Sled dogs provide bond for Great Falls father and son

to play

Brett Bruggeman was a linebacker at BYU and two of his sons were standout football players at CM Russell High.

A third son, Spencer, had his football dreams derailed by a birth defect that prevented muscle growth in one of his legs.

It wasn’t easy for the youngest son of a footballing family to learn he couldn’t play.

“There are people who face much more difficult things,” Brett says softly. “Spencer has many other gifts. He is a very bright boy.

He stops for a moment.

“But it was really heartbreaking to watch him try to play football. He was trying to make a tackle and didn’t quite have the speed to do it. He was always jumping instead of running because he could go more quickly that way. It was hard to see him discouraged with that.

These days the dogs run for Spencer. And also for his father.

BRETT BRUGGEMAN is making plans for the Iditarod, the famous annual “last big race” in Alaska which begins in two weeks.

“Spencer,” says Brett, “is the one who started it all.”

His football career ended at 11, Spencer considered other sports. It was five years ago.

“We were trying to think of a sport he could do,” Brett says. “I didn’t know it at the time, but he had read Jack London’s book ‘Call of the Wild.'”

At the same time, unbeknownst to Spencer, Brett was reading a book about sled dogs and the Yukon Gold Rush.

So one day, on his way home from sixth grade, Spencer told his mother that he would like to race sled dogs.

“You spoke to your father,” Suzette Bruggeman told her son. “Did he make you do this?”

Spencer, of course, shook her head.

“And two weeks later we had 10 dogs,” Brett explains. “That’s how it started. Now Spencer has a team and I have a team and we do practice runs together and run races together.

FAMILY opened a kennel in Spencer’s honor. The name?

Skinny-legged sled dogs.

While Spencer may have a skinny leg, okay, he’s not missing other important areas.

“He’s a much better musher than me,” Brett said.

The dog sled race has been a blessing for this Great Falls family in more ways than one.

“It’s not easy,” Brett said. “But it’s rewarding. And seeing Spencer take care of these dogs on the trail is amazing. And he’s been doing it since he was 11.

IT HAS BEEN SUGGESTED this tenacity is the #1 required attribute for a musher. Brett laughs at the suggestion.

“Either that or don’t be too bright,” he says. “I think you have to be both.”

Clearly, Brett is a superb athlete. He’s been like that all his life. The Iditarod, however, offers a unique set of challenges even for those in the best condition.

Sleep deprivation is one of the most difficult obstacles for a musher.

“In the race to the sky (a few weeks ago),” Brett says, “I slept two hours in three days.”

This is not the only difficulty on the track.

“You’re going to find yourself in bad situations,” he says. “The conditions can be really difficult. It never goes well.

He’s laughing.

“But you can’t get off,” Brett said. “Because dogs erase your emotions. If you’re frustrated, depressed, or angry, they get the same thing. You are there to enjoy it and you have to do it.

BRETT GREW in Idaho in a family where dogs – bird dogs – were important.

The dogs he and Spencer currently own and train are different.

“The #1 thing is their stamina,” Brett says. “They can run 1,000 miles in 10 days. But I guess they really are like most dogs. Some have good personalities and some are difficult to live with.

Of course, mushers grow up close to their dogs.

“Absolutely,” Brett said. “It’s a 24/7 commitment. That’s probably what I enjoy the most… Probably the most rewarding thing is seeing a team come together and work together.

BRETT SAYS the Iditarod never felt realistic.

“I thought it was a pipe dream,” says the 47-year-old. “I never thought it was something I would be able to do. We didn’t even really think about the race at the start. We just wanted to travel with the dogs.

There is an excellent history of mushing, of course, in the Great Falls area. Doug Swingley of Lincoln was a four-time winner, and Terry Adkins and his son Chris of Sand Coulee were both superb sled dog racers.

Brett, who has had significant success in his short mushing career, is hoping to race the Iditarod.

“The first thing is I want to finish it,” Brett says. “I want to finish with a solid team and benefit from the experience. There is no guarantee that I will be able to do it again.

BRETT SAYS his hobby is much more than that.

“It kind of took over my life,” he laughs, “but I’m still working full time.”

He is the owner of Bruggeman Endodontics and specializes in root canal surgery.

The family owns 40 Alaskan Huskies. About half of them will soon be in Alaska for the Iditarod, which is a 16-dog event.

“Scabs” and “Browning” are Brett’s lead dogs.

“Browning is a very smart dog, really does an amazing job of finding the trail,” says Brett. “That’s what makes it special.”

And the scabs?

“He’s always fearless,” Brett says. “He’s not the smartest dog. Can’t find the best path. But no matter what, he’s still shooting and going.

SKINN LEG Sled Dogs are relatively new to the world of mushing. Perhaps the kennel is meant to bring more glory to sled dogs in Great Falls.

Either way, it’s an achievement because of the great father-son relationship she created.

“It’s always been about Spencer,” Brett says.

Then he stops for a moment.

“There are so many memories we’ve made together and I wouldn’t want it any other way,” he says.

Often on Friday afternoons, Brett picks up Spencer and they ferry the dogs to King’s Hill or Lincoln for 50-mile practice runs.

“Fifty miles and then we stop at 1 or 2 a.m. and camp in the snow,” says Brett. “Then the next morning we do another 50 miles back.”

The training links musher and dog – and father and son.

“When we’re out there training together late at night and there’s a full moon…” Brett explains. “I can’t even tell you how awesome it is. And doing it with my son – it’s pretty special.

Mansch On Montana appears most Mondays in the Tribune. Scott Mansch can be reached at 791-1481 or smansch@greatfallstribune.com

Bette C. Alvarado