Sled dogs love life on the run
The before and after a race is a stark contrast.
Or is that a bark contrast?
With the excitement of the run building, dogs go a little wacko. Barks, yelps and howls of all pitches fill the air, as the dogs are unable to contain their excitement.
Ready to run, ready to have some fun.
After harnesses are strapped on and the sled attached, it’s go time. And boy, do these dogs go.
The sound of dog power mingles with the whine of horsepower as dog sleds slide into the distance and snowmachines cruise in the other direction.
Grand Mesa is abuzz with fun and excitement on this Sunday.
The stark and bark contrast is when the dogs return, pulling the sled across the finish line. They slurp water and chomp on high-protein snacks, then lie down to rest. No barking or yelping at all.
Rifle’s Bruce Harper and his team of six dogs are off and he’s doing what he loves.
“I’ve been running dogs for 34 years, that’s my love, I love my pure-bred Siberian huskies,” he said. “I race every weekend starting in the fall and into March. This is my playtime, in the wintertime.”
One after another, mushers take off on 4-, 6- or 8-mile races. The length of the race is the same as the number of dogs. There’s also skijoring with one, two or four dogs pulling a cross-country skier.
And there’s the constant chorus of barking as mushers make their way to the start line.
“Come on boys, let’s go, let’s go!” Harper shouts as his dogs make the first corner.
“Good dogs, let’s go home, let’s go home!” Another musher shouts as they head for the finish.
It’s quite a sight, and sound.
Leslie Fields’ love of reading ignited her love of dog sledding.
“I started racing sled dogs in 1981 but I had always wanted to do it since I read Jack London as a kid,” she said.
One of London’s most famous books was “Call of the Wild,” written in 1903, about a sled dog in the Yukon.
Fields, 62, loaded up her dogs and drove more than 210 miles from Hartsel, south of Fairplay, to race in the Grand Mesa Summit Challenge.
“It’s my passion,” she said. “It’s just a hobby with me. The best thing is just being out with my dogs.”
That’s the one thing every musher talked about. The love of dogs and the love of being in the outdoors with their dogs.
Sled-dog racing has its critics, some saying it’s cruel to subject the dogs to harsh weather and grueling physical tests.
Most of that criticism is leveled at the longer races like the famous Iditarod that runs from near Anchorage to Nome, Alaska, more than 1,000 miles.
The mushers on Grand Mesa were universal in defending the sport, all saying the dogs love to run.
Steve Bethka, 56, said it makes for a wonderful day in the outdoors.
“You’re out with your dogs, you’re running around with your dogs, that’s what makes it fun,” he said. “You have a good, strong relationship all the time with your dogs.”
He races German shorthair pointers, which he said are popular for shorter races.
Mushers also say that the dog breeds that pull sleds are working-breed dogs — they were bred to work.
Tim Thiessen, who lives near Leadville, looks like a hardcore musher and a bit like a mountain man from the past.
That’s because the 33-year-old is a bit of a mountain man, living in the high country at 10,000 feet.
“I’ve been mushing for about 14 years. I do it for the connection with the dogs,” he said. “I live out in the middle of nowhere, it’s nice to have them around. I just love running, I really like the winter.”
The Grand Mesa Summit Challenge is touted as the highest elevation sled-dog race in North America at 10,700 feet.
The race series is part of the Rocky Mountain Sled Dog Club, which was formed in 1960.
Bethka was the race director and Harper, 60, will organize the final race of the year near Meeker on March 4-5.
Fields explained some of the commands she uses like “hike!” That simply means get moving.
She said some commands were taken from driving horse teams like “gee!” (turn to the right) and “haw!” (turn to the left).
Other commands are just talking with the dogs. “Let’s go home!” Good dogs!” Come on guys, let’s go!”
There’s one command that is completely unnecessary.
Fields offered a big smile.
“They don’t need a command to go, because they always go.”
And boy, do they like to go.