The sled dogs are pitching a fit barking, howling, leaping, frothing. They’re ready to go. I’m not so sure I am.
I’m at Sky High Wilderness Ranch, an adventure outfitter just outside of Whitehorse, Yukon, that specializes in dog sledding tours. We’ve just finished a hearty lunch of corn chowder, bannock (Indian fry bread), fruit, cinnamon buns, juice, and coffee and tea.
Now, we’re in the dog yard, surrounded by a hundred or so barking dogs, most of them pacing around their small, barrel-shaped houses. The ones chosen to run today — teams of four or five dogs — are attached to chains stretched between trees next to our sleds. And that’s what’s wrong with all the other dogs: they want to go, to pull the sleds.
That’s the amazing thing about sled dogs. They’d rather run in front of a sled than do anything else. It’s what they’re bred, born, and trained to do. Like herding dogs that live to herd or retrievers whose only desire is to chase and fetch, sled dogs want to run in a team. It’s what they do and do well. Elite sled dogs, those with the natural ability and the right training, can run marathon races more than 1,000 miles long like the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest that involve punishing terrain and freezing temperatures. And they do it happily because they’re sled dogs. Today, the dogs at Sky High who haven’t been selected to go for a run let their disappointment be known with plenty of barking and mournful howling.
At Sky High, everyone drives his or her own sled. No one rides in the sled basket. Keri, our guide, a tall, athletic-looking woman in her early 30s, gives us the basics of sled dog driving (also known as mushing).
“We stand at the back of the sled on the two runners,” she says, pointing to two narrow slats of wood. “The most important thing to remember is to hold onto the handle of the sled, at least with one hand, at all times. If you’re looking around at the scenery or taking pictures and aren’t holding on, when the dogs hit a bump and jerk the sled, you’re going to fall off and your team will keep going. Their instinct is to run, not to stop just because you’ve fallen off.”
Now I’m really feeling nervous. What if my team runs off without me? During lunch, I’d seen other guests leaving the yard behind sleds and they were going really fast. My heart is thumping hard in my chest and my breath is coming fast in the cold air.
“There are three ways to stop a sled,” our guide continues. “This is your big brake.” She steps onto a metal device with a curved bar and jagged teeth that looks like a big bear trap. “If you want your dogs to stop, you say ‘Whoa’ and step on this brake. You may need to stand on it with two feet. This mat-like thing is the drag brake and it’s what we use to slow the dogs down and keep them under control. You stand on it with one foot or put just the heel of your foot on it. And finally, this snow hook is your emergency brake.”
She holds up an evil-looking piece of metal with two sharp hooks attached to a rope tied to the sled. “When we’re stopped, you need to put this into the snow and step on it to make sure it’s secure. Then, to make it more difficult for the dogs to pull out the hook, tip the sled over onto the hook.”
I look over at the dogs waiting to be harnessed to the sleds. They’re relatively small and slender, no more than 50 or 60 pounds. Most sled dogs aren’t purebreds. They’re mixes of breeds: Alaskan huskies, malamutes, Labradors, and many others. They’re bred for speed, endurance, and toughness. That we’d need to use such extraordinary measures to stop them and keep them stopped seems strange, but Keri has been running sled dogs for years and she’s the expert.
Next, she tells us that we control the dogs with voice command. What, no reins? Now I’m really feeling anxious. I’d imagined having ropes or straps or something to steer the dogs. Keri tells us the dogs respond to simple commands: “Gee’ for right; ‘ha’ for left; ‘whoa’ for stop; and ‘go’ for, well, go.
Keri begins assigning sleds, teams, and positions. She puts an overweight woman in a city-style jacket right behind her. She puts the three men in the middle, giving the largest man a team of five dogs. She puts me in the very last sled. Does this mean she has confidence in me or no confidence at all? My own confidence is waning, especially as I watch Keri’s sled leave the yard, disappearing over a small hill and around a bend.
The other teams move out, one at a time. Then suddenly, my team is moving. It feels like we’re going pretty fast. I keep my left foot on the drag mat to moderate the dogs’ speed. “Easy boys,” I say to them as they strain at their harnesses, eager to be out of the yard and onto the frozen bed of Fox Lake.
