Learning the ‘Simple Rules’ of Mushing
The No. 1 rule of dogsledding is verysimple: Don’t ever let go of the sled.”If you don’t hold on, you’re going tobe sitting in the snow, and the dogs aregoing to keep going,” said Sarah Spalla,manager of Good Times Adventures andmy guide and teacher for my first-everforay into the art of mushing.Really,she was pretty adamant: “Don’t let go.”That’s easier said than done, though,especially as you’re tearing down atrail in the Swan River Valley, eightdogs ahead of you pulling against theirharnesses with every ounce of theirstrength. And the sled just keeps goingfaster and faster.Th e dogs: They knowexactly what they’re doing. Me? Notso much.We take a sharp right turndown a gully banked steeply on bothsides with snow. The dogs are flying.The sled is flying.No, literally, at the top of the embankment,the sled goes airborne, soars overthe small ditch and slams to the ground.And there I am, sitting in the snow, while the dogs are (happily) hurryingdown the trail.So much for a simplerule.
I was surrounded by dogs. Standingin the middle of the dogyard at GoodTimes Adventures, there were roughly139 Siberian huskies – and exactly oneAlaskan husky – prowling around thearea filled with doghouses and kennels.This is where my day of dogsleddingstarted.Good Times is locatedoff Tiger Road outside Breckenridge.Th e directions are easy: turn on TigerRoad, go straight until you hit the parkinglot about 6.3 miles back.At thefacility, they have both snowmobilingand dogsledding – on different trailsof course – and there are also horsedrawnsleigh rides available, althoughthrough a different company. At GoodTimes (called Snow Caps Sled Dogs inthe summer), 75 percent of the dogs yousee were bred at the facility. Nearly all ofthem become sled dogs.Spalla, who’sbeen a guide for eight years, said thedogs are trained for their duties startingat 4-months old.”Really, it’s prettyamazing how it just seems to be bredinto them to do it,” she said. “We breedonly what we can use. We rarely sell anyof the puppies.”
Anyone who’s ever read “Call of theWild” or “White Fang” has inevitablydreamed about one day standing behinda dogsled, looking out at the frozentundra ahead and yelling out, “Mush!”As Spalla hooked up the dogs to thesled, that was all I was thinking about.Now, the commands are pretty basic.For a novice driver, like myself, thereare really only three – and none ofthem mean stop or slow down. Saying”hike” tells the dogs to move forwardor run harder. “Gee” means turn right,and “haw” is for left. To stop, you simplystep on the brake – a metal hinge- at the back of the sled.That’s it.”What about mush?” I asked, stillclinging to my dream.”Dogs hike; thedriver mushes,” Spalla explained. “Saying’mush’ doesn’t mean anything to thedogs. You can still say it for fun if youwant, though.”
The dogsled tours at Good Times aredone in a relay format. Spalla said thatguides normally take six people per trip,and each person switches among drivingthe sled, sitting in the sled and watchingfrom a trailer towed behind a snowmobile.The guide drives the snowmobileup ahead, and the dogs simply followbehind. “We use a bigger, more forgivingsled, because we let our guestsdrive,” Spalla said. “We’ve had peopleas old as 85 and as young as 3 do it. Wehave lots of trails, so we just try to customizeit to our guest..” Even thoughmy experience at the time basicallyconsisted of watching the movie “IronWill” a lot as a kid, I chose to go themore difficult route.And things wentreally well – at first. We took somesharp turns, and I leaned in to help thesled stay stable. We hit some uphills,and I took a foot off the sled to helpthe dogs with a “musher’s kick.” Really,I was getting the hang of it. That is,until we came to that gully I mentionedearlier, and I broke that ever-importantNo.1 rule.
So, now we’re back to where I’m sittingin the snow.Luckily, Spalla wasup ahead to stop the dogs, and my bodywas far less banged-up than my self esteem.And after another fall, onehit tree and a few more trails, we madeit back to the dogyard in one piece.The tour was over, and each dog got anend-of-the-run reward: a steamy bowl ofwater with chunks of meat scraps.Asfor me, I simply got the satisfaction offulfilling a childhood fantasy. Sure, I wascovered in snow and my shoulder was abit sore (and I think the sled may havebeen cracked from my run-in with thatpesky lodgepole pine), but I hardly evennoticed at the time. All of it was wellworth it – even if I didn’t get to yell,”Mush!”Although, I don’t think I’ll besigning up for the 1,100-mile IditarodTrail Sled Dog Race any time soon. Istill need to work on rule No. 1.
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