The air atop Casper Mountain was filled with shrieks, howls and a steady stream of easy-listening tunes early Saturday morning as families, volunteers and hundreds of hyped-up dogs gathered for the 19th annual Casper Mountain Sled Dog Race.
More than 70 competitors signed up for the charity race, braving a snowy forecast and subfreezing temperatures for the chance to strap their dogs to a sled and race across the top of the mountain, beginning and ending at Bear Trap Meadow.
The crowd featured seasoned veterans and young children, too, some not much taller than the Alaskan malamutes and Siberian huskies preparing to rip across the miles of groomed trails before them.
Saturday was Day One of the event, which is organized by the nonprofit Canines for Charity. Races continue Sunday morning.
Pam Dunn has never missed a Casper Mountain Sled Dog Race in its 19-year history, partly because she founded Canines for Charity and organizes the event each year and partly because she enjoys racing herself.
“I’ve been racing since 1986,” Dunn said, her race number pinned to her chest.
She started when a friend invited her and her one Siberian husky to try it out.
“Now I’ve got 28,” she said.
Mark Stephens, of Hartsel, Colo., also hasn’t missed the race in Casper since the mountain began hosting the event in 1995. Stephens weathers the vicious winds down I-25 to make the trip each year, his dogs riding in a large trailer behind his truck.
“You know it’s bad coming up here when you see the semis tipped in the ditch,” he said.
Stephens competed in the six-dog, 6-mile race Saturday. Other events range from an eight-dog, 15-mile race to the one-mile ski-jor, where a competitor on cross-country skis is pulled behind one to three dogs.
Stephens recalled one race when he and his team of dogs lost the trail and ended up circling behind a house and through a large backyard.
“We eventually found the trail again,” Stephens said. “But I had no idea whether to go right or left, so I let the dogs choose.”
He said the dogs chose the correct direction, and he ended up finishing in second place.
“When I told Pam I blew the trail, she said, 'Don’t worry about it, you probably did more miles,’” he said.
While the charity event has a friendly, relaxed atmosphere, some serious mushers make the trip up Casper Mountain for the event, including Jen Juneau of Estes Park, Colo., who used to race but is now the event’s grand marshal.
Juneau said she enjoys the race in Casper because it is a family event and children can participate in the smaller loops along with the adults.
For Juneau, dog sledding is a family affair, and her daughter has competed in the Junior Yukon Quest, a 135-mile race, and the Junior Iditarod, a roughly 150-mile race, both in Alaska, she said.
For every veteran there was a beginner in the crowd.
Allyssa Biffle, 18, of Glenrock, had never competed in a sled dog race before her run in a 1-mile loop Saturday.
“I’m terrified,” she said before a pre-race mushers meeting.
The award for farthest from home at the race likely went to Michael Cagle, 23, of Texas.
Cagle attended as a volunteer, helping line up dogs and doing other tasks throughout the day.
He traveled to Casper this weekend by way of Laramie, where he is studying diesel mechanics at Wyoming Technical Institute.
“I think this is great,” Cagle said. “We get to help out the community and also get some enjoyment out of it.”
What brought Cagle to Wyoming from Texas?
“The cold," he said. "I’ve always liked the cold, and I love the weather here.”
Money raised through race sign-up fees and a Saturday night banquet and auction benefits the Youth Crisis Center in Casper, which provides intervention and shelter for abused, neglected and homeless children.