Brett Bruggeman cares for his team at a checkpoint along the route of the Iditarod in Alaska. (Photo: Submitted by Suzette Bruggeman)
Montana musher Brett Bruggeman is more than a week into the Iditarod and is racing better than ever.
There have been a disappointment or two on the trail, but the Great Falls dental professional continues the drive to Nome, Alaska, as the “Last Great Race” nears completion.
“He’s doing extremely well for his second year,” said Suzette Bruggeman from her Great Falls home. “He’s running steady in the middle of the pack.”
Brett’s wife is home taking care of the other musher in the family, 17-year-old Spencer, who is recovering from mononucleosis. She’s also handling chores at Skinny Leg Sled Dogs, the family’s kennel of Alaskan Huskies that numbers more than three dozen racing dogs.
Fourteen of them started the race a week ago with Brett, who on Monday afternoon was running in 21st place among the 47 mushers still in the field. Last year as an Iditarod rookie, the former college football linebacker who has made his home in Great Falls for several decades finished 39th.
“He’s been in the top of the middle-of-the-packers this week, which is very respectable,” Suzette said. “He’s been running with some of the greats, Jeff King and Lance Mackey.”
Then Suzette, who met her 48-year-old husband more than 25 years ago at Brigham Young University, laughed softly.
“He’s so tough,” she said. “I think he’s doing great, but he’s such a passionate and driven person.”
Great Falls musher Brett Bruggeman cares for one of his dogs in Alaska this week, where he is competing in the Iditarod. (Photo: Submitted by Suzette Bruggeman)
So it’s safe to say Brett, who last month won the Race To The Sky in Lincoln and has steadily made great strides in his sled-dog racing career, isn’t satisfied.
“Would he tell you he’s doing as well as probably had hoped? Probably not,” Suzette said.
As of mid-day Monday, Brett and his team had traveled about 700 miles. The 1,000-mile race from Anchorage to Nome ends this week, with the leaders expected to finish on Wednesday morning. Brett will likely reach the finish line Thursday morning, Suzette said.
Suzette was in Anchorage a week ago for the start of the race, then she came home to care for her family and the dogs. She’s also regularly updated people via a Facebook blog on her “Skinny Leg Sled Dogs’ page that has about 6,500 followers.
She’s gotten a few text messages from her husband on the trail.
“He does have a GPS that has texting capabilities,” she said. “But it’s complicated to use because there is no screen, he has to take off gloves and then there’s weather to deal with … It’s a really cumbersome process. I haven’t heard from him a lot, but I have heard from him.”
Two of Brett’s dogs have suffered minor injuries in the last week and are no longer racing. One of them is “Scabs,” who has a special place in the Bruggeman hearts.
Suzette has written about all of the dogs on her Facebook page, followers of which range from friends and family in Montana to sled-dog racing fans across the country and beyond.
“Our dogs have become characters in this saga that people all over the world are following,” Suzette said.
The story of “Scabs” is a tale of trust, perseverance and love.
“Brett got him as a puppy,” Suzette said. “He was very aggressive but shy and stand-offish around others. He’d hide, and couldn’t get along with other dogs. We thought we’d have to give him away.”
Instead Brett gave “Scabs” one last shot.
“He spent a month with one-on-one obedience training in the back yard,” Suzette said. “Brett taught Scabs to sit and heel, and through the process of all that training they developed trust in each other. It spilled over into the sled-dog training and Scabs went from the middle of the game line all the way up and has become Brett’s best leader.”
Indeed, Scabs is one of the top racing dogs in the world.
Famed Montana musher Jessie Royer borrowed Scabs on two of her fine Iditarod runs, and last year the dog led Brett’s team to a solid finish. But Scabs suffered a shoulder injury and Brett left the dog with care-takers while he pushed on for Nome.
“I knew he’d dropped a dog off the team and when I found out it was Scabs I was heartbroken,” Suzette said. “That was a big loss. Scabs is also Brett’s emotional support, the animal he gets his strength from when times are tough. He’s an amazing trail-finder. When other teams quit, this leader Scabs is able to find the trail.”
Scabs is receiving great care while his injury heals, Suzette said.
“We truly love our animals,” she said. “Brett didn’t want to push him more than he can handle.”
The team racing in front of Brett is not the only squad of Skinny Leg Sled Dogs in Alaska. In the weeks prior to the race, musher Emily Maxwell was in need of a team. So she contacted Brett, whom she’d met on the trail a year ago when both were Iditarod rookies.
Brett agreed to let Emily use a team of young dogs from Skinny Leg Sled Dogs, the kennel just outside of Great Falls on the Bruggeman homesite.
But Emily dropped out of the race after two days. Suzette wrote a blog about Emily and the Skinny Leg Sled Dog “youngsters.” Here is a portion of it:
“Traveling at the back of the pack, by the time Emily and the youngster(s) reached the infamous TUSSOCKS, that portion of the trail was worn bare by all the previous sled runners and dragmats coming through. Emily’s sled kept getting stuck on the tussocks. With all the stopping and going, it became clear to Emily that the race was no longer fun for the youngsters, so in their best interest, she made the decision to call it. In no way have Emily or the youngsters failed. The dogs were exposed to new country and conditions and traveled much further than they’ve ever gone before. Emily exercised wisdom and prudence, giving our dogs an excellent education and a wonderful experience, until it simply wasn’t fun for them anymore.”
Suzette said her family continues to be amazed by the interest and affection folks have had for the Skinny Leg Sled Dogs story, named for an ailment to Spencer that affected muscle growth in one of his legs. As a 10-year-old, Spencer couldn’t play football. When he read “The Call of The Wild” he suggested his family get into the sled-dog racing business.
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A kennel – and a passion – was born.
“My life has also become so absorbed in this,” Suzette said. “We’ve received so much support from all over the world, it’s just amazing how many people are involved in our story.”
She said that is heartwarming.
The Iditarod awards banquet is Sunday. Brett is expected to arrive back in Great Falls at the airport about 1 p.m. on Monday.