Race to the Sky

For a few days every February, the valleys and mountains around Helena resound with the yips and howls of impatient dogs, just as they would have done seventy-odd years ago. Between 1942 and 1944, roughly one thousand sled and pack dogs called the Helena area home. The dogs were housed and trained at Camp Rimini, west of Helena, and formed an integral piece of the US Army’s plan to invade Nazi-held Norway. That plan never came to fruition. Instead the sled dog teams and their mushers were sent to Alaska, Canada, and Greenland, where they worked as search-and-rescue teams, saving the lives of downed pilots, and hauled cargo for the Allied forces.

Although never used in actual combat, the sled dogs of Camp Rimini were nonetheless essential to the war effort. Their’s is a story of ingenuity, bravery, and dedication. Frankly, it’s ridiculous that there hasn’t been a movie about it. At the very least there should be one of those 1970s Disney live-action kid-and-pet flicks, but so far I’ve found nothing. In the 1940s sled-dogging was virtually unheard of. A few of the New England Ski resorts offered novelty dog sled rides, and some mountain-men types scattered across the border states ran teams. One of the main suppliers of both dogs and mushers was the Chinook Kennels in New Hampshire. Chinook Kennels had supplied the dogs for Admiral Byrd’s Antarctic expeditions during the 1930s, and proved an excellent resource for the Army.

In Montana, the most well-known Camp Rimini musher is probably Dave Armstrong. Though too young to accompany Byrd, Armstrong had worked for Chinook Kennels during the 1930s, and arrived at camp Rimini in 1943 at the age of 22. After after training at Camp Rimini, Armstrong and his team were sent to Newfoundland. There Armstrong performed the important–but often grisly–task of searching for the wreckage of planes brought down by the Arctic weather. In the late sixties, Armstrong returned to Montana. Eventually, he founded the Montana Sled Dog, Inc., and the Race to the Sky. He also seems to have written a book about his adventures, Camp Rimini and Beyond: World War II Memoirs, though I can’t figure out how to find a copy.

Race to the Sky, which starts from Camp Rimini and ends near Lincoln, is one of the few Iditarod qualifying races in the world, and one of the most important dog sled races in the continental USA. Past winners include Montana legend and four-time Iditarod champion Doug Swingley. There are actually three different Race to the Sky Races: a 100 mile youth race, a 100 mile adult race, and–the big one–a 350 mile race which starts on Saturday afternoon and doesn’t finish until the following Tuesday. The race includes all sorts of non-endurance-athlete activities, including audience viewing at the pre-race Vet check and checkpoints along the way, as well as awards dinners for all of the races.

Despite promotion through Race to the Sky, the story of the sled dogs of Camp Rimini is little known. Obviously, numerous Montana publications have published stories about the Race and the Camp over the years including the Billings Gazette (here, here, and here), Montana Outdoors, and Montana, the Magazine of Western History. If you want to learn more about Camp Rimini, the best places to start are the Montana Military Museum or the Montana Historical Society. If you want to learn more about dog sledding, I recommend starting with this short but fascinating video from National Geographic.

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