RENO, Nev. — Necklace led the pack.
Her tough, lean muscles rippled under her dark coat as she started to run. With each cadenced step she took, her tail swung to the rhythm of her paws hitting the snow. Her deep brown eyes stayed pinpoint focused on the way ahead only briefly breaking to scan the white landscape around her.
Behind her, 10 Alaskan Huskies followed her as she followed the musher’s brisk commands. The movements — so succinct — cohesively collided together as they glided through the valley floor between the Sierra Nevada.
The 11 dogs, sled and musher melded into one.
SLEDDING INTO THE SEASON
During the record-breaking 2016-17 snow season, a Reno Gazette-Journal photographer and I took a trip to Squaw Valley to experience something neither of us had ever done before — dog sledding. Nuzzled in between the mountains, we met with the Wilderness Adventures Dog Sled Tours crew which operates on the valley floor behind the Resort at Squaw Creek.
The excited whines of two packs of Alaskan huskies greeted us as we walked from the resort’s parking lot down an accessible path to the valley floor. We were able to hear the dogs before we could see them. But, as we rounded one of the snowbanks, we could finally see the teams — several mushers and more than 20 dogs — ready for a fun day of running the courses.
The mushers had already started hooking the 22 dogs into harnesses attached to two sleds.
Matt Byers, our musher, said that they have enough dogs to run four sleds at a time with a maximum weight of 450 pounds per sled.
The front harness was reserved for the lead dog that would be at the forefront position in the front of the pack. Behind the lead dog were 10 harnesses set up in rows of two for two swing dogs, six team dogs and, lastly, two wheel dogs.
Ready to go, the teams would try to start running as soon as they were hooked into the harnesses, but methodically placed spikes prevented the dogs from taking off until we were ready to ride.
You don’t need special gear or clothing to head out on a dog sledding tour.
Not knowing what to expect, I overdressed. I wore a pair of leggings, a light running jacket a long sleeve shirt, wool socks and boots. I also brought a snowboarding jacket and pants, gloves and a hat.
I ended up ditching the heavier gear because it was an unseasonably warm day. I also brought a pair of sneakers, but at the suggestion of our musher, I kept my boots on to help keep my feet dry.
During our time with the dog sledding crews, other groups of people filtered through wearing everything from ski clothing to jeans and sweat suits. The mushers said any clothing that would keep you dry, warm and flexible would be ideal. However, you don’t need to go out and buy any special gear or clothing to be able to go on these types of excursions.
It comes down to this: Wear whatever makes you the most comfortable.
WHAT MAKES A PACK
Alaskan huskies are a high-bred dog with one purpose: to be an efficient sled dog. The Alaskan husky isn’t considered a pure breed, Byers said explaining the sled dogs have a wide variety of breeds in them — from Siberian husky, German shorthairs, greyhound and other different Northern breeds to “create the perfect sled dog.”
“They’re not the Siberians people are expecting from a Disney movie,” Byers said. “This is a breed that’s made to do this.”
The dogs are considered “endurance dogs” that can run about 100 miles per day, Byers said. Each dog in the pack was bred to sport a small, lean frame that would decrease the chances of joint issues later on in life.
“We’re not going for weight pull,” Byers said. “We want endurance out of these dogs — kind of like a marathon runner. We want them lean.”
Countless hours go into training and caring for the packs. Byers said running the dog sleds was “the easiest part of the day.” Once the tour’s hours are over, the day doesn’t stop for the musher or for the dogs.
The dogs are housed in a kennel where it is the musher’s responsibility to care for the dogs. On top of a full day of work, there is dog maintenance, house cleanup and nutrition that goes into keeping the team healthy and happy.
Training never stops — neither for the dogs nor for the musher. Byers said that not only does a musher have to work on training the dogs, he or she also has to get to know the dog’s personality. The dog’s personality plays into what position they would work best in on the team. Often, musher’s will train multiple dogs for multiple positions on the sled team, but sometimes, Byers said, dogs work better in one position over another.
“For dogs, it’s their heart and drive to want to dogsled,” Byers said. “Inherently, it’s already in the breed to do it, and it’s just a will to want to do it. It’s the same for the musher. It’s fun, but there’s a lot of work to it.”
NOVICE TO EXPERT
We were ready to ride.
The sled we were in was positioned for two adults to sit comfortably with the musher standing at the back to control the dogs and the sled’s brakes.
“Let’s go!” shouted Byers, and we were off.
For the next hour, we glided through the Squaw Valley landscape. Byers would command ‘gee’ for right turns and ‘haw’ for lefts. Necklace would obediently listen, excited at her chance to run. We easily slid around turns, floating on top of a fresh layer of snow.
Byers then shouted, “Whoa!”
The dogs stopped, and it was my turn to learn how to mush.
Before taking the reins, Byers showed me how to work with the sled — how to stay limber and move to the sled’s movements instead of against it. Byers said one of the most important tips was where to stand. He showed me where to properly place my feet on the rails and platform to be in a prime position to jump on the brakes.
Then, it was my turn.
I took the reins — and with Byers’ guidance — we were off again.
I could feel every bump in the snow and clearly feel the grooves of previously run trails. I stood with my knees bent — like a skier — so I could easily adapt and move to the dogs’ movements. I held on tightly as we sped through the trail, enjoying it all: from feeling the bounces in the sled and the wind rushing around us to the difficulty of jumping on the breaks to the joy of being a part of the pack.
It was exhilarating, and a tour that could be enjoyed by all. Byers said tours can be arranged for all ages: from a 1-month-old baby to 102.
“Running a team of dogs? Maybe that’s not for everybody,” Byers said. “But, enjoying it? That can be for everyone.”
Information from: Reno Gazette-Journal, http://www.rgj.com