Within a few moments, we’ve negotiated the twisty trail and head out in a line across the lake. My sled glides easily on the snow and ice. Only my foot on the drag brake keeps my four-dog team’s speed in check. I can feel their desire to run full out, but we’re supposed to stay in single file. The vibration of the mat’s metal teeth dragging across the ice buzzes my foot. If I ease up on the drag mat, the dogs surge forward. When I put more pressure on it, they slow to a trot or fast walk. “Easy boys,” I croon to them.
We’re barely a quarter of the way across the lake when I realize I’m breathing easy and my heart isn’t racing. In fact, I feel perfectly at home, balanced on the runners, one foot on the drag mat. As the sled glides over a sloped bank of snow, I intuitively lean in the opposite direction. My knees flex easily, absorbing the bumps in the icy surface.
Our leader, Keri, pulls up her team. “Whoa boys,” I command, standing on the big break with one foot. The dogs respond immediately and stop. I plant both feet on the brake to make sure they stay put. Keri pats the top of her head, the signal for, ‘Are you okay?’ Everyone in the line pats his or her head in response and we take off again.
“Go, boys,” I tell them, releasing the brake. They rocket off, happy to be running again.
We sail easily across the ice. To the north, snow-covered peaks catch glimmers of sun breaking through the clouds. My eyes scan the frozen white landscape and a strange sense of peace fills me. I can almost understand why sled dog racers brave the elements of this forbidden land to test themselves and their dogs against formidable odds. For a moment, I forget about the line of sleds and dogs in front of me. I have lifted my foot off of the drag mat, the dogs are running easily, and the only sound is the shooshing of the sled’s runners as they slip effortlessly over the ice. I imagine myself alone with my team in this whiteness — just me and my four-dog team. I watch my dogs, trying to sense what their body language is telling me. I scan the ice, reading it for bumps, cracks, ridges so I can adjust to the changes.
Suddenly, there’s a turn ahead and one of the men’s sleds turns over and he spills off onto the ice.The sled in front of me slows and I quickly hit the drag mat, and ease onto my big brake. “Whoa boys.”
The man scrambles, quickly rights his sled, and leaps onto the runners. His team didn’t break stride. These dogs are trained to run and run they do.
We stop a few times for photos. When Keri comes back to ask if I’d like her to take my picture, I ask if we can run free for a while without using the drag brake. She tells me the woman in the city jacket is slow and she doesn’t want to get too far ahead of her, but if I hang back while the others go on, I can go at my own pace.
When the teams mush out, I hold my team still. The leader looks back at me quizzically, wondering why they’re not following the others. I release the brake. “Go,” I shout.
They rocket off, eager for the chase, wanting to catch up with the others. I ride the runners with no brake, allowing the sled and the dogs to run free. They trot at first, then break into an easy run. I am flying over the ice. I watch the dogs stretch out, tongues lolling to the side, their feet barely touching the ice.
It isn’t long before we catch the others. I ease my heel onto the drag mat, keeping the rest of my foot on the runner. A dog team two sleds in front of us suddenly breaks loose without its driver. The man, who obviously didn’t heed Keri’s advice to keep one hand on the sled handle, runs after his team, but they’re way too fast. Keri spots the team as it comes along side her sled and she expertly brakes her team, leaps off and onto the runaway sled, slowing and finally bringing the team to a stop. It all happens in the blink of an eye. The man rejoins his team and we turn toward home without further drama.
I hang back from the pack, allowing my team to run without the brake. They’re a little tired now and content to trot, only occasionally running full out. I let them set their own pace, enjoying the ride, the quiet, the marriage of snow and sled and dogs and musher.
All too soon, we’re back on the narrow trail pulling into the yard and the din of the dogs left behind. My boys pull up to a stop and I set the snow hook and turn my sled on its side. They easily tolerate my clumsiness as I unhitch them from the gang lines and pull the harnesses over each dog’s head.
Despite running for two hours on the ice, my dogs wag their tails and respond eagerly when I ruff their ears and coo to them.
They are smiling and so am I.
— by Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor