Sled dog racing
By Sue Madsen
Frost crystals glitter in the cold morning air, and a brittle layer of hoar frost crunching under my skis is the only sound that breaks the morning stillness until suddenly a cacophony of barks rings out from around the bend, and a sled pulled by grinning dogs swings around. I ran into Jim Malin training his team some time ago near Schreiber’s Meadows, and was instantly intrigued.
Sled dog racing is immensely popular in northern states and Alaska. Every February newspapers around the nation run stories on the Iditarod, Yukon Quest and other top-tier races. Here in the snowy northwest, the sport has a much lower profile. However, with a bit of sleuthing I uncovered a lively regional scene.
Locally, the best way to learn more about sled dog racing or other dog-powered sports is the Northwest Sled Dog Association (NWSDA). The group’s members run the gamut from enthusiastic amateurs to competitive racers but all of them love these dogs and love working with them. Many of the club outings are strictly social – geared towards amateurs who are interested in learning techniques, exercising their dogs and connecting with others who share their interests. Beginning mushers and all breeds of dog are welcome.
While professional mushers may own more than a hundred dogs and run teams of 20 or more, recreational mushers tend to have fewer dogs and run short distances. A typical recreational team (although there really is no typical in this sport) may range from two to six dogs, and cover 5 to 30 miles on a training run, depending on the dogs, gear, terrain and weather conditions. Many mushers get into the sport by rescuing or fostering dogs already trained to pull. A good lead dog is key; it is difficult for a musher following behind the team to teach inexperienced dogs to pull, but dogs readily learn from each other. Lead dogs are often retired racers paired with younger pups just learning the ropes.
Mushers look for packed groomed snow to run their dogs. Locally, Glacier Creek Road and the area around the Schreiber’s Meadows sno-park road are popular training spots. Snowmobile trails create an ideal running surface, so many training routes start at sno-parks catering to folks who prefer motorized winter sports. I’ve often seen people skijoring (being pulled on skis behind dogs) on Hannegan Road, although skiers and loose dogs can be a distraction, particularly for beginning teams. When snow is scarce mushers fall back on “dryland” training, using three- and four-wheeled carts, scooters or even bikes. Logging roads are perfect and locally abundant – just be sure no active timber harvesting is taking place.
The best way to get an introduction to sled dog racing is to attend a race or event. There are no races in the Mt. Baker area, but if you’re interested in watching a race or meeting professional and amateur mushers, consider a weekend trip. The Cascade Quest Race is held in Plain near Lake Wenatchee from January 31 to February 2, 2014. The Crystal Dog Challenge near Snoqualmie Pass takes place February 15–16. Or consider heading down to Camp Koinonia near Cle Elum, where the NWSDA hosts frequent events. There are also several companies that offer dog sled tours in areas such as Leavenworth or Mazama. Try SierraBlu kennels out of Leavenworth (sierrablukennels. com).
Be aware that sled dog racing is not as simple as hitching the family pack to a sled and heading off into the snow. While virtually any dog can be trained to pull, many mushers gravitate towards northern breeds – Alaskan or Siberian huskies, malamutes, etc. These breeds are active, independent and need experienced and disciplined dog owners. Kids love dogs, and may be thrilled to take a ride or experience the sport firsthand as a spectator, but should be closely supervised when around the teams. Kids and adults alike must respect the dogs and musher, and not approach the animals with treats or affection unless invited to do so.
Running dogs requires specialized equipment – booties, harnesses specifically designed for pulling and the like. Packed snow and ice can be hard on a dog’s feet. Inexpensive harnesses purchased from the local pet store are not designed for pulling; they will chafe and put pressure on sensitive areas, and may injure your dog.
Appropriate gear is not necessarily expensive and there are a number of good local sources (see below). Training and exercising sled dogs requires a year-round commitment to keep dogs in top shape. However, running dogs in temperatures above 55 degrees F. will cause heat stress. x
For more information on dog-powered sports:
Northwest Sled Dog Association (NWSDA ): nwsda.org
Sled Dog Central: sleddogcentral.com
Pacific Sled Dog and Skijor Association: psdsa.org
K9 Scooters Northwest – “urban mushing:” k9scootersnw.org
Alpine Outfitters: alpineoutfitters.net