Mark your calendar for the Eagle Cap Extreme Sled Dog Race, January 22-25, 2020.
Some like to shred the slopes by snowboard or skis; others like to go the distance by snowshoes or snowmobile. Bino Fowler finds his joy in the rugged winter terrain of Oregon another way altogether: He’s part of a proud community of dog sled racers, or “mushers,” as they’re called.
A competitor at the Eagle Cap Extreme Sled Dog Race since its inception in 2005, Fowler, a Sunriver-based electrician by trade, is one of a few Oregon racers to compete at the annual event in Joseph, Eastern Oregon, during the last week of January. (Most hail from other Pacific Northwest states and Canada.)
“It lives up to its name in terms of the extreme part,” says Fowler, who found his calling 20 years ago after moving to Oregon from Phoenix to be a river rafting guide. Now he trains with his dogs on trails just outside his home in Sunriver, and comes to the the rugged Wallowa Mountains as often as he can to compete.
“Between the weather, the beauty and the wildlife — the elk herds, wolves howling — it’s as close to a good test for getting ready for the Iditarod in the lower 48 as anything.”
The race is Oregon’s only qualifier for the famed Iditarod dog sled race in Alaska and the Yukon Quest, the 1,000-mile race from Alaska to Yukon, Canada. Between 10 and 20 teams compete each year, from across the Pacific Northwest and Canada.
Fowler has already qualified for the Iditarod, but prefers to race across the Pacific Northwest and Midwest each winter. At Eagle Cap, he’s has taken home first- or second-place wins in five of the eight of his races since 2005, in both the 100-mile race (which takes 19 hours with eight dogs) and the 200-mile race (which takes 47 hours with 12 dogs).
The race runs through the challenging terrain of the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area and Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, adjacent to the Eagle Cap Wilderness.
“It’s a powerful, spiritual feeling when you’re there,” Fowler says of the people and their connection to the land in Joseph. “They really band together, and know how to celebrate a sporting event.”
As much as racing has been about conquering the elements, Fowler has faced personal challenges. During the recession, Fowler took a couple of years off to start a sled dog tour business and recover from knee surgery. In June 2017, he underwent coronary bypass surgery. But he’s coming back strong in 2018, dedicated to representing Oregon at the race. “Just getting my dog team to the start line is an accomplishment,” he says. “Just being a participant is an honor.”