Sled dogs make mark in Grand Mesa Summit Challenge

Lead dog Monarch, left, crosses the finish line pulling Cheri Cubbison’s eight-dog Siberian husky team after a 12-mile run Saturday at the Grand Mesa Summit Challenge Sled Dog Races. The teams completed the race in times around one hour. Other races featured shorter distances and smaller teams. This race is the highest sled dog race in North America at 10,300 feet in elevation. The event continues today.

As soon as the harnesses are snug, the sled dogs — some of them shorthaired and some shaggy, some brown and some spotted — begin wailing and shaking.

They look back at their owners, panting and raring to go.

With instincts nagging them to hunt and trap and transport, they’re in their environment. Until they can sink their paws into fresh Grand Mesa powder and pull the sled’s weight through a bungee cord that’s attached to their best friend, they can only bark. Repeatedly.

“You’re encouraged by their enthusiasm,” said musher Laurie Brandt of Montrose, a former professional mountain biker.

On Saturday during the Grand Mesa Summit Challenge Sled Dog Race, they were off at 10,300 feet of elevation, making the sled dog races the highest in North America.

The German shorthaired pointer cross is the latest in sled dog technology. They are hybrids. Anyone who was serious about zipping through the challenge’s sprint races of 4 to 12 miles had them.

The hybrids shiver in the freezing temperatures. Then it’s takeoff, and their thin coats prevent overheating.

With hind legs and loyalty and determination akin to a pit bull terrier, they rarely hear their owner’s shrill call of “Hike-ike-ike-ike-ike!” That means “speed up.” It typically sounds like a bird-call, or a wounded rabbit.

Turn left is “Ha,” and right is “Gee.”

But on the forward-marching Summit Top trail, the dogs could gobble straightaways in clear skies and on fresh powder from Friday morning.

Sled dog racing began in Grand Mesa National Forest in 2005.

The first event drew 29 mushers and has since grown to more than 40 sled dog teams. Hundreds of spectators Saturday lined the paths at the start and finish to watch a race that has produced numerous participants in World Championships Sprint Races.

Lynn Whipple, a Montrose musher, took first place in 2011 in two classes.

“It’s about bonding with your dogs,” Whipple said, before receiving doggy kisses from her pointers.

And then there’s Kale Casey of Paonia, who began mushing last year.

“There’s so much to learn,” he said.

Casey has turned himself into an athlete, via weight-training, swimming and jogging. He determines what diet is best for his dogs.

Sled dogs can be the old-school pure-bred Siberian huskies, although they are quite a bit slower than the shorthaired pointers.

“When they run, they don’t have an off switch,” Casey said of the pointers. “They make me a better athlete and a better person. You have to figure out how to make yourself faster.”

That means learning how to skate-ski at 10,000 feet of elevation. With long poles and skate skies that allow for less friction than a cross-country ski, Casey has to keep up with dogs running at more than 20 mph.

“You’re going 10-12 miles per hour,” Casey said. “You absolutely are the weak link.”

He straps his hip belt to a bungee cord, which is attached to the dogs’ harnesses, and the sled-dog chain is formed.

“The dogs say, ‘Come on, let’s go,’ ” Casey said. “It’s not me saying ‘Let’s go.’ “

In fact, the sounds from the parking lot at the start and finish Saturday morning was a cacophony of barking dogs, many chained to trucks. They are waiting to explode, pound-for-pound some of the best athletic specimens around.

Some mushers said they can clear a 6-foot fence from a sitting position.

“They have lids on their kennels,” Debra Su Stephens of Hartsel said.

“They’re spring-loaded.”


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