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Global Skywatch

Darby Dog Derby 2019 review


The 12th annual Darby Dog Derby sled dog and skijour races at Lost Trail and Chief Joseph Pass ski areas are now history. You can go see the official race results at the BITTERROOT MUSHERS website. My part in these events is to arrange and manage communications across the course over the weekend.

This was my fifth year in that role. We learn from our mistakes and failures each year and improve the next. Along with getting better and better at comms comes being more appreciated every year. We received this nice letter of gratitude from the mushers for our help this year (jpg to the right; pdf here: 2019 Bitterroot Mushers thank you letter)

call sign JOE
This year we had a two-person radio operator and message traffic logger set up our radio signal repeater at the Chief Joseph Pass Ski Area with strong signal penetration into every nook and cranny of this mountain-top course. They provided immediate recall and analysis of location and status for every musher and dog team at all times. This was a huge boost in organizational ability, safety, security and peace of mind. It was our good fortune to have Keith and Lois here with their experience serving this role for other types of events covering significant geography.

call sign HOME
As always, I parked The Beast with its multiple radio console adjacent to the Start/Finish line. I put my magnetic information board on the back and supported the organizers with handheld radios, fresh batteries and moved around passing message traffic as needed. Note to self: Next year I will have a more fluid way of transitioning from the mobile radios in the truck to handhelds while I walk around the Lost Trail staging area.

call sign OVERLOOK
Rick, my most senior operator for these events takes the pivot position that provides a few minute warning to the Event Timer so they can be in position and prepared to precisely log the moment each team crosses the finish line. On the way out, teams split off at Overlook, depending on the course for their particular event. They all pass through this checkpoint on the way home.

call sign 4-DOG
call sign HOGAN
This year the Bitterroot Ridgerunners snowmobile club support had fewer machines and drivers than in the past. They could not staff as many of the locations as they had in prior years. Coincidentally, I ended up a couple operators short of my ideal. Nevertheless, we Got ‘er done smoothly with the staff we had. Thank you Bill and the Ridgerunners. This radio/snow machine team moved from key position in one race to key for another, then another as they served the need of each group in order. While it would have been difficult or dicey without good comms, it was shooting-fish-in-a-barrel with us as well connected as we were.

We got by without course workers in the other locations this year … because we had to, and because the organizers made sure those intersections and key points were Very Clearly Marked and well understood by the competitors.

The races and everything about them are fun to watch. Except when they are involved in preparing for or completing their own race, mushers and supporters are happy to talk to visitors and explain every aspect of not just their sport, but the musher lifestyle. Unlike snowmobiles, they cannot put their dog teams in a barn for the off-season, ignoring it until the snow gets deep next winter.

The sleds are designed for specific purposes with pure race sleds being less utilitarian than others, but, of course, providing a racing edge. The dogs are the same way with the faster sprint dogs having a very strong Greyhound component just right for clipping along at high speed for 25 miles in an 8-dog race.

As with action shooting, auto racing, sailboat racing, cross country running, tennis or any other sport I’ve experienced, not everyone is devoted to first place finishes. The event is a great excuse to spend time with fellow enthusiasts, learn from others playing your game, and practice your own performance. Many of the mushers have calmer, less wired-up dogs, and sturdier, stronger-pulling setups for other aspects of mushing beyond all-out racing.

The video clip to the right is of the last 8-dog team to start their race on Saturday. This is the traditional start where they get lined up with the brake ON at the start line, then launch on the starting team’s signal. The acceleration and speed is really quite interesting to watch, as is the change in the dogs from unharnessed excessive energy to RUN-RUN-RUN-RUN.

On the left is the first 6-dog team starting from their anchorage on the truck’s front bumper. This ‘quick release’ tie is how they keep their sleds from running away while they hook their dogs up to the line. Here the timers count down to the official start time loud enough that the musher can launch from their anchored position instead of having to start, then stop at the start/finish line to restart at the proper moment.

Even with 25% less pulling power, there is no noticeable lack of acceleration between the 8-dog teams and the 6-dogs. It takes almost no time at all to hit their stride going up the first hill. After miles of running like this, I cannot see any signs of slowing as they come running in, cross the Finish Line and have to be braked, steered and handled to their parking spaces.

A real fun part for parents, kids and spectators is the Pee Wee Race (video below right). One or two dogs who are not required for upcoming races or worn out from a prior run are hooked up for a little run up the hill. Notice the number of adults it takes to start, turn and stop dogs not under the experienced hand of their own musher. If you look closely you can see huge grins on the young mushers.

I do not take many photos or videos at start and finish times as that is when I should be in the cab of my truck manning the radios and transmitting information through the repeater to our operator network. In the final video below you will understand why I have to be inside the cab to hear or be heard. The skijours have put their dogs away, but the 8, 6 and 4 dog teams are all starting to spin up for their turn on course.

Cacophony is the word that comes to my mind as I watch the first 8-dog teams connecting up and preparing for their race in the video below.

Thank you Bitterroot Mushers for the show.

See you again in January 2020.