Mushing School: A Dog Sledding AdventurePosted: November 30, 2011
I’m not even sure where to start today. I feel like spouting adjectives…awesome, amazing, crazy cool. Dog sledding has left me a little tongue tied. Even after we got home Lucas and I were still beaming, something like runner’s high. We would be talking about something else and then suddenly look at one another and say, “That was SO cool,” already knowing what the other person was talking about. Our conversations included Oak and Dudley and Mia and Mayhem, some of the dogs we mushed with. We talked about them like old friends. But let me back up and do my best to explain.
On Sunday, we attended Mushing School with Paws for Adventure. This was a three plus hour “course” on dog sledding. Arriving at Paws was enough to get me excited. The kennel is positioned on the side of a hill looking out over a valley and the mountains. The yard is filled with dogs, around 50. Each dog has a little wooden house and a chain that lets them run in wild circle within their designated space on the property. These dogs were happy and excited. At the top of the lot sits a heated yurt where we met our guides/instructors and got a brief outline of what to expect. They also had winter gear. Lucas changed into bunny boots right away. Halfway through the day, I changed into them too.
Let me side step a minute and explain bunny boots. Bunny boots are military grade arctic boots. They are made of thick plastic with wool insulation and are rated to -60 degrees. People here swear by them and after wearing them I can see why. They are warm, and I am told will keep your feet from freezing even if water comes in over the top. For winter conditions in Alaska, this is an important feature. Being wet here could mean lose of limbs or death. These boots are also hilarious looking. Picture people walking around in shoes like the Mario brothers from Nintendo. But I was glad we had them.
Okay, back to school. After introductions, we went outside to learn about the sled and the gear used to hook up the dogs. The gang line is the main rope that the dogs are hooked to. She also showed us the break, snow hook (used to anchor the sled before you leave), and the rubber tire tread at the base that you can use to slow down or straighten out the sled. Interestingly, each sled and kennel will do things a little differently so there are variations to everything we learned.
After our brief equipment orientation, we learned how to put the harnesses on the dogs. At Paws, they use two kinds of harnesses depending on the dog’s size. After seeing the guides harness a dog, it was our turn. To harness the dogs we stood over the top of them with our legs holding them in place as we slipped the collar over their heads and down under their chests where each front paw is fitted through. Most of the dogs were good about this but some of them were a little rambunctious.
After they were outfitted, we walked them back down to the sled and hooked them into position. Wheel dogs are in the back, then team dogs, then swing dogs, then leaders up front. This will all change depending on how many dogs you are using. Our first sleds had seven dogs.
I love that our experience included all the step up. It gave us a much better understanding of what running dogs really means. It also made us feel more apart of things, like I could put a stamp on it that said, prepared with love by Krista. I must admit, I was also really happy to get so many doggy kisses 🙂
For our first run, we had two sleds. Lucas and I both started out riding in the basket with the guides driving. This was a great introduction. We got to see a little bit of the trail and how the dogs worked as a team with the driver. A few miles in we switched, and I got to drive. This is when I started to fall in love with mushing. Standing up at the back of the sled you feel so connected to the dog team, and you have this amazing view of the land around you. It was also nice to start out with a guide in the basket to offer tips and suggestions as you figured out how to maneuver the sled behind the dogs. We finished the loop and went back to the yurt to warm up.
For our second run, Lucas and I each got to drive smaller teams by ourselves. The whole process was ours. We hooked up each of the four dogs on our team. And then followed our guide out onto the trail. She went first, then my team, then Lucas and his team. I was now officially smitten with dog sledding. I loved the cool silence of the trail, the rhythm of the dogs in front of me, the snow covered spruce trees that lined the sides of the trail, the pale yellow and gold light of the sun as it flickered through the trees and across the snow in open fields. Every now and then the dogs would turn back to look at me, pink tongues hanging out, snow frozen to their whiskers and the hair around their face. I would call, “Good dogs,” and they would pick up the pace just a little. On the turns, I would lean in, kicking out my heels on the runners, and the sled would snap back into place behind the dogs. It was like we were gliding through air.
There were funny things too. The dogs eat snow as they run, leaving long streaks at the sides of the trail. They poop on the move. They fight like brothers and sisters. On my team Mia would snap at Oak until I called her name. Other dogs bumped and pushed. Little personalities coming to life.
At the end of the run, we pulled into the lot, greeted by all the other dogs barking. We feed our teams huge, frozen, chunks of salmon as a snack. Petted them. Took pictures.
It was an Alaskan kind of day, and I was all smiles.