The sun is just beginning to rise as we pull the sled dogs from their warm boxes and put them on the stakeout lines to relieve themselves. The air is so cold, your breath hangs like clouds and steam rises from dogs, people and puddles of dog urine, already freezing. My lead dog, Ed, stretches slowly and gives himself a good shake. He’s not much to look at — most people wouldn’t know he’s a sled dog — let alone my top lead dog — except in harness. He’s marked like a Shepherd or Rottweiler with floppy ears and a skinny rat tail and legs that are twice the length of his body. I scratch his head and he presses into me, spinning around on the chain to angle in closer.
We’re going to run again. Joyous barking and leaping to go starts the moment I hook up Ed. At 70 pounds of muscle and sinew, he’ll drag me right to the line and hold it tight while I get the other dogs. Each one barks and leaps, ready to go. I get on the sled and pull the snub lines — and hang on for dear life.
Born to Run
The chains are necessary to keep the dogs from doing what they do best: running. They’d be in the next county or next state before you could catch them, assuming you could. These dogs have a single-minded purpose: run in a team and run fast and long. Their bodies, honed from years of training and thousands of years of selective breeding, have made these dogs far beyond the household pet.
I remember when my other lead dog, Tasha, had her pups by Ed. By the age of 6 weeks, the pups were destroying everything in the house and I had to put them out in the pens with the other sled dogs. I’ve owned countless puppies and none matched the energy of these pups. It’s almost as if from the moment of birth they know they’re supposed to be running.
Life of a Musher
What most people see at races is the culmination of months of training. Training sled dogs is a lifestyle and a commitment — not something you just wake up and decide to one day. Training starts in August or September and goes well into April or so. During this time, your life is pretty much on hold. If you work a standard job, evenings and free time goes toward training and care of the dogs. Vacations are unheard of — except sled dog races — and training takes precedence. Thanksgiving weekend and the Christmas holidays are just time to train.
Training Sled Dogs
Training sled dogs takes time, patience and money. Training starts in late summer or early fall with short runs of a mile or less. We use an ATV or a rig, which is a metal heavy contraption with wheels that the dogs can pull so that they can get more training. Over time, we gradually build up to the mileage we’re intending on running each day. By late January, I was running 30 to 50 miles at a time to get my dogs ready for racing staged races, that is, mid to long distance races that are run over the course of two to three days.
Even on offseason, there’s no rest. Dogs need to be cared for daily and there’s plenty of maintenance to be done. Dogs need to be bred, puppies whelped, vaccinations, wormings and general care. Fixing houses, building new pens or putting in a new yard – all of it takes time and money.
Why We Do It
Most people look at the lifestyle and wonder what insane person would spent this much time and money on the dogs. If you’ve never driven a sled team, it’s hard to explain. The training and experience you have transcends the human-animal bond. At some point, you become a team member and you know your dogs just as well as you know yourself. Watching Ed and Kersel in lead, I know what Kersel is thinking and what Ed is going to do next. Each nuance, each ear flick, each shift in gait means something. You become one of them and they become part of you.
Mushers don’t talk about this much, but it’s understood between us. So strong is that bond that mushers have lost their lives trying to save their teams. An injury or dog death is the most terrible thing a musher can go through.
Right now, I’m in semi-retirement as a musher, having raced for more than 20 years. My dogs have lived long and loving lives, some passing away at the age of 17 or 18 years old. I look at the trails around me and close my eyes. I can still see Ed and Kersel leading my team, riding the runners and feeling the cold wind whipping over my face.