An Unusual Passion: RLHS Student a champion in a unique sport

Eleanor Guerrero
CCN Senior Reporter
Thursday, March 26, 2020
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10 Mush! Last stage (Teton County, Wyo.) just 3 miles from the finish after surviving a whiteout. Snow is still on dogs’ faces.

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Torgerson “about to part with the dogs who have gotten me through thick and thin”, dogs (Left to Right) OJ and Shelby.

Marie Torgerson, 17, and a Junior at Red Lodge High School, has the unusual passion of being an enthusiastic musher, or competitive dog team racer. “My dad did it for 25 years,” she explained and she is literally following in his footsteps. 

Pulled in a sled by dogs when merely a baby, it is more than in her blood, it is her history too. 

 Torgerson is not just an enthusiast; she is a winner. “I started three years ago in the Centennial Ashton (Wyoming) Dog Derby with dad’s old sled and three extra dogs off other trucks. I won it.” She downplays her skills. “It was a very junior race. I just went to watch!” She went with “mushing friends.”

In 2019, she won the 8 dog class at the Stage Stop Sled Dog Race in Jackson, Wyoming. 

This past year she raced in her “first big one!” It is the main event of the Stage Stop, covering more than 300 miles over 8 days of dog racing. She says modestly, “It was really insane of me to do this!” 

She came in fifth. “It would have been higher if I had not had challenges due to lack of experience.”

The race was held in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Jan. 31st , of this year. There was a Town Square Events Kick Off. Torgerson had 14 dogs and could run up to 10 dogs a day. Racers covered about 30 miles a day traveling from the base in Jackson Hole (after the kick off) to the seventh town of Driggs, Wyoming. They would go to town, race in a circuit, come back and have a dinner, do some fund raising and start again the next day. 

Winter Carnival is one of the biggest events in Jackson each January and the highlight is the international Pedigree Stage Stop Sled Dog Race. The event starts on the Town Square and is the longest dog sled race in the lower 48 states winding thorough Wyoming and ending up in Park City, Utah. The race was founded by veteran Iditarod musher, Frank Teasley, in 1996.

“It’s one of the biggest events in Jackson,” she said. “They haul in snow (using the road) and every year make a path for the dogs.”

Torgerson drove the “B” team and got her dogs from nine times worldwide champion dog breeder and racers, Streeper Dog Kennel out of Fort Nelson, British Columbia. “They have about 250 dogs and 50 puppies. They are professional sled dog racing kennels. They’re one of the only ones who can do it.” 

Surpisingly, the species of dogs are not purebred Huskies. “Siberian Huskies and other similar breeds are bred with specific hounds to create the “Alaskan Husky” or “Racing sled dog.” They have speed and endurance.” They are short haired, better for this region and have to be trained out of their “hound impulses.” They are so well trained, all 44 of the (usually) free ranging hounds can be released to play and stretch and will stay right by her. 

The total range was 300 miles. “We ran three miles from under the Jackson arch,” said Torgerson for the ceremonial start. “It was pitch dark out!” They wear headlamps and Jackson has streetlights. The route covered Jackson, Alpine, Pinedale, Kemmerer, Big Piney, Lander and Driggs. “The whole event is nine days. There are social events, fund raising, we talk in classrooms if we have time.” 

Torgerson ran into some hairy moments. At one circuit, “I was going around and had to turn around twice. There were multiple tangles, breaking a runner, bagging a dog (too tired-put in the sled). It was a come to truth moment: get it done and be in charge! My dogs and another team were getting tangled. I hooked the other team with me.” 

She was using a prototype runner. “I could hear it cracking.” Her response was reflexive. “I grabbed hold of the sled, yanking it backward, unhooked the snow hook and freed both teams.” She says calmly, “You have to be very focused.” It could easily have tipped and been a disaster. 

A high moment was getting past the first stages to Stage 3. “My first and only clean stage of the race and I placed second for the day. It was the worst racing conditions some of the mushers have ever seen, even being compared to the Iditarod, with a white out storm for about a third of the stage.” Proof of the struggle shows in the snow build up on the dogs’ faces. 

The emotion of the event is evident as she talked about her dogs afterwards. She says of a photo, “This is at the end of the race when I am about to part with the dogs who have gotten me through thick and thin. Shelby, brownish grey dog, my best leader, is a true inspiration. She crosses the line of young but experienced. I could not have asked for a better partner. She is the one that got me home during the white out of the Teton County stage. When I couldn’t see the front 6 dogs she found and followed the train home.”

She observes, “It is a surreal feeling to have to trust an animal who’s intelligence has been long debated, but the defining difference between the science and reality is the heart of these dogs. The science may contradict their ability but I have complete faith that her and all my dogs’ hearts will never let me or anyone else down.”  

Of necessity, Torgerson has built her own dog sled. “Because of my light weight, I can’t use a regular sled. It’s like being on the end of a whip! It’s the most innovative and lightweight sled in the world.”

She’s devised a ratcheting system so you can adjust the runners. The biggest asset, “is the curve up front.” It puts less strain on dogs for bigger power in the back. The positions of the dogs are generally limited but with her sled she can put the big dogs in the back where they should be for greatest power. 

“You can tighten the runners to make the sled go straight up and down-it’s really incredible. If it’s windy, tighten them to go in a straight line.” 

More and more women are competing. Torgenson says they are like jockeys, lighter and just as fast. “As long as you can do the muscle work-it’s becoming a women’s sport.” 

Besides being very physical, it is very psychological. “You have to make sure the dogs stay confident. If there are no leaders, there is no team. The dogs scream and scream beforehand, wanting to go. It’s not an issue of getting them going, it’s an issue of keeping them going.” 

 The Jackson race “has endurance, speed, and skill to mush over multiple days. The Iditarod has endurance and skill. Sprinting is speed not endurance. She says the ultimate comparable race is “The Pas,” in Manitoba, Canada. “It is intense but at a different level. You can have as many dogs as you want. The Streepers will run a 24 dog line there.”

Torgerson has developed a love of the environment following in her dad’s direction. “He runs a wildfire (protection) company that protects houses during wildfires all over the country.”

A future career goal is “to be an environmental engineer. I love math.” 

As far as encouraging others to try mushing she recommends they go ahead, “If you’re slightly crazy!” 

The Carbon County News

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