HELENA — As mushers prepared to take on the Race to the Sky, a long-standing dog race in Montana, they got the worst news they could think of. The race had been canceled as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The race that starts in Lincoln and ends in Seeley Lake spans three counties. In order to get the event off the ground, the Race to the Sky board needed approval for the event in all three counties. Pam Beckstrom, a public relations official for the race, said every county health office they've been in contact with has been helpful, but it was just impossible to abide by all the rules and maintain the safety of the mushers.
"They've all been very, very helpful to us, but when we realized that we could not have any spectators, and we knew that we didn't have any control over the spectators -- we had spectators emailing me saying we're just going to come anyway -- and we had a limit of up to 20 people on the site and we had 27 mushers signed up already, which is a record for this time of the year, we didn't want to have to police the spectators," said Beckstrom. "When we realized that we couldn't have the mushers ... go into any of the buildings, it just became a safety issue for them and it just felt like it was an uphill battle that we were probably going to have to just pass on for this year."
This is just the second time in the race's history that it has been canceled. The first time was in the early 2000s due to a lack of snow. Beckstrom said planning the race is a year-round process, and early on in the pandemic the race's board was hopeful that they'd be able to get a race together with some minimal changes. As time wore on, the likelihood of a cancellation grew larger and Jan. 10 the board made the decision to cancel the event.
"We started talking about different scenarios or doing two different race settings or not having the public there," said Beckstrom. "Every meeting, we were coming up with new things that we had to deal with. And on Sunday night, it became clear to us that we were not going to be able to meet those guidelines and keep it safe for everyone, and we certainly didn't want to be part of the problem. We wanted to be part of the solution."
Beckstrom said shortly after word of the cancellation spread, she heard from competitors, spectators and volunteers alike as they expressed their disappointment. However, as Beckstrom noted, planning the race is a year-round event and this just gives them more time to plan.
"I know they're disappointed," said Beckstrom. "We're working on a bigger and better race and the 37th annual Race to the Sky will be a very splendid event. I'll call it a splendid event."