Snow business: Conditions disrupt Rocky Mountain Sled Dog Club races

One of Tim Thiessen’s dogs yawns as Thiessen hooks up the rest of his team to the sled in the Summit Top parking lot before the start of the eight dog race at the Rocky Mountain Dog Sled Races Saturday.

Sled dogs are bred for snow, but sometimes even the bravest find discretion the right move.

So it was Saturday on Grand Mesa, when a major storm dropped more than a foot of snow overnight and turned the first day of Rocky Mountain Sled Dog Club races into wait day for a few brave huskies.

“It’s a matter of visibility and safety,” said Larry Harris of Iliff, ducking behind his fur-lined collar while explaining why some dog owners, including his daughter Patty, were having second thoughts about sending their dog teams out into the storm.

“The snow gets soft and they might punch through and you can ruin a shoulder that way,” Harris said. “Plus, breaking through like that can mess with their heads and they don’t want to run as hard afterward.”

Race organizer Steve Bethka of Grand Junction expected about 30 sled dog teams, ranging from eight- to two-dog teams, to participate in the weekend’s races.

By 10 on Saturday morning, as the three eight-dog teams took off into the storm, there were a lot of eager dogs still in their kennels, waiting to tackle the course.

“It’s going to be slow and visibility might be a problem for some, but the temperature’s not bad and the wind isn’t either,” dog sledder Bruce Harper of Rifle said.

Denise Edwards of Flagstaff was the first of the eight-dog sledders to finish and said the conditions were “brutal” at times but improved when the eight-mile course veered out of the wind.

“There were a couple of times when visibility wasn’t very good and the dogs got turned around once, but overall it was good,” Edwards said as she went to each dog to praise its efforts. “It was a little slow because of all the snow, so it was little harder on the dogs than normal.”

The human element of the races found conditions equally testing.

When skijorer Scott Amione of Leadville left the start line behind his two German shorthair pointers, it was a near white-out and Amione quickly disappeared from view.

He returned from the six-mile race about 40 minute later, 10 minutes or so slower than his normal pace.

“It was pretty slow and at times the visibility wasn’t very good,” said Amione, who in 2005 became the first American to medal in the World Skijoring Championships. “But these dogs love to run and the weather didn’t seem to bother them.”

Amione was closely followed by Fritz Howard of Leadville, who said the wind at times made it difficult to see the course.

The new snow continued to pile up all day, and by 1 p.m. another 6 inches or so had fallen on top of the 9 that was recorded by Saturday morning at Powderhorn Ski Resort.

“It’s better than the race at Winter Park earlier this year,” said Harper, who’s been racing dog sleds for 30 years. “There, we have maybe 6 inches of snow on rocks.

“You usually won’t find dog sledders complaining about too much snow.”

Bethka and other volunteers made rounds of the race course on a snowmobile pulling a small track packer, and that made a big difference when running the course, Edwards said.

“It really helped the course and made it easier for the dogs,” she said. “They really did great today, I’m so proud of each one.”

The conditions delayed the races by more than hour, which meant the dogs spent most of the day inside their kennels.

Once they were let out and the harnessing began, the air was filled with eager howls as the dogs, many of them huskies but a few hybrids, too, pawed and pranced in anticipation of a day’s exercise.

“These dogs love to run,” Fritz Howerd said. “They probably feel cheated if you brought them this far and kept them in the truck.”

At last word, the races were to continue at 9 this morning at the Summit Top parking lot, midway between the Skyway and County Line ski trail heads.


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