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Annual races prove doggone fun

by CAROLINE LOBSINGER
Staff Writer | February 9, 2022 1:00 AM

PRIEST LAKE — Tom Palmer remembers his first sled dog race.

"My first race, I was miserable," the longtime Inland Empire Sled Dog Association member said as he watched the action at Sunday's Priest Lake Sled Dog Race, the final day of the two-day event.

Palmer and his wife showed Siberian huskies and every time they saw one friend at the shows, she'd tell them they need to try the sport. Finally, Palmer told his wife they would go to a race and that would be the end of it. They'd be able to tell her they'd looked into it but it wasn't for them.

So they grabbed their dogs and hit the road. Once they arrived, they walked around and talked to the different folks, with Palmer going one way and his wife another. When they reconnected, his wife told him she'd entered him in the race.

The other racers gathered up a spare sled and harnesses and helped him hook his dogs up. He was given the basics and told to head out three miles and turn around at the pie plate stuck in a snowbank.

"I didn't have any idea of what the ride was gonna be," Palmer said. "I mean, when you're on a sled it's not the same as looking at your speedometer in the car. And they weren't doing very well and I beat myself up trying to push them whatever I could do you know, and I felt I was gonna die any second."

After a while, he came across an open division racer headed back. The man yelled out at him, telling him he'd gone too far. Palmer figured the man was messing with a rookie and kept going. After another racer did the same thing, Palmer turned around.

"When we left, they were saying, 'we'll see you tomorrow.' And I'm like, 'the heck you are. You're not going to see me tomorrow.' Anyway, I drove all the way home and about 2 a.m., I told my wife get the boys up. We're going back."

That was over 50 years ago and Palmer was hooked. Before retiring from the sport a few years back, he had his own kennel, was building his own sleds and even converted an old Greyhound bus into a motorhome with living quarters up front and a kennel area for the dogs in the back.

"I don't know," Palmer said as he sat back and watched the final racers come into the finish line in the "Teddy Bear" division for the sport's youngest racers. "There's just something that tugs at your heart, you know. I guess that's about all you can say. The people, you know, we're a big family here."

The race has been a fixture at Nordman since 1969 and is one of several races that form the Pacific Northwest Championships, according to the association's website. Mushers come from all over the west to participate in the Priest Lake race with a number of different classes, from four-dog sleds to eight dogs. Racers range in age from the very young to the more experienced.

The event benefits the economies of both Priest River and Priest Lake and provides a unique spectator experience, association members said. These communities in turn support the race through their sponsorships.

"This is probably one of the longest standing sled dog races in the country," Palmer said.

For those unfamiliar with the sport, Palmer said there are often a lot of misconceptions — from the dogs being mistreated to the dogs being forced to run. Instead, the dogs are athletes whose owners take very good care of them, dedicating hours to making sure their dogs are in good health and getting everything they need as the athletes that they are.

Besides if a dog doesn't want to run, they won't, Palmer said. Just like not all people become athletes, neither do all dogs. Only the dogs that run and want to be a part of the sled dog team end up being on one.

There is a bond between the mushers and their dogs, something pretty special he said.

In the end, he said, there is something magical about the sport, about the quiet of standing on a sled, with just the quiet slick of the runners crunching on the snow and the dogs charging down the track. Only the occasional shout of encouragement or direction can be heart.

"I mean, there's so much to like about it," he said of his favorite part of racing. "Well, I guess the dogs. And you can see how excited they are to run."

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(Photo by CAROLINE LOBSINGER)

A racer guides their team toward the finish line at the annual Priest Lake Sled Dog Race on Sunday.

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(Photo by CAROLINE LOBSINGER)

A racer guides their team toward the finish line at the annual Priest Lake Sled Dog Race on Sunday.

photo

(Photo by CAROLINE LOBSINGER)

A racer guides their team toward the finish line at the annual Priest Lake Sled Dog Race on Sunday.

photo

(Photo by CAROLINE LOBSINGER)

A racer guides their team toward the finish line at the annual Priest Lake Sled Dog Race on Sunday.

photo

(Photo by CAROLINE LOBSINGER)

A racer guides their team toward the finish line at the annual Priest Lake Sled Dog Race on Sunday.

photo

(Photo by CAROLINE LOBSINGER)

A racer guides their team toward the finish line at the annual Priest Lake Sled Dog Race on Sunday.