Gone to the Dogs

February 22, 2024  •  Leave a Comment

The oldest dog sled race in the Lower 48, the American Dog Derby, took place last weekend just outside of Ashton, Idaho.

Because El Niño conditions have produced a warmer-than-usual winter in this part of the Rockies, the race was moved from its traditional start/finish line in town to nearby Bear Gulch where snow is more abundant. While it's nice when all race activities are centered in Ashton, the gulch is an exceptional alternative; the setting is wonderfully picturesque. 

Bear Gulch is located just a few miles from Upper and Lower Mesa Falls - the last undisturbed prominent waterfalls on the Snake River. It's also the site of what was once a premier ski area known for both its intermediate and expert terrain. Back in the day skiers would say, "If you can ski Bear, you can ski anywhere."

Bear Gulch Basin was Idaho's second ski resort, following closely on the heels of Sun Valley. The first runs were laid out in the late 1930s by Alf Engen, a world-class Norwegian skier who went on to coach the U.S. Olympic Ski Team.

The Union Pacific Railroad paid for the survey work on the project. Because Bear Gulch was located only a few hundred yards from a rail line to West Yellowstone - one of the railroad's most traveled tourist lines - the potential was obvious.

The resort opened in 1940 and was a mainstay in Eastern Idaho until what's now known as Grand Targhee was developed, which brought world-class skiing to the area. 

While the ski basin is only a memory, Bear Gulch remains very popular during all seasons: it's a major recreation trailhead for hikers, cross country skiers and snowmobilers. 

Now that you're acquainted with the terrain, back to the Dog Derby. Most of the athletes were Alaskan or Siberian huskies. There were two classes of races: 

Cordingly - 45 miles total over two days, eight- to 12-dog teams

Everett Heseman - 25 miles total over two days, four- to six-dog teams

Normally there'd be more races but in the interest of safety relative to the conditions, this year's event was trimmed. 

I'd planned on catching the first day of action. The forecast called for soft and flat light along with the added bonus of falling snow. However, it was also going to be very windy with gusts topping 30MPH. Water droplets on the lens would be an issue, and an especially problematic one since the teams leave at roughly two-minute intervals. Not a lot of time to keep the glass clear.  

Instead, I opted for the bluebird skies and dead calm of day two even though, inevitably, I'd have to contend with hot spots created by sunlight. Thanks to the lack of cloud cover overnight it was also brisk - 5 below zero when I arrived - but as the sun climbed higher in the sky it took the edge off. 

Prior to race time there's quite a bit of enthusiastic barking in the air: all those pups are obviously anxious to get up to the line and start flying down the course.

One by one the teams are harnessed and checked to make sure everyone is safe and ready to run. It takes one stager for every two sled dogs to escort the team to the starting line and hold them in position until it's time to get underway. These dogs are powerful running machines; they're excited and raring to go. 

The Cordingly Class teams started first since theirs was the longer course. The sled pictured below is being pulled by 12 dogs (click on any of the images to see them larger):

American Dog Derby 2024

Bear Gulch
Near Ashton, Idaho
After a short break, the smaller teams began to leave the starting line one-by-one. The next photograph is my favorite from the entire morning. Not only is the musher obviously happy to be racing, but the dogs seem to be smiling, too.

American Dog Derby 2024

Bear Gulch
Near Ashton, Idaho
Before the first teams began to return, I hiked further up the course to get away from the combination of sun and shadow which was beginning to wreak havoc with hot spots. I exposed to keep from blowing out the highlights knowing I could bring out shadows during processing.

American Dog Derby 2024

Bear Gulch
Near Ashton, Idaho
In the image below there's evidence of the cold temperatures; miniature icicles have formed around some of the dogs' whiskers. From this point the racers can see the finish line coming into view.

American Dog Derby 2024

Bear Gulch
Near Ashton, Idaho

The American Dog Derby is a great tradition and enthusiastically supported, not only by the town of Ashton but throughout Eastern Idaho (and beyond). Fun to watch, this race is also a blast to photograph.

Long may it prosper. 

Next week:

The sled dog races weren't the only thing going on in the shadow of the Tetons over the weekend.


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