In the snow-covered hills outside of Seeley Lake, Montana, the excited barks of more than 50 Alaskan Huskies echoed through the open land. Each dog anxiously jumped around its kennel, hoping for a spot on a 12-dog sled.
The one who fills these 12 spots is University of Montana student, Erik Oline.
Oline is a 23-year-old junior at UM. He grew up in Ashland, Oregon, and moved to Montana in 2017.
Oline works at the lodge of veteran musher Jessie Royer, who is currently competing in the Iditarod, the worlds largest dog sled race. At Royer’s lodge in Seeley Lake, Oline spends his weekends caring for the dogs while giving sled tours to customers.
Oline was first introduced to dog sledding by a man in a bar who worked for Royer as well. Oline met Royer soon after his introduction to the sport and began working for her.
Oline started working for Royer during the COVID-19 pandemic and spent his time outdoors.
“It’s really nice having a getaway,” Oline said. “There’s nothing else you need to worry or think about when you’re out there.”
As a natural resource conservation major at UM, Oline’s love of the outdoors carries into his studies. Oline is taking 21 credits this semester, and he says balancing schoolwork with the job keeps him busy. But, despite his hefty credit load, Oline says working with the dogs is worth the time.
“It’s really nice being able to get out there and think about that one thing you really enjoy… which is running dogs,” Oline said.
In addition to helping care for the dogs, Oline races too. He competed in his first race during February of last year at the annual Race to the Sky in Idaho. He also competed in two 300-mile races this past year, placing fourth and second.
“Even though it’s a competitive sport, there definitely is a very strong community aspect,” Oline said.
One person who echoes this point is Pam Bekstrom.
Bekstrom is a senior board member for the Race to the Sky. Bekstrom’s late husband Jack was the founder of the race, and she has played an instrumental part in planning the event since its beginning in 1986.
Bekstrom said planning the race requires a lot of work, but locals and some volunteers from UM help put it all together.
“It takes pretty much a year to put on the race,” Bekstrom said. “It’s a bunch of teamwork.”
Bekstrom met Oline during his first Race to the Sky, and she was impressed by his mushing abilities.
“He just soaked it up and really was a natural,” Bekstrom said.
Oline hopes to one day take his talents to the Iditarod, which he describes as “the Super Bowl of dog sled races.” This annual 1,049-mile race takes place in Alaska, beginning in Anchorage and ending in Nome. Oline’s mentor Royer is in 13th place in the race as of March 14.
Oline has yet to even attend an Iditarod, but he supports his mentor Royer, who is competing in her 20th Iditarod, from afar.
Oline plans to keep training, competing, and loving the sport. For now, Oline is watching Royer compete in the 50th annual Iditarod, dreaming of one day crossing that finish line himself.