Jonesing to Run
The Wintry Wonders of Dog Sled Racing
PHOTOGRAPHY Nancy Whitehead
It’s early March in Stanley, and more than 45 people are bundled up in their thickest winter wear and milling about a bonfire. Rows of flatbed trucks that have been converted into mobile dog kennels stand close by with the Sawtooth Mountains as the backdrop. The cold morning air suspends everyone’s breath as it freezes and hangs above them like silent comic book speech bubbles, and the smell of fresh coffee wafts out from tightly clutched Styrofoam cups. As people wander around, the dogs fidget and stir inside their kennels.
Slowly, as the sun hikes a little higher, an energy begins to build. The dogs grow antsy, and the people start to chatter about the day that lies ahead of them.
It’s 2011 and this is the Second Annual Stanley Sled Dog Rendezvous, and competitors and their dog teams have traveled from all over the West for two days of racing on one of the region’s most scenic sled trails. The races begin early in the day and span into the afternoon. Competitors can race 60-mile, 40-mile, 20-mile or 8-mile distances over the two days and can run anywhere between four to 12 dogs depending on their distance.
As each team approaches the starting line, the dogs’ anticipation builds and they begin to bark uncontrollably. Their excitement transfers to the audience as attendees abandon the fire pit and crowd around the gate. Many of the dogs hop with eagerness, frequently jumping high enough to clear the body of another dog standing nearby.
A surprisingly unique mix of canines (not just Huskies) make good sled dogs.
Every minute that passes makes it clearer that these are not typical housedogs. Their yips and howls act as a reminder that they come from the same ancestral bloodline as wolves, jackals and foxes. They ache to run in a pack. They are born for it.
Like junkies jonesing for their next fix, they pull at their harnesses in anticipation of the moment when their musher will lift the snow hook, releasing the sled and setting them free. But until then, they tug relentlessly. Poised. Ready to launch.
Abruptly, everything changes.
As the sleds take off, the piercing cries of the dogs go silent and they instantly focus. Mushers yell commands as the dogs, tongues flapping, navigate across the snow. Although dog sled races can vary greatly in terms of structure, length and speed, the animals’ level of drive and eagerness is always the same.
“People always ask me, ‘How do you make them run?’” musher Troy Larsen said. “And I say, ‘Make them? It’s in their blood.’”
Larsen has raced a dog sled for four years and resides with his family and a seemingly ever-growing kennel of canines out Deer Creek, north of Hailey. His original interest had been skijoring with two Malamutes he owned years ago, but as his family grew, so did the number of dogs he owned and his interest in mushing. He and his 13-year-old daughter, Julia, who also races, now own 12 dogs, a group they named “5 Degrees” after Larsen’s favorite temperature to mush in.
Over the decades, dog sledding has shifted from an activity that existed primarily out of necessity into one that is mainly a hobby, although much of the time, a seriously competitive one.
Hailey local D.A. Outzs, who was born in the Valley in 1922, remembers when her father Les Outzs owned a sled dog team in the early 1930s. She said he was asked to put the team together by World War I veteran Major James McDonald, one of the Valley’s two millionaires at the time. Outzs used it during the winter to bring supplies up to McDonald’s cabin on Pettit Lake.
Julia Larsen, like all mushers, shares a special bond with her dogs.
D.A. recalls one winter when a plane was forced to land on frozen Pettit Lake because of a broken part. Her father’s team then had to traverse the never-plowed Galena Summit in deep snow to deliver the new plane part and rescue the people on board. Although Outzs remembers her dad taking the family on rides occasionally just for fun, his reason for having a team was to travel the otherwise inaccessible, snowy winter roads.
Since then, as snowplowing technology has improved, the necessity of a dog sled team to get around most places in Idaho has decreased. Now the main purpose for teams is to race and enjoy the company of the dogs and the process of training them.
“They’re doing what they love to do,” Larsen says. “Really, for us, we get to be a part of them, and that’s what’s really cool. We get to be a part of what they really love to do. I always look at it like it’s such a privilege to step on a sled and be with them because it is really phenomenal what
dogs can do.”
The shift to recreational use has made sled dog racing a sport of specifics. Everything from the breed of the dog to the food they eat becomes a factor in how fast a team will be and how well they will perform.
In regard to the dogs, Larsen says the appearance is usually what surprises people about most teams. Most race dogs are now mutts—combination breeds that come from specific purebred lineages. The Larsens’ dogs have a Northern Husky base, but also have pointer and/or shorthaired and Saluki bred into them. They are somewhat misleadingly called Alaskan Huskies, which is the general catch-all term for most sled dogs, even though they are rarely more than a
small portion Husky.
