Joseph, Oregon's Eagle Cap Extreme:
A Community Love Affair
Story by Rose Hansen, images by Benjamin Krause.
Bino Fowler feels something burning in his boot. A rock? A wood shaving? He tries to ignore it, focuses on the tug, on Cash, Emmy Lou Harris, June Carter – the dogs of his country legends litter. He considers his competitors, all ahead of him. He's the caboose. He worries about temperature – a warm 34 degrees. He thinks about the trail – Gumboot Butte and Big Sheep Basin and Tamarack Mountain. He admires the snow's glimmering, scalloping waves, but dammit – something's burning in his boot. Maybe it's just bad luck. Maybe it's fate. He doesn't have time for that. There's a race going on, and he's only five miles in.
This year marked the 7th Annual Eagle Cap Extreme (ECX) sled dog race in Joseph, Oregon. Fowler has mushed every race but one. The ECX has a unique claim as Oregon's only Iditarod and Yukon Quest Qualifier, but it's the superior organization of the event combined with the charm of Wallowa County that keeps participants returning year after year. "I love the community. I love the area. I love the people," said Carol Pepsick, a musher. Race organizers pay attention to everything— schedule, food, parking—and really consider the musher's needs, she explained.
Seven years ago, Enterprise resident Ray Potter, a former cowhand, rancher, and Alaska trapper, suggested to his friend Terry Hinesly that Wallowa County host a sled dog race. "Considering the roads, the terrain, the trails, I knew we had something good," said Hinesly, on internationally known race marshal who has also competed in three Iditarods. News of the proposed event sent shockwaves of excitement across the region. "The first volunteer meeting was packed full of people," said Hinsley. "The potential was there, but we needed to take that enthusiasm and channel it."
And they did. The 2011 Eagle Cap Extreme had 150 official volunteers, but volunteer coordinator Lorna Cook estimated the actual numbers to be closer to 200. In its near-decade of operation, the race grew from an 8 and 12-dog 100-mile course to a concurrent 8-dog 100-mile and a 12-dog 200-mile race. Although Potter aimed to expand to a 300-mile race, quality ultimately won out over distance.
"We've gotta work within the boundaries we've got," Hinesly explained. "I'd like to keep it small, say, maximum of 15 teams per class." Run almost entirely on volunteer dollars, resources are scant - especially when that money emerges from a community of hardworking people with limited disposable income. There's not much room to grow, and ECX organizers don't necessarily want to. More race participants could mean diminished time and quality care per team. "We don't want to make them feel like a cow coming down the chute," Hinesly said.
Keeping it small shouldn't be hard. This rural pocket of Northeast Oregon is at least a six-hour drive from familiar cities like Portland and Spokane. The race hub, Joseph, sits hinged between the snow-covered Eagle Cap Mountains and coyote-gray hills of the high prairie. The town bursts with two million visitors each summer, but its frigid winters are reserved For its hardy population of roughly one thousand.
This year's race was held from January 6th - 8th. Three mushers competed in the 200-mile segment. They were Karen Ramstead and Richard Todd, both from Perryvale, Alberta; and Steve Madsen of Cougar, Washington. One hundred mile segment racers were Carol Pepsick of Estacada, Oregon; Bino Fowler of Sun River, Oregon; Tim Curley of Sandy, Oregon; Dee Ogden of Idaho City, Ida ho; Rick Katucki of Eagle Idaho; and father-daughter team Steve and Brandi Mullen of Clearwater, B.C.
The course bumps along the perimeter of the 560-square-mile Eagle Cap Wilderness. With its sheer granite cliffs and 90-degree hairpin trail turns, the area is quite possibly Oregon's most treacherous terrain. "It's a gut buster," said Madsen, who runs a circuit of annual Pacific Northwest races such as the Cascade Quest and Race to the Sky.
One five-mile section of the ECX course has a thirteen percent grade, and total elevation gains range between 10,000 and 12,000 feet. Both courses take mushers along the west rim of the Snake River of Hells Canyon, the deepest gorge in North America. Routes vary due to snowpack stability, but mushers are guaranteed spectacular views of plummeting ravines, ice-frosted lakes, and the perilous peaks of the Seven Devils in Idaho.
