WILLOW — Nine local women participated in the Ladie’s 5 Mile/5 Dog Twilight race at the 59th annual Willow Winter Carnival Jan. 25.

Despite the below zero conditions, mushers like Michele Forto had a great time in this low key, community-oriented race. She rode across the Willow Lake to the finish line as the sun set behind her.

“It was beautiful, just beautiful,” Forto said.

Like many of the locals, Forto and her husband Robert raise sled dogs. She said that she has over 20 years of handling experience and participated in countless races across Alaska and Colorado.

The Twilight race was one of several mushing events Winter Carnival goers went to over the weekend, with more to come this coming weekend. Forto said that she enjoyed the “friendly competition” aspect and she knew most of the participating women. She said the mushing theme works perfectly for the Winter Carnival and reflects the history of the surrounding community.

“I think it’s appropriate,” Forto said. “It’s what put Willow on the map…. I think it keeps the mushing spirit alive.”

Jessi Downey cuddled with her five seasoned dogs after the Twilight race. She said she used a group of older dogs and this was probably their “last hoorah” as far as competition goes.

“They like the couch more than the saddle now,” Downey said with a laugh.

Downey started mushing competitively when she was 15 years old. Her first exposure to the sport was during the Willow Jr. 100 Sled Dog Race. She’s currently training her dogs for the Willow 300 and the Kobuk 440.

“I think they’re ready,” Downey said.

Downey’s mother Marianne Schoppmeyer was the event organizer. She said it’s important to get as many kids involved in mushing as they can and events like this help promote that.

“It’s important to keep this going,” Schoppmeyer said.

Downey is working to keep the mushing spirit as a young musher and mentor to even younger mushers. One of her junior riders, 13-year-old Jace Cogdill, participated in the Kids Sled Dog Race earlier in the afternoon.

“I’m really proud of her,” Schoppmeyer said.

Like his mentor, Cogdill started entering mushing competitions at a young age with the Willow Jr. 100 Race. He knew most of the local kids he raced amongst and said that most of them started mushing for the same reason as him.

“I like dogs. I like the cold,” Cogdill said.

The final weekend of the Willow Winter Carnival starts Friday and runs through Sunday.

Willow Area Community Organization volunteers host this annual winter tradition at the Willow Community Center with the support of numerous locals across the community.

Admission is free of charge and there’s just a $1 parking fee.

Visit the Willow Area Community Organization’s website for a full event and activity schedule at waco-ak.org. For more information, call 907-495-6633.

The Willow 300 is this Thursday, starting at 10 a.m. For the most up to date information, search “Willow 300 Sled Dog Race 2020” for the official Facebook page.

Contact Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman reporter Jacob Mann at jacob.mann@frontiersman.com

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