Race to the Sky, Montana's biggest dogsled race going through the Swan Valley. 2008, MT, Montana Legacy Project, Working Lands, Seeley Lake, Swan Valley, Ted Wood
© Ted Wood

How one kid found his sport—in 'The Call of the Wild'

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It all started with The Call of the Wild.

Spencer Bruggeman was 11 when he read Jack London’s classic tale about a sled dog in gold rush-era Alaska. London’s stories have inspired generations of young readers, so he probably wasn’t the first kid to finish the book and ask his parents if he could start racing dogsleds. What’s more unusual is that they said yes.  

Brett and Suzette Bruggeman were already on the lookout for creative ways to help their son get active outside: he has a vascular condition that makes it hard for him to accumulate muscle on one of his legs. “Spencer had been out for football and some of the traditional sports in school, but he was getting frustrated with those,” says Brett. “So when he asked us about dogsledding, we said, ‘Might as well give it a try.’”

No one in the family knew anything about mushing (beyond what’d they’d gathered from Jack London). So Brett and Spencer paid a visit to the home of a musher who lives near their home outside Great Falls, Montana. He showed them how to line up the team of dogs and harness them to the sled, where to stand on the runners, and how to steer. Then they were off.

“Our first run was a bright, moonlit night—we didn’t even need lights,” Spencer remembers. “After we hit the trail, it got so quiet. The dogs were all working together. It was a really magical feeling, running with them.” 

Brett hasn’t forgotten that first ride, either. “We got hooked right away.”

Spencer Bruggeman and teamBrett and Spencer are a team—though Spencer sometimes races solo. “It's a little nerve-wracking knowing he's out there alone," Brett says, "but he's been woods-wise from a young age."Photo credit: Skinny Leg Sled Dogs

The father-son duo adopted their own dogs and started entering races in Montana and Wyoming. These days they’re winning quite a few events—but their real pride and joy is the family kennel, Skinny Leg Sled Dogs. Together, Brett and Spencer now care for about 40 animal athletes, all of which they know by name. “You really get to know them when you’re out on long races or trips,” Spencer says. “You get close to them and learn their personalities.”

Brett and Suzette are proud of Spencer’s dedication to the dogs, and impressed with his skill. “He’s a better musher than me,” says Brett. “He stays calm and quiet when he’s on the sled, even in difficult situations—we’ve been out in some serious blizzards, but he doesn’t get worked up. The dogs feel that and they respond really well to him.”

For his part, Spencer acknowledges he doesn’t know many other 15-year-olds who put so much time into their hobbies. “It feels good to accomplish something and be good at it, considering my birth defect,” he says. “I like always having something to work toward.”

mt_montanalegacy_02152008_024.jpgThe Trust for Public Land has helped protect 310,000 acres for national forests in western Montana, safeguarding public access to trails that serve not only mushers, but hikers, bikers, snowshoers, and skiers, too. Photo Credit: © Ted Wood

This past weekend, Spencer was the youngest-ever musher to compete on the 300-mile course at this weekend's Race to the Sky, an annual event in Montana's Seeley-Swan Valley. Situated between the Mission Mountains and the Swan Range, the valley is a beautiful—and challenging—spot for a race: it's a qualifier for the Iditarod up in Alaska, drawing teams from around the country. Even so, Race to the Sky has a community feel. Neighbors rally behind their hometown dogs and mushers, and about a hundred volunteers help everything run smoothly. Racers even visit local classrooms to introduce students to their sport—and their canine teammates.

Brett and Spencer say running the kennel together has helped them stay close—although these days, Spencer is starting to hear the call of college. He admits he'll probably have to put racing on hold while he gets his degree, but he's hoping to race the Iditarod first. In the three years before he'll be old enough to enter, he'll have a training partner he can rely on. “My dad and I have been in a few situations with our dogs where we’ve had to put our lives in each other’s hands,” Spencer says. “And through that I’ve learned that we can trust each other pretty much unconditionally.”

Spencer and Brett BruggemanBrett congratulates Spencer at the finish line of a race near Jackson, Wyoming. Spencer was just 12 when he ran his first solo 100-mile race. This weekend, he was the youngest person to compete on the 300-mile course at Montana's Race to the Sky.Photo credit: Skinny Leg Sled Dogs


Johanna Lakin Thomas
Are public lands need to be protected for future generations.
Judy Nagorski
I'm happy so many of all ages are finding ways to enjoy the natural wonders that this country has to offer and President Obama fought and accomplished more to protect than any other President since Teddy Roosevelt! That's why, among the many other things I detest about the current administration, is there determination to undo all the good of the past 8yrs resulting in the very real destruction of all the beauty, depletion of our resources, contamination of the land air and water(DAPL denying Climate Change) and slaughter of innocent lives(repealing all gun reform and animal rights laws allowing the abuse torture and killing of both wild and domestic animals (dogs cats etc) and in those areas where hunting is permitted in suburban areas, children even within their homes(high powered ammunition can penetrate)with no accountability! So PLEASE those who have been fortunate to enjoy the blessings of this country-STAND UP LET YOUR VOICE BE HEARD AND FIGHT TO PROTECT IT AND THE INNOCENT LIVES WITH WHOM YOU SHARE IT!
Mary Finelli
I appreciate the good work that The Trust for Public Land does but I resent this promotion of canine exploitation. Dogs are too often victimized in races like these, including being raced to death, housed outside in subfreezing conditions, etc. There are countless ways to enjoy nature, including with our canine friends, without harming animals. Please do not promote or support animal abuse.
John Bollard
Stopping the cancer of urban sprawl into prime farmland, view property and mature forest areas would be my biggest concern. I have witnessed the complete destruction of thousands of acres of priceless real estate during my lifetime and while national monuments and wilderness preserves are great, to many of them are in the middle of areas that do not see the pressures and changes that suburbia sees. These so called monuments only frustrate the ranchers and farmers who make a living in ways that leave minimal impact to the environment. Meanwhile the urban boundaries are expanding exponentially and the surrounding countryside is being decimated by a small handful of the wealthiest under the false guise of economic growth development and employment. That is where I would put a large part of my conservation funding and support
I read a similar book that got me into mushing, I'm 17 now but I was 6 when I started!!

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