As our dogsled rounded the corner and started to tip up on one ski, I found myself wondering, “What did our guide say to do if we flip the sled?”
At the time he’d said it, I didn’t think it was that important. We’re not going to flip on some casual jaunt on a cross-country ski trail, I’d assumed. It wasn’t the Iditarod. But as the ground started to get closer to my face and our sled’s driver — staff reporter and newly established dog musher Jessica Smith — proceeded to abandon ship, I started to wish I had.
Our eight-dog team definitely kicked into a higher gear than I’d expected as we made our way down a small hill.
I remembered our guide saying that sled drivers should lean into a turn, but sitting there — now driverless — in the passenger seat that rule didn’t much apply.
That’s right. “Elbows in,” I thought.
Then just as soon as I’d noticed we were tipping, the sled was sideways and my face was an inch or two off the ground, which would have been fine except that the eight dogs that didn’t seem to mind a sideways sled.
Leaving Jessica — who later described her dismount as something akin to a penguin sliding on its belly — lying on the ground laughing hysterically, the sled continued to lunge forward with reckless abandon.
While I contemplated how to perform my own dismount as the sled scraped its way down the trail on its side, our guide, Dave Zajac, hopped off the snowmobile he was riding and grabbed the trace lines of our dog team, finally slowing them to a stop.
For 28 years Snow Caps Sled Dogs — now together with Good Times Adventures — has been guiding Summit County visitors on dogsledding adventures. And for 17 of those years Dave Zajac has been one of the guides.
What keeps him coming back?
“I get to dogsled every day,” he said with a smile, explaining the challenges and joys in managing a team of eight dogs at a time. “Every one of their personalities are different.”
For Snow Caps manager Sara Spalla, it’s the enthusiasm the dogs have that keeps the job interesting. She describes it as contagious.
“Working with the dogs is pretty darn neat. They show up ready to go every morning,” she said. “It’s hard not to be fired up every morning with them. It’s hard to have a bad day.”
We spoke with Spalla while she showed us around Snow Caps’ kennels and play pens, located in the woods up the hill from Good Times Adventures.
While guests can’t tour the facilities in the winter time, Spalla said they’re welcome to check it out in the summer when the company runs wheeled dogsled tours.
The company has close to 150 dogs at any given time. Each team of eight runs two tours a day.
What’s sets Snow Caps and Good Times Adventures apart from other operations is that their guests get to be mushers for the day, alternating control of one of the sled teams. And their dog teams are almost 100 percent purebred huskies.
Our morning started in the parking lot, with the sounds of dogs barking in the distance. As we approached though the woods three or four teams of eager huskies appeared through the trees, barking happily and interacting with their guides and guests.
Zajac, a tall goateed man who looks a little like he just stepped from the pages of a Jack London novel, introduced himself to us and the four other members of our party.
One of the other guests looked nervously at two dogs on the team that appeared to be snarling at each other.
Zajac assured the nervous tourists that the two dogs — brothers Rev and Marly — were just posturing, and what they really wanted was to be pet.
Zajac encouraged a young boy in the group to approach the two dogs. Sure enough, as he approached the dogs both closed their mouths and looked toward the boy eagerly. Marley even rolled over hoping for a belly rub.
After some quick instructions on properly using the brakes and operating the sled, we were off. Zajac drove a snowmobile that towed four of us in a sleigh while the other two piloted the dogsled.
Jessica and I waited our turns as the other pairs of newly trained mushers had their chance at leading the team.
When our turns came it really was just like being transported to the Yukon. Our crash and a grazed tree notwithstanding — the latter courtesy of my attempt to make sure our GoPro was turned on while attempting to steer — our trip passed without incident. We returned to the staging area feeling ready to take on the Iditarod. Their work done, the dogs sat down with smiles that looked just as big as ours.
Due to Snow Caps’ Forest Service permit, sled dog tours will close for the season on Monday, March 31. But guests can check out the summer tours starting sometime in June when the snow melts. Snow Caps offers dog-powered golf cart tours or individual off-road scooter tours, on which guests operate a scooter powered by two dogs.
“It’s a good way to keep our dogs exercised and socialized, even though there’s not snow on the ground,” Spalla said, explaining that the summer tours, though less well known, give guests a chance to really interact with the dogs.