For sled dogs, bigger isn’t always better

Sled dog racer Rick Katucki sets out on a 100-mile course as part of the Eagle Cap Extreme in the Wallowa Mountains of northeastern Oregon. His team, led by a small husky female named Lightning, finished third on Friday. Mushers on the race’s 200-mile circuit are expected to reach the finish line today.

JOSEPH — Her name is Lightning, and at 42 pounds, she’s the smallest Alaskan husky on musher Rick Katucki’s team in this weekend’s Eagle Cap Extreme sled dog race.

She is also Katucki’s lead dog in the frozen Wallowa Mountains of northeastern Oregon. Forget Buck, the mighty lead dog in Jack London’s classic “The Call of the Wild.” Or the beefy malamute Yukon King, “the fastest and strongest lead dog in the Northwest” from the old TV series “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon.”

It turns out that the lead dogs of the 21st century are often small, mild-mannered female huskies.

Ten sled dog teams left the starting blocks Thursday at Ferguson Ridge Ski Resort near Joseph. The last laggards had to cross the finish line at the end of the day.

About half of the mushers were leading teams of 12 dogs and planning to hike 100 miles to the town of Baker County at Halfway and back, a grueling 200-mile circuit. The remaining mushers had teams of eight dogs bound for the U.S. Forest Service’s Ollokot Campground and back, a 100-mile circuit. Lightning led an eight-dog team of 55-pound male huskies.

“We call her the amazing shrinking sled dog,” said Katucki, 55, of Eagle, Idaho, because he didn’t realize how small she was when he bought her.

What sets Lightning apart from other small lead dogs is intelligence. They can make quick decisions to avoid moose, elk, and cougars on the trails or detour around what mushers call “hard-hitting” snow that rips canine paws apart.

And they are comfortable in front of a team of powerful, tough-to-handle male dogs.

“The lead dog’s mental stress is twice that of other dogs,” said musher Steve Riggs, 53, of Condon, Montana, whose lead dog is also a small female.

Some of the race’s biggest teams are trying to qualify for the 17-day, 1,150-mile Iditarod Trail sled dog race in Alaska starting March 7 and the two-week Yukon Quest International sled dog race in Canada. starting Feb. 14, said race organizer Clyde Raymer, 56. , of Sherwood.

This is the fifth annual sled dog race in Wallowa County. It has been revamped over the past year under its new name, the Eagle Cap Extreme. The course skirts the 560-square-mile Eagle Cap Wilderness and follows Forest Service trails and snow-covered roads, Raymer said.

This year’s mushers come from Washington, Idaho, Montana, California and Colorado — none from Oregon. One of the race’s goals is to attract off-season visitors to remote, snow-covered Wallowa County, which has a population of 7,150, Raymer said.

He hopes to see dog sledding become an economic engine, leading people to learn the art of driving sled dogs and the craft of building dog sleds.

Raymer and Katucki gave a school presentation on dog sledding on Wednesday to get local kids interested in the sport.

“The long-term goal is to have Wallowa Valley, Oregon, on the side of a sled that wins the Iditarod,” Raymer said. “This year we have sown a lot of seeds for the future.”

Mushing sled dogs is a recipe for great adventure, said Steve Madsen, a 44-year-old Washington Cougar, sled dog racer, lawyer and Iditarod veteran. He saw a gray wolf along the Eagle Cap Extreme route last year.

“We were coming around the corner and he was heading towards the trees,” Madsen said.

One of musher Rob Loveman’s dogs was killed by a moose in Alaska in 2007, he said. “It was a big moose,” said Loveman, 52, of Seeley Lake, Montana. “It’s a pretty helpless feeling.”

Loveman, a nuclear physicist, competes in the Eagle Cap Extreme to qualify for the Iditarod.

Ironically, given the excitement of the race, Riggs seeks peace and quiet. An auto mechanic and owner of 30 Alaskan and Siberian huskies, he loves riding the sled runners in his moosehide mukluks while his dogs run through a forest in the winter, he said.

“It’s really quiet,” Riggs said. “All you hear is their feet hitting the snow and their breathing. It gets into your blood.”

–Richard Cockle;

Bette C. Alvarado