Just under where the nose of Idaho pokes up into Montana, a few miles from where I was born and spent my early years, lies a choice between two mountain passes over the 10,000’ Continental Divide.
You can take the much more traveled 7,072’ Targhee Pass the dozen or so miles northeast on US 20 to West Yellowstone, Montana, an entrance back into Wyoming and the national park.
Or, about the same distance northwest on Idaho Route 87 summits the 10 miles over 6,844’ Raynold’s Pass between the headwaters of two of the nation’s largest and most important river systems.
One is the origin of the great Missouri River, flowing east into the Mississippi before reaching the Gulf of Mexico. The other, the origin of the Snake River and then the Columbia River before reaching the Pacific.
This is also one of the coldest spots in Idaho. The average temperature in the winter is 22 degrees. It averages 43 inches of participation, an amount similar to Seattle, New York or Durham, North Carolina where I now live but more than 70% of that comes from snow.
My nearly ten-year stint during the 1980s in Anchorage, Alaska, which is the trailhead for the famed Iditarod, was not my first exposure to sled-dog racing.
In 1917, eight years before the famous dash to Iditarod with diphtheria serum for which Alaska’s nearly 1,200-mile race is named, the inaugural American Dog Derby ran 55 miles from West Yellowstone, Montana to Ashton, Idaho, a tiny town about four miles from our ranch.
The Derby was held annually (with the exception of WWII) until I turned 13 in 1961. Then it resumed about four years after I was recruited to Durham. The Iditarod runs in March. The American Dog Derby races in mid-February about the time Anchorage celebrates Fur Rendezvous each year.
Funny how one’s life intersects common pathways.
Ashton is where I took the bus to grade school beginning in 1954. The sled-dog race took a shorter route from West Yellowstone in 1917 when “Tud” Kent, who was from Island Park about 20 miles north of Ashton, won that first 55 mile race.
Eventually the route was shortened to 25 miles, considered a mere sprint in Alaska. Today, the Derby is a series of races roundtrip from Ashton running east tracing the Henry’s Fork on old Idaho route 47.
Today’s route crosses over the scenic byway just below Mesa Falls and Bear Gulch, through the sliver of Yellowstone Park that is inside Idaho, over the Wyoming border to Cave Falls, which spans Fall River on its course from Bechler Meadows as it runs down into Idaho and into the Henry’s Fork.
Then the racers make the return trip back to Ashton. The race involves two of these 50-mile round-trip heats on consecutive days. During the 18 miles from Ashton to the Park boundary and then the seven miles to Cave Falls, annual precipitation will vary from 20 inches to 80 inches a year.
The hero of that first race in 1917 was a bulldog similar to my English bulldog Mugsy. Running for “Wind River” Smith, the bull dog wouldn’t quit when others balked so he was moved to lead dog and took the team to the finish line.
I believe it. Mugsy turns into a sled dog whenever you mention taking a ride or a walk. An advantage for bull dogs would be their low, stocky build, powerful thighs and huge over-sized paws. Their smushed in breathing apparatus would seem a disadvantage, but maybe not in cold thin air at high altitude.
American Derby winners haven’t always been American huskies, Ashton’s mascot. Some years teams of setters, Gordon and Irish, have won.
My Mom’s best friend’s father and her brother, Warren and Don Cordingly, were championship mushers. Warren won the Ashton race and also set records winning races in Canada.
His son, a year or two ahead of my Dad in school, won his first race when he was 17 years old and won two more times after that. A 90-mile segment of the Derby is named in their honor.
The name Cordingly is memorable for another reason. My first memory of seeing someone after they had died was being lifted suddenly at age 5 by my Mom to view Warren’s wife Ethyl in her casket, something you never forget.
Mom’s friend Vera owned the place just north of us with her husband Burt who traveled as a jockey racing horses. I often played with their children and their cousins when I was growing up.
I suspect my great-grandparents had not just been drawn two hundred miles from their place near Richmond Utah to buy a ranch in that nook of Idaho so their sons including my grandfather could homestead places of their own.
The climate probably appealed to his Swiss Amish roots on the shores of Thunersee.
My great-grandparents, grandparents (who consolidated all of the ranches into one) and my parents grew livestock on the ranch, first horses, then cattle.
About a quarter of the land was sage brush and forested hills dissected by a meadow used for forage and to raise hay for the winter from a few acres we farmed with feed crops including a place we called “hole in the ground.”
Grown were grains, some stored in several small granaries for use throughout the year, and some to sell to the big granary in Ashton.
The altitude drops from near 10,000’ up at the headwaters of the Henry’s Fork down to between 5,000’ and 6000’ where the ranch was. The precipitation at that level was around 15-20 inches, mostly from snow that averaged five feet or more.
Right on the cusp of where that was possible, we dry farmed the feed crops because irrigation wasn’t feasible. People who dry farm there today and others across America use technology such as John Deere’s Green Star System. The frost-free growing season in that nook of Idaho ranges from only 60-100 days you have to make the most of it.
Many ranchers and farmers from that part of Idaho are probably among the 26% of Americans including a third of Republicans and half of Tea Party members who respond on surveys saying that they don’t receive benefits from government.
Today, you see many of them “texting” while driving their huge tractors or sitting with their feet up while listening to satellite radio because they use GPS to not only self-guide the tractor but calibrate from seeding to fertilizing to harvesting achieving just the right soil and moisture conditions on each inch of ground.
The GPS and technology for satellite radio is based on government funded research. Grazing on federal lands, accepting price supports and benefitting from reclamation studies and projects to conserve watersheds such as the three along the Henry’s Fork for irrigation, all qualify as taking benefits from government.
There isn’t anyone in America who doesn’t get some benefit from government. To think otherwise may be a world view but it is also hubris.