Sled dogs take on the mountain

Lisa Kunkel

The sixth annual Bighorn Rush Sled Dog Challenge descended on the area Friday and Saturday bringing teams from across the region to compete at the Antelope Butte Mountain Recreation Area outside of Shell. 

A continued effort to promote dog-powered and winter sports in the Bighorn Mountains, the trails run through 8,500 and 9,800 feet in elevation. This year teams traveled from Montana, Washington, Utah, Orgegon, and Wyoming. “We had 11 teams participate, which is actually the lowest number since our first year – which seems to be a common theme among dog sled races throughout the country,” said event organizer Ben Keller. 

It was a two-day event, with musher’s racing the same course both days. Each race began adjacent to the ski lodge with eight to 12-dog teams running the 25 mile loop, eight-dog teams running the 12 mile loop, six-dog teams running the seven mile loop, four-dog teams running the four-mile loop, and a one or two dog teams running the seven mile skijor loop. 

All courses include a fair bit of ups and downs – it is called a sled dog challenge for a reason. But along with the elevation changes came incredible vistas and a great variety of terrain.

Antelope Butte general manager Dick Stillson said, “The sled dog races help demonstrate the variety of activity we promote at Antelope Butte Mountain Recreation Area. It's truly a community service to host a recreational event that most people in the Big Horns are unfamiliar with.”

The most daunting of the five course choices is the longer run. “The 25-mile course is a 25-mile loop. with a little bit of everything. The trail makes an almost immediate no-joke climb out of Antelope Butte basin up toward the tree line. Once you break out of the trees the Cloud Peak Wilderness Area towers in the distance. The trail tops out at Woodchuck Pass, and after some cheek-clenching descents, it settles back into a meandering wooded roadway. The trail climbs back up through the Christmas Tree Pass before returning to the open snow fields that parallel Highway 14. One last hairpin turn returns the trail to Antelope Butte,” according to the event website. 

“Personally, I love meeting the mushers and dog sled enthusiasts who gather at Antelope Butte annually from throughout the Rockies and the Northwestern U.S.,” said Stillson. 

Since its inception in 2017, the Bighorn Rush has been organized by Ben Keller, of Sheridan, who runs his own kennel of sled dogs. 

This year’s race was fantastic. The weather was really cooperative, and everyone had a really good time,” he said.

“Antelope Butte is a wonderful host – especially now that the lodge is renovated and fully operational – which was always part of the vision. When we first started this race, Antelope Butte had not reopened, but we always envisioned a great cooperation where mushers, spectators and skiers all enjoyed the mountain together. Antelope is a perfect place to bring it all together,” said Keller. “The Antelope Butte team has been very accommodating and super cooperative in allowing the event to develop over the years.”

   As light snow fell and skiers were sliding down the slopes, there were sounds of dogs yipping and spectators cheering for the athletes as they crossed the finish line. 

This race is such a joy to organize. It is exhausting, but building new friendships with fellow mushers and dog-lovers makes it all worth it,” said Keller.