For thousands of years humans have assembled teams of dogs to transport themselves (as well as other items of significance) across the cold arctic regions of the planet. It is a tradition that nearly all human beings are aware of. Most have seen images or video of popular dog sled races like the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest. While the average American probably views this tradition as a recreation activity, or a sport that takes place somewhere far away, for many cultures across North America, Russia, and Mongolia, teams of dog sleds have been, and still are, an integral part of day-to-day life.
Sometimes the only way to truly understand something is to experience it for yourself. A small taste of the dog sledding experience can be found at Good Times Adventures, just outside of Breckenridge, Colorado. Over 150 dogs are kept here, ready to take those that wish to sample this experience on a short dog sledding voyage. Dogs kept here get to live quite an active life, typically going on two voyages per day with customers throughout the season. When it is time for a trip, they howl in anticipation, impatiently await the go-ahead from the tour guide, and enthusiastically begin to pull their passengers across the snow. What an experience!
Going on a 60-90 minute dog sledding tour on a sunny afternoon in Breckenridge leaves plenty of additional time in the day for other activities. As a season pass holder to Vail Resorts (a pass called the EPIC pass) that other activity is pretty obvious- skiing! Breckenridge ski resort (part of the pass), is located less than half an hour from Good Times Adventures. We planned our sled trip to begin at 1:15 in the afternoon, and used the morning to ski. Morning is often the best time to ski, as snow conditions deteriorate as the day progresses (due to use) more frequently than not. Following a series of major snow accumulations to start off 2014, snow conditions were ideal at Breckenridge ski resort today.
I will post more about Breckenridge ski resort, as well as the other ski resorts I ski regularly during wintertime, later.
After several hours of great skiing, it was time to meet the dogs. The eight-dog team was made up of huskies. Across the north, huskies are traditionally used to transport lighter amounts of cargo at a faster speed. This, of course, includes people. For heavier cargo, the Alaskan Malamute is often used. Essentially, a team of huskies would be analogous to a car in today’s world, while a team of malamutes would be analogous to a truck.
The dogs we met at the resort were friendly. Towards us, they were friendly almost in a business-like way. It almost felt like they had some kind of understanding that we were customers and that they are conducting a business. Sometimes dogs have this eerie way of sensing a situation, and us humans cannot even begin to figure out how they do it. Almost every dog owner can think of one instance in which they came home quite upset and found their dog ready to give them a comforting embrace. These dogs seemed understand that we were customers and not their owners/friends quite clearly.
One of the dog was briefly too friendly with his female companion. But, hey, with almost two hundred dogs and an expanding business, Good Times Adventures could probably use a few more puppies from time to time- no matter what the source.
I was pleasantly surprised that I got to actually drive the sled, exactly the way the mushers do it on the dog sledding circuit. The tour guide gave us all a brief lesson on how to steer, how to break, and some basic strategies (like leaning into a turn). While I am sure there is a lot more to what professional mushers do, and that they do it at faster speeds on tougher courses, it definitely felt real. I was really experiencing the culture that brought us the tradition of dog sledding, albeit only a sample.
Most activities are not truly appreciated until they are experienced. It is for this reason that people who participate or have participated in a sport are more likely to be fans of that sport. It is the understanding of what is happening that only a fellow participant can relate to. The speed at which the dogs are able to pull the sled across the snow is something that must be experienced. Speed feels differently depending on the venue. When I am able to get up to 30 mph on my bike it feels quite a bit different from skiing at 30 mph, and nothing like the extremely uninspiring experience of driving a car at 30 mph. The same can be said of the speed at which the dogs pull the sled. My first up close view of the dogs pulling another sled across the snow, and when I first hopped on the sled and experienced it myself surprised me quite a bit. Huskies truly are amazing dogs!
According to the tour guide, huskies are built for temperatures well below 0 (F), and it is at those temperatures that they feel the most comfortable. Today’s temperatures in the lower 30s were therefore quite hot for these dogs. Combined with the strenuous workout of pulling a sled at high speeds, the dogs were overheating. In order to cool off, at every stopping point (we stopped regularly to give everyone multiple turns driving the sled) many of the dogs would actually jump into the snowbanks along the edge of the trail in order to cool off. Some even basically covered themselves in snow! I could not imagine living somewhere where I would regularly overheat in the middle of winter- let alone summer.
How we transport ourselves is an important aspect of our culture, and one of the ways we define who we are. Route 66 remains an icon of American culture of the 1930s-1960s era. The bicycling world remains its own community with its own identity. And, one of the main differences between modern urban, suburban, and rural cultures is the manner in which we transport ourselves. Without trains, and eventually cars, the United States of America would not be what it is.
Without sled dogs, the culture of the north would not be what it is either. By partaking in the main transportation mechanism of the cultures of the north, I was participating in their culture. I was experiencing what they experience. I was partaking in an activity that created a way of life, and was later harnessed to save an entire town from an epidemic.