While many dog derbies in the U.S. were canceled because of COVID-19, Ashton turned the Bear Gulch parking lot into a kennel as racers and their dog teams gathered for the American Dog Derby on Friday and Saturday.
Nearly 50 mushers participated in the derby, held at Bear Gulch near Ashton.
“It’s one of the only races that got put on because of COVID,” said distance musher Clayton Perry. “It’s the last event to go see all our friends. Mostly it’s a social gathering. Everyone knows everyone here.”
Perry, from Choteau, Montana, placed second in the derby’s eight-dog race, completing the 45-mile open class course in 2:37:35 on Friday and 3:02:50 on Saturday.
Perry has been racing for 15 years and has been to Ashton dozens of times, he said. The last time he was in Ashton was for a memorial run for David “Rosie” Harman in 2019. Harman was a well-known racer in the Ashton community who died in 2017.
One of the derby’s six-dog mushers, Robert Lee, agreed with Perry on the event’s social setting. He named each of his fellow nearby racers, laughing as he recalled stories about a runner in Oregon that he practices with, Thad McKracken.
“We’re pretty much a close-knit community. We know most of the people here,” Lee said.
Mushers came from several states in the northern U.S., including Idaho, Washington, Montana, Wyoming, Oregon and Alaska.
Lee, a fourth-year racer from Sandy, Oregon, finished third in the 25-mile six-dog race. He ran a 0:54:33 on Friday and a 0:54:32 on Saturday.
The long-standing annual race started in 1917. The first race started in West Yellowstone and ended at Ashton. Blizzard conditions forced the race to be split up in two days as racers camped overnight at the Fish Hatchery.
The dog races were on this year, but the regular snowshoe races and weight pull events were canceled because of state gathering restrictions. The derby’s Junior and Skijor categories were unable to run on Saturday due to road closures.
“This whole year has been a lot of disappointment,” said the first-place six-dog musher Matt Johnson. “This may be the last one of the year, so that’s why I think there’s more people here this year than there has been in the past.”
Johnson, like many other mushers, has only been able to participate in two races since the start of the pandemic, he said. The American Dog Derby and the Bighorn Rush in Wyoming, which took place Jan. 1 and Jan. 2.
Johnson, from Belt, Montana, finished with times of 0:48:36 on Friday and 0:49:59 on Saturday in the six-dog race.
For Johnson, the highlight of the race or any race is to spend time with his dogs on the trail. He, like his fellow racers, also enjoys spending time with the others.
“That’s the best part about doing all this headache,” he said with howling and barking dogs filling the parking lot of Bear Gulch. “Everybody’s very competitive in the race, but outside, we’re all best friends.”
The winners of the derby are:
• Jess Moore, two-day open class race, 45 miles.
• Christina Gibson, two-day eight-dog race, 45 miles.
• Matt Johnson, two-day six-dog race, 25 miles.
• Eva Nielson, two-day novice race, 25 miles.
• Jamie Johnson, one-day skijor race, four miles (second day canceled).
• Jace Blackham, one-day junior race, 7.5 miles (second day canceled).