By Joanna Bastian
Christina Gibson and her Whiteout Racing Kennel team of sled dogs faced the ultimate test at the recent American Dog Derby: blizzard conditions, poor visibility, isolation on the trail, challenging terrain.
No matter. Gibson’s team powered through two days of daunting conditions to take first place in 8-10 dog class at the competition in Ashton, Idaho – the oldest American dog sled race.
On that weekend of Feb.19-20, not many routes were available to dog sleds or other vehicles. Weather conditions shut down three main highways in eastern Idaho, two of which led into the town of Ashton. The trail was higher and flatter than the terrain the Whiteout Racing Kennel team normally trains on near Libby Creek.
At one point, as wind howled through the trees, blasting the musher and dogs with thick clumps of snow blown from tree limbs, visibility was near zero. Gibson called out to her lead dog: “Farce! Find the trail!”
With the instinct of an experienced racer, Farce sniffed out the route.
The 27.8-mile sprint race is run once a day over two days. Whiteout Racing Kennel finished with a time of 2:30:51 on day one, and 2:56:35 on day two for a total race time of 5:27:26 – 13 minutes ahead of the next team.
This year marks the 104th anniversary of the American Dog Derby. Ashton was the rail terminus for the Yellowstone and Teton Valley branches of the Union Pacific Railroad. In winter, deep snows shut down the railroad. Communities depended on dog sleds for transportation of mail, people and supplies.
As the terminus, Ashton became known for dog sled teams and mushers that were international celebrities. This year, due to big storms and COVID-19, the start of the race was moved to an area outside of town with limited parking, reducing the number of spectators that usually attend the races.
For Gibson and the Whiteout Racing Kennel team, it was their first time competing in the American Dog Derby.
“This race is always at same time as other big races,” Gibson said – the big races being the Eagle Cap Extreme, Idaho Sled Dog Challenge, and Race to the Sky. This year, due to COVID-19, those big races were all canceled. The American Dog Derby had the flexibility to offer a secluded and safe race route, and remained open for competitors this year.
“The mushing community is spread out. Most of a musher’s time is spent with dogs alone in the woods,” Gibson said. “We only see each other a few times a year at races. No one was expecting to see each other this year. I love racing and chasing down teams with my best friends, it was super special to see everybody in the mushing community.”
The dog team consisted of Farce and Nellie in lead position, followed by Rubicon, Steamer, Sadie, Bogus, Sike, Bear, Bosun and Freckles.
This was a milestone race for two of the dogs.
Rubicon finished day two in the lead position. Rubicon is 5 years old, and shaping up to be a lead dog.
Freckles has been a lead dog since 2016. “She was my first longer-distance racing dog I bought,” said Gibson. “She is a brilliant trail dog.”
The American Dog Derby was Freckles’ last race. At 9 years old, Freckles is ready to retire to a sunny couch in Gibson’s home.