By Bud Cole
The variety of winter weather patterns here in Pennsylvania remind me of the weather events we experienced during our ski trip to Big Sky, Montana. Cold days and evening snowstorms in the mountains, an hour northwest of Yellowstone National Park, finally changed to clear skies and more moderate temperatures toward the end of our vacation.
Each year we take one day off from skiing to pursue other interests. This year our choice of an activity was just as exciting as it was unique. We signed up for the “Spirit of the North” sled dog adventure with a local outfitter at Moonlight Basin Ranch. This activity had been at the top of our list for several years, but the weather had not cooperated. This time the weather turned out to be absolutely beautiful with clear blue skies and a soft covering of sparkling new snow.
Our experience became even more exciting when my wife Bev and I found out that we had the option to handle our own dog team and sled. Pre-instructions included how to steer the sled and manage the speed of the dogs. To turn to the right, stand and apply pressure on the right runner with your right foot while placing weight on the drag strip—located between the runners—with your left foot. You do the opposite to turn to the left. All steering is controlled by shifting your weight.
The driver needs to step off the runners and press down hard with full body weight on the brake to slow the dogs and bring them to a halt. The brake was a rod with metal teeth that dug into the snow. The drag strip looked like a rough piece of rubber tire material. No verbal dog commands were used. A metal anchor, located in a canvas bag, was stomped into the snow to hold back the team during stops along the trail.
Coincidentally, the day we chose for our very first mushing experience was also the first day of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race in Alaska. Our sled dog outfitter’s daughter, Jessie Royer, was about to leave Nome, Alaska on her Iditarod challenge as we listened to instructions on how to direct our sled and dogs through trails in the Moonlight Basin Ranch.
Our guide, Jim, stressed, “If you tip the sled do not let go. All these dogs want to do is run, so be sure to hang on to the sled.” We had eight Alaskan huskies providing the power for our trip. The slender built Alaskan huskies are primarily bred for work and have more endurance for sled racing than the stouter Siberian huskies depicted in most movies featuring sled dogs.
Our lead dog was Beethoven. Jim explained that he names his dog litters after specific themes. Dogs named Mozart, Bach, Brahms, Strauss and other classical composers filled positions on the teams.
Each adventurer had the choice of being as involved or uninvolved in the venture as they wished. After the driving instructions—which were covered quite quickly when considering the task ahead of us—we helped hold the lead dog as the rest of the team was attached to the cables to ready our power source. Beethoven was attached to the front of the line first. I held him by his collar and harness while Bev held the lead dog on another team until the remaining team members were placed in their positions along the lines. Jim certainly knew his dogs, they definitely wanted to run. They yanked at their harnesses with the sole purpose of beginning the trip as soon as physically possible.
The sled and harnessed dogs were attached to what Jim called the “doggie bus”—the mobile trailer and kennel system used for transporting the dogs from the outfitters home to the trail location.
This prevented them from taking off down the trail prematurely. A large metal “O” ring was the major connection between the trailer and the constantly tugging dog team. Jim instructed the drivers to pull down hard on the “O” ring when they were ready to release the sled and dogs from the bus.
Bev drove our team first. And wow, did they burst forward as she gave a hardy tug on the large metal ring allowing them to sprint down the trail. I had all I could do to maintain my balance as I snapped photos from the floor of the sled.
Shifting of body positions as well as proper foot placement on the runners, drag strip and brake allowed us to maneuver the sled and stay upright as the dog team raced through the picturesque valley.
About halfway through the trip we took a break for hot chocolate and homemade cookies. The dogs wanted to keep running and seemed disappointed when we stopped. Dogs and sleds were anchored to nearby trees until we were ready for the return trip.
It wasn’t long before I took my turn pulling down on the “O” ring thus releasing the eager team to follow the trail back to our starting point. This outdoor adventure definitely ranks at the top of our list of memorable experiences.
Historically, sleds and dogs were linked together by common necessity. Indigenous people of the far north used dogs for companionship, protection and hunting. Attaching the dogs to sleds was a natural progression. The invention of snowmobiles and other mechanical means of transportation have lessened the importance of sled dog teams as a means of survival in these frigid lands, but their significance continues through local competitions.
The most famous sled dog competition is the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. A diphtheria outbreak occurred in Nome, Alaska in 1925. Serum from the Alaska Railroad Hospital in Anchorage had to be transported to Nome to ward off a fatal epidemic. The first leg of the journey was by rail from Anchorage to Nenanna. The epic excursion continued as 22 native Alaskans and mail carriers used their sled dog teams to relay the life saving medicine to Nome. The serum was transported across the Iditarod Trail in less than six days. Today the annual 1149 mile Iditarod Race is run between Anchorage and Nome to commemorate this critical journey to save lives.
For more information
* Spirit of the North: Sled Dog Adventures
* Big Sky Chamber of Commerce
* Montana: Official State Travel Information Site
* Big Sky Montana
Photos by Bud and Bev Cole