Mushers, skijorers prepare for Grand Mesa races
Man and beast run together this weekend on Grand Mesa for two days of sled dog and skijor races sponsored by the Rocky Mountain Sled Dog Club.
There will be sled-dog races with teams ranging from two to eight dogs as well as a contingent of skijorers, cross-country skiers who use dogs for added pull.
Among those running with the dogs will be Steve Bethka, a Grand Junction optometrist and experienced skijor racer.
Bethka started skijoring about six years ago after getting two Siberian huskies. He frequently went roller blading with the dogs and was looking for a way to work them in the winter when his parents, who live in Anchorage, Alaska, suggested skijoring.
“My first response was ‘ski what?’ ” laughed Bethka, who owns Valley Vision Center in Grand Junction. “I looked into it a little bit and got some equipment, saw a couple of races and got intrigued. From there I started entering races.”
Skijoring originated in Scandinavia and translates as “ski-driving” in Norwegian.
As Bethka discovered, part of the sport’s beauty is its simplicity and minimal equipment requirements. Along with basic cross-country ski gear, a skijorer needs three other items: a harness for the dog, a skijoring belt and a towline that connects the belt (and the skijorer) to the dog.
It can be done just about anywhere there is enough snow to ski on.
“I live in Spring Valley and I ran the sled around the neighborhood when there was enough snow,” Bethka said.
The same equipment can be used year-round, Bethka said, whether roller or in-line skating or even bike-joring.
Skijoring can be done with any breed of dog, Bethka said, as long as it is at least 25 or 30 pounds and strong enough to pull a little.
The skier supplies most of the power while the dog is an auxiliary motor.
Most races are short, although skijorers have competed in and finished the 320 well-frozen miles of the Alaskan Iditasport.
Among the competitors this weekend on Grand Mesa, Bethka expects two of the nation’s best skijorers, Fritz Howard of Leadville and Scott Aimone of Divide, the only American to medal at the Skijoring World Cup.
One of the recent developments in this ancient sport is the cross-breeding of traditional huskies with breeds such as German shorthair pointers and other pointing dog breeds.
Pointers and similar breeds are bred to run, and while their short hair isn’t the best for long-distance racing, these hybrid sled dogs are becoming unbeatable in the shorter sprint races.
According to Skijor Now, http://www.skijornow.com, a team of German shorthair/huskie crosses recently won the sprint mushing world championships.
“Shorthairs and pointers are very good dogs for the short runs,” Bethka said. “For sprint races you’re on the course for 6 to 13 minutes and the dogs aren’t going to get cold or have problems while running.”
The longer-haired breeds, such as full-blooded Siberian huskies, tend to slow down when they heat up, a penalty in the faster sprint races, he said.
“You prefer it to be around 10 to 15 degrees,” Bethka said.
The weather forecast for this weekend on Grand Mesa calls for high temperatures in the low 20s with a chance of snow.
Bethka said the race may attract 30 or more dog teams from across the state and region. In previous races, most participants have come from Colorado, but there are also racers and dogs coming from Utah, Arizona, Wyoming and even Alaska.
Some sled dog racers train their dogs in the desert by having their dogs pull an ATV or four-wheeler.
The races are running on specially packed trails permitted by the Grand Mesa National Forest. Races begin about 9 a.m. and will end about 1 p.m.
“If people get there at one they’ll miss everything,” Bethka warned.