When Ryne Olson saw temperatures hovering around 60-below zero during parts of the Copper Basin 300 sled dog race Monday, she started to question herself as mind games danced in her head. All she wanted to do was finish the grueling race. It was her team, a group of eight dogs, that kept moving forward.
Olson, a 2007 Durango High School graduate who moved in 2010 to Two Rivers, Alaska, took third at the Copper Basin 300 and was the first female finisher. The race, a grueling 288 miles, is considered to be a mid-distance and is known for delivering extreme conditions, as temperatures reached 56-below zero in some places.
When temperatures began to drop, Olson and her team, alongside fellow Ryno Kennel musher Kalyn Holl, did not panic. The conditions leading up to the race helped prepare them for what was ahead.
Olson’s decade-long career includes an Iditarod in 2012, six Copper Basins and a handful of Yukon Quests. The 30-year-old’s Copper Basin feat was her best finish since 2017, when she won the race. She has also taken second place, third, fourth and was 13th last year before bouncing back Monday.
“It’s kind of daunting to think about,” Olson said. “I mean, it’s not something that if you decide you don’t want to do you can just stop doing it. It’s a lifestyle; you’ve made a commitment to the dogs. Even if I don’t race, I still have 40 dogs who need exercise and attention, veterinary bills and need to be well fed. You’re not so much choosing to race, you’re choosing to lead the lifestyle of a musher.”
Olson, daughter of Katy and Mike Olson, is able to return to Durango around every other year. She is the owner of Ryno Kennel and is in charge of 43 dogs, and 26 are race-ready. She also co-owns Last Frontier Mushing Co-op, a tourism expedition company.
Now, it’s race season, and Olson has set her eyes on her next race, the Yukon Quest. If the Copper Basin 300 is considered to be grueling, the Quest is an entirely different class of racing. The race is a 1,000-mile gauntlet that has roots dating back to 1983 and typically takes 10-16 days to complete. It will begin Feb. 1 in Fairbanks, Alaska, and will finish in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, in Canada.
In the short two-week period between races, Olson and her team will be busy with logistics. Over the course of the race, she will rely on drop bags, a lifeline of sled dog racing. Since returning Wednesday to Two Rivers, she and her team will have had to prepare 2,000 pounds of essential gear by Saturday that will be staged at various checkpoints by race volunteers.
With the dogs burning 10-12,000 calories a day racing, Olson and her team have to monitor their diets. If it’s cold, the 14-dog race team will eat fattier foods; fish such as salmon when it’s warm. Olson said she spends roughly $40,000 on dog food alone each year.
“We wanted to come back, relax and catch up on sleep a little bit, but with the Quest coming up, we just immediately transitioned into that,” Olson said. “The dogs are just kind of hanging out, eating a lot, resting. Once we get the drop bags done, we’ll do some light, easy stretch-out runs. We might do a few more longer runs in preparation, but Copper Basin was a race but also a training run before the Quest.”
Each dog wears booties that get changed at a new stage of the race. In order to run a 1,000-mile race such as the Quest, Olson said mushers can spend up to $15,000. As a result, most mushers have day jobs, and dogs are sponsored by individuals.
Setting the “roster” for the race is also a unique challenge, as she has to consider the dogs’ psyche. In order to be in the running, the team has to strike the right balance between young and old – an experienced dog that knows the trail or an energetic speedster.
Mushers wouldn’t necessarily pick the same dogs for a 300-mile race as a 1,000-miler. Olson said her team at the Quest, where her best finish is ninth, will range from a 2-year-old she raised as a puppy entering the big leagues attempting its first 1,000-mile race, to a seasoned veteran 8-year-old close to entering retirement.
“The prime age for a 1,000-mile dog is 3 and 8,” Olson said. “So, a 2-year old is definitely on the younger side. They are physically capable of doing it, but they aren’t always mentally mature. They might go out of the chute a little too hard. It’s like the freshman in college who parties every night and burns themselves out a little bit versus the dogs that are a little more mature. They know that they have to work hard. There’s still 10 days of this, so let’s pace ourselves a little bit more.
“It’s nice to have that youth. You have that new kid on the team who’s just screaming their head off, so fired up and getting the team pumped up, but you also don’t want a whole team of dogs like that. You definitely need a team of experienced dogs that know the trail and know what’s around the next corner.”
Over the years, Olson has learned to rely on her friends in the sport, many of whom aren’t even racing competitively. Some do it to see a different part of the state or visit different communities on the various checkpoints. Those that race competitively are looking to add extra cash in their pockets, as a $2,000 purse awaits at the finish line for the Quest winner. Still, Olson said covering vast amounts of territory with fellow mushers makes it much easier.
“The community is very close-knit,” she said. “Everyone loves dogs and wants to be out there because of the dogs and the sport. You have all of that in common and it makes for an amazing community. You have a lot of very tough people who thrive in extreme temperatures, and it’s a very cool and unbelievably unique community.”
After the Quest, Olson will lead expedition tours of interior Alaska in the spring once the racing season comes to an end in late February. After spending a decade in Alaska, Olson isn’t fazed by Alaska’s sub-zero conditions, long routes or the financial challenges that come with her job. After all, Olson is a musher, and a proud one at that.
“I don’t foresee myself ever getting out of the mushing lifestyle, but the racing side of things, sure that might run its course eventually,” she said. “I mean it’s like, where else can you have 40 dogs and you’re not considered crazy? You’re just like, oh you’re just a musher, that’s totally fine. It works out.”