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For the first time in several years, Camp Rimini rang with the staccato barks of sled dogs as participants in the 20th running of the Montana Race to the Sky shushed away from the starting gate.

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Preparation for 20th Annual Race for the Sky Saturday

About 100 well-wishers lined the trail, cheering the 23 mushers and teams on as they set out on the first, 40-mile leg of the race that brought participants to Deer Lodge Saturday.

“People are really excited the start is back in Helena,” said Pam Beckstrom, one of the race coordinators Saturday morning. “This is really our roots.”

Beckstrom said the start at Camp Rimini was particularly significant because it served as the War Dog Training and Reception Center in the 1940s. Musher-soldiers and their sled dogs trained there for a planned invasion of Norway that ultimately didn’t happen.

In tribute, Helena musher Dave Armstrong — who trained at the facility during WWII — was first to push his team across the starting line. Armstrong retired from racing this year, but agreed to serve as grand marshal for the festivities after having raced in every Montana Race for the Sky since the event was established.

Teams participating in the race hail from Montana, Washington, Colorado, Idaho, Oregon, Wyoming, Utah, Wisconsin and Canada. Beckstrom said the race should be particularly competitive this year.  

Seeley Lake musher Cindy Gallea said prior to hitching her team that she’s counting on that.

“I’ve always liked this race,” the nurse practitioner said, adding that this will mark the sixth time she has participated in it. “These are my home trails.”

This year marks Coeur d’Alene musher Robert Sexton’s first Race to the Sky.

Earlier this year he took his team to Oregon to run in the 200-mile Eagle Cap Race, and thought the Race to the Sky would be a good follow-up challenge for his dogs.

“I’ve been wanting to do this race for years,” he said.

Warren Palfrey, from Yellowknife in the Yukon, said he has been running his team in various races since early November, and is running the Race to the Sky as a qualifying race for the Iditarod.

“I wanted to come down here and see how the dogs do in the warmer temperatures,” he said, explaining that the Iditarod has challenged its participants with particularly warm temps in recent years. “And I’ve heard my friends talk about this race for a long time.”

Although the mushers appeared to be particularly focused on getting their dogs ready for the 350-mile race Saturday, Beckstrom said it’s important to receive the type of positive reception from the community that they saw in Rimini.

Helena resident Carrie Key brought her family to the race start because her children had never had the opportunity to take in the spectacle before.

“We thought it would be fun to show the kids,” she said.

Her 7-year-old daughter, Meagan, was struck by how loud the excited dogs were prior to getting out on the trail.

Helena residents Dave and Helen Cogley of Helena said they’ve ventured out to several race starts in the past, but made a particular point of showing up on Saturday since the race start was at historic Camp Rimini.

“We wanted to come out and support the local event,” Dave Cogley said from his vantage point along the side of the trail.

The race will restart today at noon at the school in Lincoln.

For a complete schedule and updates, check out the race Web site at www.racetothesky.org.

Source:  Helena Independent Record

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