ECX organizers have a cooperative agreement with The Wallowa County Gamblers, a local snowmobiling club, to groom the racecourse. Snowmobiles equipped with tow-behind trail groomers pack the snow, and a week before the race, smaller groomers work the course daily to build a solid base for race weekend. Well-packed, 20-foot wide trails are normal, making for miles of passing zones and roomy shoulders. Hazards like branches, steep edges, and cattle guards are also marked for mushers. "You couldn't have gotten lost on that trail if you came here wanting to get lost on the trail," said Ramstead.
The ECX organizers raised $13,000 through local sponsors, merchandise sales, and auctions, but the bulk cost of the event falls on the volunteers. Dan and Joyce Leonard generously opened the doors of their bed and breakfast, Wallowa Lake Resort, to participating veterinarians. "Oh, we're a small community,' Joyce sold with a shrug. "As soon as we could do something that was useful, we started doing it."
"You help people out around here," said George Bollard, a volunteer hold back. Ballard has happily helped with the race since its inception in 2005. "Believe me, some of those sled dogs will pull a four-wheeler with all the brakes on." He knows this to be a fact. During the first ECX, Ballard tried using his wife's 2-wheel drive machine to hold back the dogs, which drug him a hundred yards down the trail anyway. But that hasn't fazed him from continuing to pitch in. "It's just something you do," Ballard said. Plus, he's switched to a four-wheel drive Honda four-wheeler.
This spirit of charitable donations thrives elsewhere in the area. Wallowa County Grain Growers donated a brand new gleaming red bombardier four-wheeler, complete with snow tracks. Donna Ulrich baked 20 loaves of sour dough bread for race organizers and mushers. Judy Goodman taught sled-dog education and fan poster-making to local children. Winding Waters Lodge volunteered their vans to shuttle spectators up to the starting line. The list goes on - communications equipment, fuel, gas tanks, snowmobiles, fencing, white organizers, timber, sleds, trailers. There is no shortage of generosity in this community.
ECX mushers get expert vet care from Randy Greenshields, Rene Fleming, Lynnie Appleton, and Dean Bauman. While the former are all Wallowa County residents, Bauman runs a veterinarian practice on the Oregon Coast. "I like the atmosphere here," he explained. "The local people really support it, and the scenery is absolutely beautiful."
Greenshields wears hats of both chief vet and ECX president. Oversight of the race by skilled veterinarians holds enormous appeal for mushers. "A guy like Randy gets it," said Madsen. "He gets what we do with the dogs. Most people are in this sport for the animal husbandry. We're not on ESPN."
The day before the race, public vet checks are held in both downtown Joseph and Enterprise. The street pulses with activity. As vets check temperatures and rub muscles, Enterprise 6th graders armed with field trip notebooks buzz from musher to musher, humming with questions. "How much does this one weigh? Who is your lead dog?" Kids flock to eighteen-year old Brandi Mullen. She's the stuff of legends. Mullen began sled dog racing at age four in a one-dog, one-mile race, But this 100-mile race is her first real test of endurance.
With a laugh, she admits that she's a little nervous. "I'm the underdog, and I have B dogs." Stealing a glance at her dad, she shyly adds, "But I'm lighter."
Steve Mullen, who has competed in over 100 races since he started mushing in 1984, stands firm that they're a team before competitors. "If something goes wrong," he says, "I'm going to help her out." Handicapping his chances at winning is less important to him than seeing Brandi's succeed in a mid-distance race.
The most eye-catching dogs are the full-bred Siberians of Karen Ramstead and her partner, Richard Todd. Ramstead has successfully completed the Iditarod eight times, but laughingly calls herself a ‘rookie' to the ECX. "I didn't have the money far the Iditarod this year, so I thought I'd go same places I've always wanted to see, races I've always wanted to do," she explains.
"I came because of this lady," Todd says, pointing to Ramstead. So, who's going to win? Todd looks at Ramstead, who just laughs. "I'm taking the junior team out, that's the official line," he says, grinning.
