Image: Sol Neelman

It begins with noise: dogs baying in anticipation, bundled locals cheering, a crude speaker system blaring “Who Let the Dogs Out.” But within minutes, silence: a quiet chorus of panting, the muted patter of paws in snow, the icy sluice of toboggan rails, and the occasional whistle piercing thin, frigid air. Ahead lie 200 miles of trail: through trackless, virgin snow, over 6,000-foot mountain passes, dropping into gaping canyons, and through the brawny timber of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. Ahead lie 45 hours of quiet.

The Eagle Cap Extreme is Oregon’s only qualifier for Alaska’s renowned Iditarod. The all-volunteer sled dog race, celebrating its 10th anniversary this winter, launches from Joseph, a town of 1,000 nestled on the eastern flank of the Wallowas. For four days each January, the self-dubbed “Little Switzerland of America” teems with competitive mushers. Racers from across the country flock to the ECX for its rugged, demanding terrain—26,000 feet of elevation gain in Oregon’s largest wilderness—and its unparalleled backdrop of alpine scenery.

But this race isn’t really about mere humans. It’s about dogs: petite, muscular, highly attuned teams of Alaskan husky, Siberian husky, and malamute who just want to run...and run. Perhaps surprising, qualifying for a race like the Iditarod isn’t about clocking an impressive race time—it’s about convincing the veterinarians and race officials that you can deliver a healthy team of 12 dogs to the finish line. As race marshal and Iditarod veteran Terry Hinesly says, “These are the best-cared-for athletes in the world.”

Check out a slide show of photos from the 2013 Eagle Cap Extreme below, or head eastward to see it for yourself, January 22 thru 25, 2014, eaglecapextreme.com

The day before the race begins, downtown Joseph hums with activity, both human and canine. Locals flood the streets as busloads of schoolkids arrive from neighboring towns to meet the mushers and their teams during “Vet Check.” For the pre-race checkup, volunteer veterinarians go kennel to kennel, thoroughly examining every dog who will run the race, checking temperature, heart rate, and overall body condition.