trying to run this race — an amalgam of the discontinued Root Beer Classic (Polebridge) and Flathead Sled Dog Days (Olney) — for three years, but the weather has not cooperated. Two years ago the race was shortened and last year’s was called off entirely because of warm temperatures and poor trail conditions.
This time around, conditions are ideal.
“Good snow, a good packed trail,” Pam Beckstrom, one of the event’s organizers, said. “There are some interesting turns and good visibility so that the public can see them on the trail.”
Dog Creek is not just the start and finish of the 83-mile race, it is also host to a number of smaller sprint races both days, including one-dog and two-dog skijoring (racing on skis instead of a sled). There is no cost for spectators to attend and from Dog Creek those watching can see parts or all of every race.
The more personal connection for Beckstrom, though, is in Polebridge. Her husband, Jack, started the Root Beer Classic years ago and she’s excited to get back to the rustic town near the western edge of Glacier National Park.
“We used to get upward of 50 teams and that race (Root Beer) has kind of fallen by the wayside so it’s nice,” she said. “Polebridge is really receptive to dog sled people, we get such a good crowd there. It is a party.”
The fastest teams should start arriving in at the Polebridge Mercantile in the early afternoon Saturday, kicking off an unofficial celebration that night.
MONTANA HAS a proud sled-dog racing tradition, boasting the first non-Alaskan (Doug Swingley) to ever win the sport’s most famous race, the 1,000-plus mile Iditarod, and hosting the Race to the Sky, one of the more prestigious races in the Lower 48 states.
Riggs is an awfully competitive musher himself. While he scoffed at the notion of racing the Iditarod, he’s competed in the full 350-mile Race to the Sun and just this month finished fifth on the shorter 100-mile course at that race.
“There was a time when my wife (Wendy) and I were both racing that we had 42 dogs,” he said. “And we had a lot of competitive dogs then.”
Unsurprisingly, to pilot a competitive sled dog team a soft spot for canines is a must. Riggs is no exception.
“You’ve got to love dogs and the dog’s got to love you,” he said. “You’ll see that sled dogs are probably the best cared for animals around.
“They get the best food and the best vet care and anything they need. The more you do for the dogs the more they do for you.”
Riggs said a 12-dog team can “drag a truck” and there is one particular drawback to breeding dogs that yearn to run.
“There’s no problem ever getting them to go,” Riggs said. “The problem is getting them to stop. And if you’re in trouble and can’t get them stopped, then it’s not fun.”
“They do enjoy it,” he continued. “They’re just thrilled to go. They’re bonkers to go. It wouldn’t be any fun if they didn’t like it.”
RIGGS AND his wife no longer have 42 dogs on their property in Olney, and as he and his team get a little long in the whiskers he isn’t certain there will be another pack of racers in his future.
“We’ll see how I feel next year,” he said. “I’m at the age where if I bred a litter of puppies now … my body’s starting to wear out.
“I don’t want to breed a litter of puppies that are going to outlast me.”
This year’s team, led by Calico and Tank, includes Willow, Juneau and Cooper (all eight years old), with three more dogs borrowed from a fellow musher to fill out the eight-dog roster.
And while what Riggs and his team have gone through over the years is exhausting, both physically and mentally, it is on his sled, with his dogs, that he finds calm in the chaos of sliding behind a pack of wild, frenzied animals.
“You’re out there on the trails and you don’t have a motor and it’s quiet and you can go out there in the middle of the night with a full moon,” he said. “That’s fun.”
For more information on the Flathead Classic, visit www.flatheadclassic.org.