Other mushers choose alternative breed cocktails to try and produce dogs that have a gait, body type and personality suitable to their team. On average, American sled dogs are smaller and leaner than those in colder parts of the world. Depending on the type of racing the dogs do, the speed they run varies and so their weight and coat thickness become factors that owners must consider.
Larsen says the healthy weight for most racing dogs is a mere 45 pounds. Lean weight often concerns some spectators, but he explains it in terms of top athletes. “They are like marathon runners, and sprint marathon runners at that,” Larsen says. “And think, if marathon runners were big and overweight, they’d be likely to hurt themselves. So we believe we should see some ribs and some bones, but with that said, we also watch them really closely and if they start getting too thin we start packing food in them.”
Larsen explains that overheating is one of the dangers mushers are concerned about for their dogs, so if the dogs will be running hard, they cannot have a traditional thick Husky coat. Both Troy and Julia compete in mid-distance and sprint races, which have dogs running averages of 14 to 17 miles per hour. For teams that race long distance events, such as the Iditarod, mushers run the dogs at slower speeds, generally around eight miles per hour, to keep endurance up, which then allows for a thicker-coated breed.
Running dog sleds beside the Sawtooth Range.
When it comes to the topic of food, many mushers are tight-lipped. Diets range from fish and tripe to red meat and specialty brand athletic dog foods. Each musher tends to use a mix of substances to provide their dogs with the proper nutrients, but few will share details.
Regardless of what exactly goes into a dog’s bowl, Larsen says he is trying to give his dogs as much protein- and fat-packed food as they need to stay healthy with the amount of exercise they get. The exercise the dogs experience is based on each musher’s training regimen, which also can vary greatly. Larsen bases much of his and Julia’s teams’ training on the way he used to prepare for road bike races. They dedicate different days to intervals, speed and distance to try and build on all aspects of the dogs’ athleticism.
In the winter, the Larsens run their dogs 10 to 15 miles, four or five days a week. In the summertime, the dogs train less, but can still be seen towing an all-terrain vehicle out Deer Creek for three-mile runs once or twice a week.
And while some mushers hire trainers to condition and prepare their dogs, the Larsens keep it all in the family. “We do all of our own training,” Larsen says. “And the main reason for that is because, although there are vocal commands, [the dogs] actually learn more from your tone of voice. Tone of voice is more important than actual words. You can give a command and completely say the wrong thing, but if it’s in the right tone, they’ll get it.”
Despite the historical image of mushers wielding a whip to direct their dogs, modern-day mushers cue their teams solely with verbal commands, body weight transfers and a brake on the sled, so mushers who train their own teams often benefit from practice.
Training also acts as a way for mushers to learn their dogs’ personalities and quirks. “The training is as much for the dogs as it is for us. You really learn a lot about each one,” Larsen explains.
In training, mushers often find that certain dogs have preferences about which side of the two-by-two line they like to run on or that they may have bad habits like harness chewing. And when a dog wants to switch to a different side mid-run or chews through a section of the harness, the whole team becomes inefficient.
“The bottom line is that your team is only as fast as your slowest dog,” Larsen says, explaining that any habits or hang-ups an individual dog may have can be detrimental, so learning how to mitigate for those issues ahead of time is essential.
And although the sport has become a tribute to the spirit of uniqueness and every musher practices his own versions of the “best way,” they all come together over shared passion and personal reasons for being there.
The Stanley Dog Sled Rendezvous weekend ends with mushers laughing about all the times they have been dragged, desperately hanging onto a sled that has toppled onto its side on a sharp turn, and discussing how to explain to their neighbors that they will be adding two more dogs to their team.
There is a camaraderie among these individuals that they can’t find with people who have never experienced the feeling of escaping into nature with a pack of animals, and a bond they share with their dogs that outsiders just can’t quite seem to grasp. Many of the mushers work full-time jobs unrelated to their teams, but they dedicate every extra hour they have to the sport. They have to.
But despite the serious commitment required for this hobby, most mushers appear to be enchanted by it. As each team pulls across the finish line in Stanley, the mushers smile with shared looks of wonder and exhilaration. Like the dogs, each one buzzes with an adrenaline high.
And while the mushers and dogs would happily retire to trucks and kennels to rest and rehydrate, the next morning, as the sun begins to warm the snow ever so slightly, the energy builds again. Dogs fidgeting. People chattering. Junkies jonesing.