Work dogs in pickup truck beds are an everyday sight in downtown Joseph, a ranching community in northeastern Oregon. But on January 13th, Main Street gets overrun with a whole different breed. That’s when over 100 sled dogs come to town for opening day of the Eagle Cap Extreme.

No trot in the woods, the Eagle Cap Extreme sled dog race is a qualifier for the Iditarod and runs though the largest wilderness in Oregon. Each dog team and its musher competes in high alpine terrain on a 100-mile (8 dogs) or 200-mile (12 dogs) course. Either way, the distances are vast, the slopes are steep and the challenge is beyond extreme.

If you thought dogs only pulled sleds on the Alaskan tundra, the Eagle Cap Extreme gets you up close to a way-out sport. Sled dog racing originated in Alaska where it was a standard form of transportation for native people before snow machines. The Iditarod, inspired after an urgent serum-by-dog-sled run to Nome averting a diptheria epidemic in 1925, is the most famous race of all. Along with long-distance races in Alaska and Canada, there are now sled dog events (some of them dryland races) in 13 states in the Lower 48, including Ohio and New Jersey.

Oregon’s Eagle Cap Extreme, an all-volunteer effort in its sixth year, runs from January 13-16 and is free and open to the public. The first day offers awe-inspiring opportunities to meet the mushers, see the sleds and pet the puppies. After the day-long “Vet Checks” in Joseph and Enterprise, there’s a barbecue dinner at 6 p.m. where you can mingle with mushers, officials, organizers and community members at Race Central (a.k.a. Joseph Community Center).

Starting at 9 a.m. on Wednesday the 13th, below Chief Joseph Mountain, a stand-still parade of trucks lines Main Street. A lightweight sled tops each pickup and in the bed are stacked waterproof boxes, each with a dinner-plate-sized hole. You’ll discover the purpose of these boxes as soon as you walk by and out pokes a warm, wet-tipped snout.

Tethered to the mushers’ trucks, the dogs tolerate the spectators’ interest while waiting their turn with the veterinarians going on rounds. “Vet Check” is festive and energy-charged, but this is serious business: Each puppy must be found perfectly fit to perform in this high-risk race.

The first thing you’ll notice is that these are not hulking Hollywood film sled dogs. Sleek and short-haired, they’re bred for endurance from special mixes of Alaskan Husky, Malamute and many others. You can see their muscles contract and relax as they pace, but they are amazingly mellow, gentle enough for a toddler to pet (ask first) and attuned to their mushers’ every gesture.

The mushers, too, are an unexpected breed. Ruddy-faced, the men and women stand by their trucks and welcome the curiosity of the fans. They love the support as much as the school kids love the dogs. Most of the veteran racers hold day jobs while committing untold hours and resources to the training and care of their elite puppies. Once the race begins, there are several check point rest stops along with food and water breaks. The whole thing is more arduous than a marathon, and they do it in weather conditions when the rest of us wouldn’t venture to the store.

After the morning in Joseph, the sled dog teams high tail it to Enterprise, five miles away. This gives you time to take in your surroundings, a stunning winter mountainscape rivaling the Alps. If you’re not up for cross-country skiing or snowshoeing at Wallowa State Park (rentals for both available at Joseph Hardware), you can browse fair-trade gifts at To Zion or book a massage or facial at Beecrowbee before dinner.

Of course, you can always sip away the afternoon at Embers Brewhouse where there’s a stunning vista into the Eagle Cap Wilderness. While sampling a pint of local Terminal Gravity beer, gaze into the wild and imagine spending a night—or two—running a team of dogs you love like family up to elevations of 7,000 feet and back down again safely.

By then, you’ll be hooked enough on the sport to stay at one of the many bed and breakfasts for the remaining three days of excitement. From there, you’ll be well-poised to head nine miles from town on Thursday morning to Ferguson Ridge Ski Area. Parking shuttles begin at 10:30 a.m. so that you can mingle with the dog teams once again until just before starting time at 1:30 p.m.

What & Where
Eagle Cap Extreme  (P.O. Box 121, Joseph; 541-426-SLED (7533); www.eaglecapextreme.com)
To Zion (204 N. Main St, Joseph; 541-432-0745)
Beecrowbee
(1 S. Main St, Joseph; 541-432-0158; www.beecrowbee.com)
Embers Brewhouse (204 N. Main St, Joseph; 541-432-2739)

Click here for a Bed & Breakfast Guide

Getting There: Joseph is reached from Interstate I-84 on State Highway 82, 90 minutes from LaGrande, Oregon.