Over the course of less than a week last month, Darby musher Gabe Dunham and her young team of sled dogs covered enough elevation to climb Mount Everest three times.
And then, a week later, they placed second in Race to the Sky, Montana’s premier dog race.
Pretty good for a rookie with a team of puppies.
“I was a rookie in all three races I ran this year,” Dunham said Friday at her home along the Bitterroot River just east of Darby. “But I’ve been mushing for a long time.”
This year was the culmination of a decades-long dream to qualify for the most famous sled dog race of all.
When she crossed the finish line in Seeley Lake, Dunham had earned a spot in next year’s Iditarod.
Her adventure began on Jan. 24 with a 200-mile Eagle Cap Extreme Sled Dog Race that runs through a rugged course in the Wallowa Mountains in northeastern Oregon. She placed fourth in a race that covered over 30,000 feet in elevation.
From there, she and her dog team drove to McCall, Idaho to compete in the Jan. 30th 300-mile long Idaho Sled Dog Challenge that takes sled teams through the heart of Idaho’s West Central Mountains on an arduous journey that gains 60,000 feet in elevation. Durham finished fifth in that race.
With just enough time to go home and replenish supplies, Durham then traveled to Seeley Lake for the final race in the inaugural Rocky Mountain Triple.
She would be the only female to finish all three.
The triple-crown events are all sanctioned Iditarod qualifiers. Anyone wanting to enter the two-week long race in Alaska has to prove they have the mettle to attempt the feat.
“I teared up at every finish,” Dunham said. “I was just so thankful to have some really amazing young dogs.”
She was running what she lovingly called the puppy team.
Of the 12 dogs she raced, seven were under two years old.
“It would be like high school kids going up against the pros,” she said. “My job was to be their coach. They were all so young that you can’t overreact or overdo anything. You need to keep it fun for them. I wanted to see their tails wagging. I didn’t care if I ended up in last place if that’s what it took to keep them happy.”
It also meant that whenever there was down time, Dunham was out amongst her dogs massaging their tired muscles and looking for any signs that they might have overdone it.
People noticed the attention she gave her dogs. In two races, including the Race to the Sky, Dunham was selected for the best cared for team award.
“Two different teams of vets made that selection,” she said. “It made me feel really good.”
Dunham couldn’t have been happier with the way her dogs performed in a wide variety of conditions over the three-week period.
At McCall, temperatures inched up close to 45 degrees, which turned the trail to mush and created challenges in keeping her dogs hydrated and cool.
“We ran mostly at night to allow the heat of the day to pass,” she said. “When it’s warm like that, the trail turns to mush and it’s hard on the dogs. It’s like walking in sand.”
Since dogs sweat through their paws, they couldn’t wear booties during that warm weather race.
That changed dramatically when she came back to Montana.
By the time she arrived in Seeley Lake, an arctic front had spilled into the Rockies and Dunham was pulling out all the cold weather gear.
Although she read that temperatures dipped close to minus 50, the coldest measurement on her phone came in at minus 37.
“When it’s that cold, you have to bundle the dogs up really well,” she said. “The snow becomes abrasive. You have to put the booties on and leg warmers and thin puffy coats too.”
It’s a challenge to keep the dogs hydrated when temperatures dive so deep. Mushers melt snow in pots over a fire fueled by the isopropyl alcohol found in Heet gas-antifreeze.
It wasn’t just cold that created a challenge for Dunham and her team.
When they ventured over Huckleberry Pass, they were faced with deep snow and high winds. For five hours, they broke trail.
“There were no tracks in front of us,” she said. “You have to have really strong dogs. They have to be tough and head strong, too. We faced high winds and deep snow, but they were willing to get up and go through anything.”
Through some of the most challenging conditions, two sisters, Foxy and Weasel, led the way.
“There was a time that we were racing into a strong headwind,” Dunham said. “I think it was like 40 mph and I looked out and saw Weasel wagging her tail as she ran into the wind. They have such a good attitude. … My dogs just crushed it.”
While there was a lot of beauty to behold along the 300-mile route, Dunham said one of the memories that will stay with her came late in the night as her team was hurrying down the trail. The former wildlife technician had been noticing the tracks of wolves and mountain lions throughout the day.
“We had a mountain lion cross the trail right in front of us,” she said. “It looked like a white ghost in the light of my headlamp. It trotted across the trail and then it was gone.”
Dunham keeps her sled dogs in tiptop shape through a guide she operates in the winter out of Darby.
Her Evermore Sled Dog Adventures takes people on 14-mile loops in Rye Creek or Nez Perce. When her season concludes at the end of February, she’ll pack up her dogs and drive to her native Alaska to continue offering guided sled dog trips over an ice field near Juneau.
Anyone interested in taking a tour can contact Dunham at email@example.com or call 406-493-5765.
Mushing has been part of Dunham’s life since she was a teenager living in Valdez.
“My parents really weren’t outdoors minded people,” she said. “My mother was a hair stylist and my father an engineer. I drug my dad out to a dog race and I fell in love with it.”
A neighbor had dogs that he allowed her to use in her first race when she was 18.
“I was hooked,” she said. “I was so happy. It was 30 below and I don’t remember being cold at all.”
Since then, she’s dreamed about returning to enter the Iditarod where the best of the best dog mushers gather to compete. Over this next year, she’ll be working to gather the resources necessary to make that dream come true.
“It’s a very expensive race to go to,” Dunham said. “People start working toward it for years before they go. You have to ship about 2,000 pounds of gear. … Everyone has a different goal. Some want to be first. I just want to be able to finish.”
Mushing has become Dunham’s passion.
“It’s almost like therapy for me,” Dunham said. “I might wake up on the wrong side of the bed and feel grumpy or mad, but by the time I get back from a training run with my dogs, my day is better.”
On a still day, the 35-year-old Dunham said it would be hard to find something more peaceful than being in the middle of the wilds riding a sled behind a team of dogs.
“All you hear is their little foot pads on the snow and the rhythm of their breathing,” she said. “It’s super quiet. Maybe, if it’s really cold, you might hear the hum of the runners of the sled.
“Sometimes people ask me if I’m afraid of being out there alone,” Dunham said. “I tell them I’m not alone. I’m out there with my best friends. They are right there in front of me.”