Grand Mesa Summit Challenge Sled Dog Races
At first the barking, yipping, howling and whining appear to be coming from every direction. Tied to the bumpers of trucks, peering over closed tailgates and half-open cab windows, or peeking out from within their travel kennels, the teams at this year’s Grand Mesa Summit Challenge Sled Dog Race – held at the 10,300-foot elevation level above Cedaredge, Colo., on January 28 and 29 – were positively straining to get out on the course. Everything from Malamutes to Rottweilers to mixed breeds were represented and each and every one of them was positively dancing with excitement.
“They actually stop barking once they’ve hit the trail,” musher Mike Stark explained with a wry smile after I’d stopped to admire his purebred Siberian Huskies. “Then, all you hear is their breathing and the sounds of their pads on the ground. The greatest thing is just the experience.”
Actually getting a team of four, six or eight lunging, hopping racers hooked up to a sled is a feat within itself. (Teams are released one minute apart during each heat and then timed. Whoever has the fastest, combined times on a 6-, 8- or 12-mile course over a two-day period is the winner.) Regardless of being competitors, mushers pitch in to help each other when it comes to harnessing each animal, leading it to its place on the line, and then guiding the entire group – which often requires one handler per dog because they are so strong and athletic – to the starting gate. By that time the din has reached a decibel-breaking level, and the pandemonium only increases as the countdown starts. In unison, handlers and spectators alike shout out backwards from 10 and once “GO!” has been reached, with precision timing the dogs are turned loose; the sled driver stomps on the brake release; the entire team lunges forward in unison; and yes, the snow flies. “What a rush,” I heard one grinning bystander exclaim after Lynn Whipple, who is top-ranked in Colorado, had sped off into the wilderness behind her team of hound/pointer/Alaskan Husky mixes. For me, just to witness was a thrill beyond compare.
Talking with her beforehand, it was clear that Lynn (a 25-year veteran from Montrose, Colo.) truly loves what she does. “I’m always learning the dog dynamics. Dogs give 125 percent and only ask for tender loving care in return,” she told me. “Plus, they are such athletes! I feel like a Little League coach sometimes because they’re all excited to go but you have to give them direction. Good training MUST be in place.”
Both women and men compete in the sport of mushing in equal numbers. Stephanie Dwyer, who lives in Leadville, Colo., and manages an animal shelter there, got hooked eight years ago and by 2009 she’d placed third in the Canadian World Championships, which are held in Daquaam. She then came in first at the 2010 Purina Incredible Dog Challenge held in British Columbia. Laurie Brandt, who used to be a professional mountain bike racer, lit up as she shared her passion for another pet-and-person event, Skijoring, which involves one or two dogs (each wearing a harness); a rock climbing belt; a bungee line; and some cross-country skis and poles (which enable the skier to propel herself and glide behind her team with little resistance). “It’s total body fitness,” she exclaimed. “You’re the third dog, working as hard as they are.” What happens when it comes to going downhill? She smiled and her eyes crinkled. “You just hang on for dear life sometimes.” I asked her about training Darby (my 80-pound mix) for the sport, thinking it would be a great way for her to burn off excess energy. “Dogs love to pull. They learn fast,” Laurie assured me.
John Perry, a six-time gold medalist with the International Sled Dog Association, shared some of the basic commands: “‘Whoa’ means stop; ‘gee’ means (turn) right; ‘haw’ is left; ‘easy’ is slow down and ‘hike’ means go.” Sounded pretty simple. What I learned later when Seth Sachson, President of the Aspen Animal Shelter, gave me my first lesson on mushing was that ‘hike’ actually means go very, VERY fast. His own dogs dug into the dirt with the G-forces of an 8-cylinder Mustang and nearly sent me toppling, regardless of the fact that I had an iron grip on the driver’s bar. And when coupled with the hail of tiny snow balls that went whizzing up through the air, it was truly exhilarating.
The lead dog, Seth explained, is especially important. “It has to have focus – you don’t want it chasing after squirrels or deer. It has to set the pace, understand and obey the commands, and be able to pass another team (or be passed) without causing trouble. You’re lost without a good lead dog.” As for the mushers, themselves “There’s a community feeling,” he continued. “We’ve become friends. Racing is a high and it’s good to compare ideas. We help each other, compete against each other, and all go out to dinner afterwards.”
In talking to the mushers, one similar theme was shared over and over: there’s something profoundly moving about being alone in the wilderness with just the dogs, the quiet, the crisp air and the scenery. “I feel connected to God. I get choked up out there.” Mike told me. And how do the animals benefit? Seth concludes, “The sled dogs benefit from being part of a team. They thrive on running together in a pack and living a life with purpose. They seem exhilarated and fulfilled to have a job.” Clearly, the sport of mushing is good for their insides, too.