If you think the yard at Snow Caps Sled Dogs is loud, wait until the handlers bring out the leashes. Full-throated barks from more than 100 dogs rebound off the nearby trees as the dogs jump and twist on their lines, worked into a frenzy of excitement at the mere suggestion of going out on the trail.
It’s that typical husky strength and energy that dog mushers have harnessed for generations to haul them at high speeds across frozen landscapes. But today it’s August, not January, and the ground we stand on is not covered in snow. Nevertheless, two brave souls and I have signed up for Snow Caps’ scooter tour, the summer version of dog sledding dreamed up by owner Orion Paiement. It involves harnessing two sled dogs to a scooter and letting rip as they pull you at high speed over the dirt trails of Snow Caps’ 50-acre property in Swan Valley near Breckenridge.
Think that sounds crazy? It is, but in the best possible way.
Adapting to summer
Paiement’s family has been involved with the kennel for years. His father purchased it in 1994 and, in 1996, teamed up with Good Times Adventures, a partnership that continues today. Paiement took over from his father in 2004 and has worked to grow the business, adding activities such as the summer scooter tour.
The scooter idea came about when Paiement was brainstorming ways to exercise the dogs during the summer. Huskies need to run at least 15 miles per week, he said, no matter the season.
He first conceived the idea of harnessing the dogs to a golf cart, which Snow Caps now offers as a fun family option during the summer. However, Paiement was looking for more.
“I wanted something more exciting,” he said. The next flash of inspiration came when he saw several scooters for sale. He bought them, rigged up a harness and recruited several friends to test them out. The result — it worked, and it was really fun.
Now, it’s the fifth year that Snow Caps has offered the scooter tours. It’s not much more than a rider, the scooter, two hand brakes, ropes and the dogs, making it their highest difficulty level activity, restricted to ages 16 and older.
As much as the Snow Caps folks want to share this activity with people, they want to make sure you know what you’re getting into ahead of time.
“When we’re on the phone with a guest, we’ll tell you how much fun it is, and then we’ll try and talk you out of it,” Paiement said, and he wasn’t kidding. The idea of the scooter tour is to have fun, not to be uncomfortable or frightened. It’s a high-paced activity that’s not for everybody.
Gearing up and going out
Once participants, like our group of three, make it past Paiement’s verbal test, they must then past the physical test, proving they have the proper strength and coordination.
After strapping on helmets, knee pads and gloves, Paiement instructs us to take a few turns downhill, getting used to the scooter and learning how to brake correctly. The dog noise rises to fever pitch as we skid to a halt. They know what’s coming.
Manager Sarah Spalla chooses four dogs. She has to bring them over individually, her hands full of 50-plus pounds of lunging muscle. We participants exchange nervous glances, internally questioning the sanity of strapping ourselves to two of these and then hurtling through the woods.
Finally, it’s time to go. We stand at the start of the trail, one foot on the ground, the other on the board of the scooter, death grip on the hand brakes as the dogs strain at the end of their harnesses. Spalla fires up the lead golf cart and takes off. The dogs lunge forward, and we let them go, shouting “Hike!” as they bound up the trail.
In the end, Spalla was right, the first 100 yards are the hardest. But then something happens. Your dogs hit a rhythm, their loping strides in tandem. You release your breath, unclench your muscles and start to really feel the ride. You steer your way around (or through) various obstacles — mud puddles, ruts and rocks — urging the dogs onward and giving the occasional helpful kick to push the scooter uphill. It’s on the downhill that you really get going, tires singing, trees and scenery whipping by. You start to understand the joy of the dogs, the ultimate release of running all out.
“What they really need is they need to be able to run, to really open up their body, open up their lungs and let themselves run,” Paiement said.
At the end of the run, we were just like the dogs — eyes wide, mouths open, mud-splattered, hearts racing. The barks of the pack welcomed us back. We stepped down, satisfied, but just like the dogs, something tickled at the back of our minds, something that would no doubt spring up later — anticipation for the next run.
Providing an experience
Paiement is incredibly pleased by the success of his summer program, both the family-friendly golf cart tours and the more adventurous scooter tours. It gets the dogs out and running, brings in money and allows him an entire second season to share the experience with guests.
“We’re always trying to provide a hands-on experience. … Our goal from Day 1 has been entertainment and to show people a great time,” he said.
The popularity of the summer tours has grown, bringing the same people back year after year, both in summer and winter. With 145 dogs to care for, more business is good business for Snow Caps.
When asked what it is about dog sledding that seems to capture people’s imaginations, Paiement thought a moment before replying.
“I think it’s seeing the dogs do what they love,” he said, casting a thoughtful glance over the kennel yard. “When you see the dogs hooked up and see them pounding at the lines and so excited about what they’re doing, you can really tell they love what they’re doing.”