Spectators' vapor breaths rise up in small white clouds as they mingle with the dogs to scratch their pricked ears and pose for photographs. It's 14 degrees out, but that's tropical compared a recent spell that yanked temperatures down to ten below zero.
The ECX starts and ends at the Ferguson Ridge Ski Area, a volunteer-operated park with runs shaped like a peace sign. Thirty minutes before the race, mud-flecked pickup trucks fill the parking lot, and a flurry of men with tobacco can-ringed pockets and families toting chubby toddlers cluster around the starting chute. Snow Cats and tractors skid up and down the hill. More than 200 children from Elgin, Enterprise, Joseph, and Wallowa fan out across the snow, waving colorful, fluttering paper signs for their favorite musher. Go Carol! Go Brandi! There are easily 400 spectators, maybe more.
"Crowd enthusiasm is significantly better than it was before, it's a novel thing," says Lee Daggett, who has served as the ECX race announcer since it began.
At one o'clock, mushers are released in three-minute intervals. Fans scream, ATVs fight to restrain the teams, the dogs wildly yip and bark and howl, and the kids howl back. Once the teams are off, spectators have just under an hour to reach Salt Creek Summit, the only other public observation area. After that, mushers face a tough 40-mile trek to the first checkpoint, Ollokot. Checkpoint locations vary each year, but the 2011 race used this site far the halfway point far the 100-mile segment and for all three stops far the 200-mile segment. It's convenient far the 200-mile mushers because they can return to their sites as they left them—tents pitched, bedrolls unfurled.
For non-mushers, the fastest way to Ollokot is by snowmobile, and the access point waits near the end of a dirt road along the coiling Imnaha River, two and a half hours from Joseph. Eighteen crew- members staff Ollokot round the clock, managed by the animated Raider Heck of Burns, Oregon. Booming and gruff but tender, with rosy cheeks, and a white beard that lies like a mink pelt across his jaw line, Heck is the booming caricature of a mountain man you might see in a cartoon. You can't help but love him.
"I've been to a lot of races and seen a lot of characters, but the ECX takes that cake," says Madsen. "I mean, who could invent Raider?"
Heck, whose signature hat is a fur Ushanka with wild flopping ears, has participated in the ECX since it started, and he's got checkpoint organization down to an art. In addition to the three vets and a vet tech, there are five backpacker-certified EMA personnel, AEDs, and first responder bags.
"You're in better hands out here than at a Daytona racetrack," according to Heck.
The four-acre site has a teardrop-shaped staging area with groomed parking spats for sleds, and there's even a private section an the east end for teams with grouchy dogs or, well, grouchy mushers. A 2,000-watt generator powers 2-meter VHF radios, X-band repeaters, and a series of computers equipped with digital course maps. Ollokot's communication team provides the situational link between trail happenings and the Race Central headquarters in Joseph. The value of personal equipment loaned by volunteers range anywhere from $15,000 to $25,000, and those are conservative estimates. Nearby, three other heated tents house workers quarters, mushers quarters, and even a kitchen.
It's been dubbed the "Ollokot Hilton" for good reason. The kitchen tent's table is loaded with a cornucopia—tangerines, bread, chili, chicken noodle soup, macaroni and cheese, juice, and coffee. Eleven folding chairs upholstered with carpet squares provide comfortable seating, and a string of Christmas lights along the ceiling throws a festive glow across the cozy room. A laundry line above the wood-burning stove droops with socks and gloves hanging to dry, and the warm air smells faintly of garlic bread and wood smoke.
The crew is alerted of the first incoming musher about minute out. Dog handlers and vets pour out of the tent in their swishing snow jackets and, stamping their feet against the cold, peer dawn the trail. A swinging head lamp punches through the darkness.
It's Bino Fowler.
The burning in his boot? An investigation reveals a pistachio shell. Fowler just laughs, happy to be the first of all eleven teams to reach Ollokot. But the race is tight. Almost every musher arrives within three hours, leaving little time for the crew to relax. "Get in, get undressed, get dressed, and get out. We're like hookers who don't get paid," Hinesly quips.
