SHERIDAN — Sheridan resident Ben Keller has a unique perspective on the Bighorn Rush, the sled dog races the Antelope Butte Mountain Recreation Area will host this weekend.
Keller has been in charge of organizing the event since it began last year, but he will also be participating as a musher when the races begin.
Keller said about 12 mushers participated in last year’s race, and he is expecting a similar turn out this year. The two-day event will feature races through a 25-mile loop, an 11-mile loop, a six-mile loop, a two-mile loop, a two-mile skijor loop and a 100-yard dash for kids.
Organizing the race has involved two primary components: The first is fundraising, and Keller said the event has grown tremendously since last year because of the community’s support.
The other major piece of preparation was preparing the trails for the races. Most of the trails were covered in fresh powder before preparation for the race began, so Keller said he and his team had to go through and pack the snow along the trails while they installed trail markers.
That preparation took several weekends, he said, but noted that the Antelope Butte Foundation has grown significantly since last year, which made grooming the trails much easier this year.
“This year they have more equipment on the ground here, so they were able to do more of the immediate trail grooming,” Keller said.
As a musher, Keller said the preparation for the event has been more gradual.
“Usually at these events, my kids will race, or my wife will race,” Keller said. “And then I just run the dogs on the weekends, when they aren’t racing.”
Keller said he takes his dogs on 10 to 15-mile long runs each weekend, which keeps them in shape throughout the racing season. Because of their workouts throughout the season, Keller said his dogs do not require much preparation ahead of racing weekends.
“You want to make sure you time when you water and feed them so they are well-hydrated for the races,” Keller said. “You just keep an eye on them – especially their wrists, their joints – make sure all of the dogs are healthy and strong, and no one is sick, and then you just keep a close eye on them throughout the race.”
Ben’s son Tanyon Keller said he has mushed in several races, including the Casper Mountain Sled Dog Races, and part of the preparation for a race involves selecting a team of dogs from his family’s kennel. The Kellers have eight dogs in their kennel, which Ben said is a small kennel – an average kennel usually numbers in the teens, he said, and mushers who race frequently have kennels with 50 to 100 dogs.
When Tanyon mushes in the two-mile race this weekend, he said he will use a four-dog team. That team, he said, will consist of one reliable lead dog – that is, a dog that knows the musher’s commands – and a dog he wants to develop as a lead dog and two dogs running behind them.
“The back doesn’t matter for the most part, as long as the dogs get along,” Tanyon said.
Ben said he is confident all of the preparation that has gone into the Bighorn Rush, from both event organizers and race participants, will pay-off this weekend.
“What makes this event a success is we have a great community that has really gotten behind this event and financially supported it,” Keller said. “And also just has the spirit of wanting to get up here and experience something really fun and neat and unique. People sometimes forget there are a lot of different things you can do on the mountain in the winter, and hopefully this race opens people’s eyes to one more of those.”