Christina Gibson and her dog sled team are aiming for bigger races
Christina Gibson and the Whiteout Racing Kennel team completed all three mid-distance sled dog races in the Rocky Mountain Triple Crown this season — the Eagle Cap Extreme, Idaho Sled Dog Challenge and Race to the Sky — another step toward the team’s goal of eventually competing in the 300-mile Yukon Quest.
The Rocky Mountain Triple Crown is a qualifier for the Yukon Quest and Iditarod races. In previous years, Gibson completed three mid-distance races, and questioned if she could continue.
“Mid-distance races are challenging emotionally, financially and physically,” said Gibson, who lives on Libby Creek. Her goal this season was to establish her ability to perform in mid-distance races and determine if the cost was worth the effort.
The key difference between this season and earlier years was the experience and skill level of both musher and sled dog team. Gibson spent several years training and developing herself and her team to compete in longer races.
“I want to do longer races, and I need to know if I can handle the time commitment and have the mental energy to compete,” she said. After the team’s performance this season, she added, “the verdict is yes!”
Gibson and the Whiteout Racing Kennel team of handlers and sled dogs traveled for over three weeks, racing all three events back-to-back through snow-covered peaks along the Rocky Mountains. The dogs were divided into two teams. The A-team top dogs possess all the strength and talent and would start off the race event. The B-team dogs are also strong contenders and would compete in smaller races at each event, joining the A team if a top dog was unable to continue.
Change in plans
Gibson planned on running with the A team in the major events, and her mother, Emily Gibson, would race the B team in the smaller races at each event.
The first race was the Eagle Cap Extreme through Hells Canyon National Recreation Area and Wallowa-Whitman National Forest in Oregon. Gibson was sick with a chest cold the week before the race. At the driver’s meeting the night before the event, she was too weak to compete and decided that her mother would race the A team the next morning.
It was Emily Gibson’s first mid-distance race. On the team’s Facebook page, Emily detailed her experience in an exhilarating narrative. The team navigated steep hills and sharp curves during the night hours, along slippery precipices. Emily described “running beside the sled trying to pull it up … to prevent it sliding off the edge and pulling the dogs with it.”
Reading that account reflects the physical and mental agility dog mushers must have to compete in an extreme challenge. Emily talked about knowing when to keep up speed around a sharp curve to prevent a crash, the importance of crouching down to keep her center of gravity low and maintain control, and the critical moments when she had to quickly jump off and push the sled to help the team on tough terrain. She finished 4th in the Eagle Cap Extreme mid-distance race.
The next race was the Idaho Sled Dog Challenge in McCall. A hefty storm the night before coated the trail in deep drifts. Only two teams finished the 300-mile race. Mushers reported dogs swimming through snow. The race organizers attempted to pack down the route, but warm weather prevented the snow from setting.
Teams were hampered by trail conditions, taking twice as long to finish sections. The route was a roller coaster of steep climbs and steep descents. It was nearly 11 p.m. when Christina Gibson and the sled dogs pulled into Platt checkpoint for the required six-hour rest. Gibson set to work attending to the team: removing booties, donning dog jackets, filling up food and water bowls, and throwing down straw bedding. As the dogs ate their dinner and nestled down in the straw, Gibson applied a cream to their paw pads and massaged their limbs with oil.
After taking care of the dogs, Gibson hastily refueled her own body with food and water before re-packing the sled for the next leg of the race. After all the necessities were taken care of, she placed her own sleeping bag in the straw next to the dogs and tried to get a solid hour or so of sleep.
Back on the trail
Shortly before 5 a.m., Gibson and dogs were back on the trail, racing through the dark morning. They caught up with a friend from the 2018 Junior Iditarod, Charmayne Morrison. The two teams passed back and forth on the groomed trails in the dark, Gibson recalled.
“Charmayne and I made an effort to pull away from one another, but as the hills started to get steeper and the sun came up, it grew warmer. The trail grew softer,” Gibson said.
The two mushers changed tactics in the challenging conditions that hampered their speed, and ability to pull away from one another. “We agreed to work together taking turns leading to give the dogs a break,” Gibson said. One team would move ahead and lead for a while, then the other would take the lead. The two mushers worked to boost each other’s morale.
After a long 40-mile slog, the groomed trail became level once again and the teams returned to their completive strategies. Gibson and her team were in the lead until the trail split in a detour to avoid the overflow ice on the lake. The markers went one way, the hard-packed trail went another. Sike, the Whiteout team’s lead dog, and Gibson became confused and the two lead dogs tangled. Morrison and her team passed by while Gibson hastened to straighten out harnesses.
“I don’t think I’ve ever worked so hard during a race,” Gibson said.
For the next 4 ½ miles she pedaled hard, standing on one runner and acting like the ninth dog by rhythmically pushing off the snow with her free foot. Gibson and the Whiteout Racing team finished in 5th place.
The third race was the famous Race to the Sky in Montana. After the extreme conditions of the Idaho race, Gibson was confident the race would be easier. The Whiteout Racing Team finished 4th.
After completing all three races, Gibson returned to her original question of whether to continue. “I had fun,” she said, noting that the dogs were happy and content throughout the races. “They knew what they were doing.”
At the finish line, other team handlers noted the wagging tails, and happy bouncing of the four-legged team members. “I had a great experience,” Gibson said. “The dogs were happy after the race, and that is the whole point of racing.”
The Whiteout Racing team is comprised of 15 dogs, with 10 dogs acting as leads. Gibson is proud of the sled dog team. “The weather, the ice, the Idaho trail, they all handled it beautifully,” she said.
For next season, the Whiteout Racing team will work towards increasing their racing distances, with the five-year goal to compete in the 300-mile Yukon Quest.
To book a presentation, sponsor a dog, or learn more about the team, visit www.whiteoutracingkennel.com. Follow the team on Facebook, www.facebook.com/WhiteoutRacingKennel, and on Instagram @whiteoutracingkennel.