Spirits run high, even at midnight as mushers heap second helpings onto their plates. Conversation drifts from Facebook to parenting to speculations about recent cell phone apps. Periodically, a handset crackles.
But then Karen Ramstead murmurs, "What a nice trip. What a beautiful trip."
When a musher speaks, everyone listens. Perhaps more than anything, the spirit of this sport survives through story - how I lost my sled, how I passed the lead, how I crossed the river, how I found the trail, how I chased the moose, how I fixed the lamp, how I beat the cold, how I love my dogs, how I became a true musher.
For those in the 100-mile segment, the layover at Ollokot is a mandatory six hours. But for the 200-mile mushers, there's no time restriction for the first stop. Ramstead, Todd, and Madsen set goals of finishing in 40 hours, and just four hours after arriving, they're ready to hit the trail.
It's an inky black midnight, and the dry snow is coated with glittering hoarfrost that shatters like glass with each step. The dogs leap hysterically against their harnesses, howling, but fall silent the instant they're given the command, "Go,"- and in whisking, loping movements, they're off.
Grinning, Heck shakes his head and cries, ‘These dogs light off like they're on nitro."
It's always best to beat a friend, and that's exactly what Bino Fowler did when he mushed across the finish line at 6:39 am Friday morning, claiming first place just 11 minutes ahead of his lang-time friend and competitor, Dee Ogden. Steve Mullen arrived at 7:24 am for third place and 18-year-old Brandi finished exactly 30 minutes later. Rick Katucki and Carol Pepsick came in fifth and sixth, respectively.
At 9:38 Saturday morning, Steve Madsen crossed the finish line first for the 200-mile race. In silent celebration, he kissed each of his dogs between the eyes. Less than seven minutes later, Karen Ramstead and Richard Todd appeared side-by-side at the top of Ferguson Ridge, intending to finish together, but in the final seconds, Todd's lead dog pulled just a nose-hairs length ahead, securing a second place victory for Todd and third for Ramstead.
Hinsley called the 200-mile race the most competitive mid-distance race he'd ever seen. "If you're a race marshal, this is the kind of thing you want to do because nothing goes wrong."
Although Madsen and Ramstead have competed against one another for years, this was Madsen's first time to ever finish before her. "I was able to catch Karen almost every chance I got, but I couldn't seem to get more than five minutes ahead of her," he said, his voice thick with emotion. "So for 200 miles, I had those head lamps chasing me, and it was maddening. To have that kind of pressure on me on a race like this is something I've never experienced."
The purse totaled $6,900. Bino Fowler and Karen Ramstead were awarded the Best Kept Teams for the 100-mile and 200-mile, respectively.
This 2011 ECX suffered only three dropped-dogs. "That's unreal for this kind of race on this kind of terrain," said Greenshields. "This is a huge event to put on, and the way it pulls off shows how good the people ore that we have."
"This is a top, first-class event," agreed Ramstead. "Why are more mushers not flocking here?"
The answer might be related to the size of the purse. On the other hand, nearly all the mushers who participated this year promised to return. Whether the race survives long enough to make its 10th anniversary, only time can tell, but with its strong local support, happy mushers, and growing reputation, the future of the Eagle Cap Extreme looks bright.
"I'd like to see this race recognized as exactly what it is: A quality race with great volunteers—but it's tough. And I'd like to see it continued," said Hinesly. It's worth noting that Hinesly also marshals Michigan's Seney 300, a comparable race that suffers from declining registration. In contrast, this year's ECX boosted 11 teams. "That says a lot for the community and quality of race we put on," he said.
Such a claim can't be ignored. The ECX has much to admire—qualifier status, mid-distance length, trail conditions, scenery, terrain challenges, top-notch vet care - but more than anything, its friendly community seems to be the greatest appeal for mushers. Wallowa County is the kind of place where people in oncoming cars start waving at you from a quarter mile away. As Fowler puts it, "The people who live here and put on the race makes us feel like royalty, like we're heroes"
Author Rose Hansen was raised in Alaska. She is an outdoor enthusiast with a bachelor's degree in Forest Recreation from Oregon State University. She is currently pursuing her Master's of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at the University of Minnesota.
Mushing Magazine March/April 2011