Dog Sled Rides of Winter Park

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I Want To Be A Dogsled Driver

by Ellen Nordberg

I want to be a dogsled driver. Hurling down mountain trails at 17 mph, chasing the sound of howling dogs and sled runners scraping ice. Running behind the 550 pound sled, then leaping to brace myself perpendicular between snowbanks and sled rails, as I effortlessly guide the sled around a tight curve. I could do this job.

My boyfriend Jon and I have taken a day off from the slopes of Aspen Mountain, during a January ski vacation, for our first ever dogsled ride. Jon has agreed to give up the bumps for today, if only to silence my curiosity about the sled drivers.

Our driver for the afternoon, Jeff Martin, a compact guy built of solid muscle, pushes back his jester hat and examines our garb through his Oakley wraparound shades.

We have dutifully adorned the required jumbo mukluk boots, which made our trek down the hilly slope to the sled area like trying to stroll through one of those moon-walk bubbles at the county fair. I peer out at Jeff through the snorkel face-hole of my enormous yellow parka, certain he is appraising me as a potential driver comrade.

Twelve Alaskan Huskies stand or sit in six rows, two across, before our sled, in brightly-colored harnesses attached to a central wire. Several of the dogs in the last row shift their focus from the rear end of another dog in order to check us out. A fluffy black dog with one blue eye and one brown, and another with a single eye and a fur patch where its mate should have been. Their names are Claire and Cyclops, Jeff tells us.

He puts Jon in the sled, and shoves him so he's sitting braced against the wall of the sled, legs part. I'm next, knees up, facing the dogs, wedged back into Jon's crotch by a push of Jeff's huge thigh, then enfolded in blankets. Already my butt begins to feel numb, but I have an awesome perspective on the dogs in front of us and the trail on either side. Loud grunts come from behind me. "I've got about the same view as Cyclops up there," Jon's muffled voice says. "Half of some dog's butt."

I move my head to one side, and we can feel Jeff moving around behind us, positioning himself on the sled rails. Let's go! I think, squirming restlessly under the blankets. Suddenly his voice calls out, "Penny! Elle!" and the two female dogs in front yank into gear, leading forty-eight paws joyfully through the snow in unison.

The 200 or so remaining dogs, each with their little house or platform, strain howling at their chains, disappointed to be left behind. Surprisingly, their noise sounds less like the barking of suburban dogs, and more like teenage girls screaming at a Leonardo DiCaprio sighting.

We come out of the woods as the dogs race along the catwalk of a Snowmass ski slope with "Caution Dogsled Crossing" painted on yellow signs. I glance over the edge, down the steep face of a black diamond run, realizing for the first time how much trouble we'd be in if Elle or Penny stopped paying attention.

"Ever get into accidents with skiers?" I ask.

"Yeah, occasionally they don't hear the dogs, don't hear the driver yelling at them," Jeff says, as I look up, picturing an expert skier flying over the crest above and landing in the midst of twelve moving dogs.

"A few bad accidents," Jeff continues. "But the dogs always come out OK."

We continue tumbling down the trail, like in a rollercoaster drop, careening across little bridges spanning creeks and ditches, the dogs gleefully churning up snow in their wake, and intermittently biting off chunks from the banks to quench their thirst. Jeff leaps off to man-handle the sled around a corner.

"How'd you get to be a dog sled driver?" I ask eagerly as he jumps back on behind us.

"I came to Aspen, racked up a big bar tab, and had to find a job to pay it off." Cool.

"No, actually I got tired of being a programmer in Corporate America," Jeff says. "And I'd met one of the drivers here, and it seemed like a good time. Penny, Penny, GEE," he calls out, as the dogs veer right and across a mountain-rimmed meadow.

I ask about the qualifications, certain that my stint as a water aerobics instructor would make me a shoe-in. Behind me, Jon flaps his arms and wiggles his feet in an effort to generate circulation.

"Well, you generally have to be big, and pretty strong," Jeff replies. "A lot of the guys are over six feet."

I could grow.

"I was a power-lifter and a wrestler," he continues. "So that worked in my favor. Hup Elle, Hup!" he yells to the dogs over our heads. "And you've got to be able to lift the dog food barrel - 350 pounds of lard and kitchen scraps from the restaurant on the hill."

I'm not so sure about the lifting. Then Susan Butcher, four-time winner of the Alaskan Iditarod dogsled race, and snacker of butter sticks rolled in pure cane sugar, comes to mind.

"How many women drivers are there?" I say.

"Uh, actually, none," Jeff says. "Not yet anyway."

"What do you do in training camp?" I ask, undaunted, envisioning 11 manly men and me running the trails in heavy boots, bench-pressing sleighs.

"Chop wood for the restaurant, dig out the sled trails, train the dogs, and run them to get 'em back in shape after the summer," he says as I nod. Yes, I could do these things. The dogs would love me!

"Oh, and shovel poop," he adds.

Poop?

"You start out each morning at 7:30 with a shovel and a bucket. You fill the bucket, and then fill the wheelbarrow," Jeff says guiding the sled away from a snowdrift.

I wrinkle my nose.

"Where does it all end up?" Jon's muffled voice inquires from behind me. I'm intrigued by the topic with which he has chosen to break his silence. "Some kind of mulch or manure pile?"

"Ah, yeah," Jeff says. "Something like that. We just call it the Shit Pit."

Then Jeff tells us it's time for dogs and humans alike to take a rest, as the dogs love to run so much, they'd run until they drop without a forced break. The dogs stand panting, and Jeff pries me off of Jon, where I promptly collapse in a heap at Jeff's feet in the snow, pins and needles pricking at my useless thighs. My Wonder Woman Dogsled Driver image seems to be developing a few chinks.

While we stretch our legs, Jeff feeds the dogs pieces of bacon, and we ask him about the off-season. Does he have a different job? He tells us he takes the summer off and travels around the country, and I wonder about the other drivers, are they Baywatch lifeguards or street lugers in the summer?

"Well, there's one guy who's a conservationist," he says. "And there's this other guy who's an exotic dancer." So much for the manly men.

Jon studies a pair of impatient dogs as they climb back and forth over each other in line. "Is the breeding controlled?" he asks.

"Yeah," Jeff answers with a smile, dropping bacon pieces and patting dogs, "By the dogs. Sometimes a dog gets loose in the yard, or their chains are too long. And sometimes, they just get really creative while hooked up to the sled." He leans to untangle Cyclops' leg in his harness. "Sometimes you look at them, and think, 'how the hell did they do that? I've gotta try that one.'"

Jon snickers and I focus on mastering my moon boot walk. Jeff trundles us back into the sled and we prepare for our return ride to the kennels. As the dogs fly across the trails, Jon gets Jeff to describe the various hazards of his job: broken thumbs from heavy sled motions, concussions from being flung off backwards, slipping on the ice while carrying the food barrel.

As we arrive back at the base, I swivel my snorkel jacketed face around the area, searching for the Shit Pit, having second thoughts about my new career. As Jeff pulls the sled up short, a chorus of barking ensues, all the buddies of Elle, Penny, Claire, Cyclops and gang welcoming them home. As I stagger out of the sled, another brawny driver approaches us with an armload of fur.

"Would you like to hold one of the puppies?" Jeff asks.

I push back my hood, extend my arms. Ice blue eyes stare up at me out of a gray and white face. Fur as soft as cashmere rubs my chin, and a tiny tongue traces a trail along my cheek. I look over at Jon, green eyes grinning at me over his own furry handful. I want to be a dogsled driver.

published November, 1998 in the Rocky Mountain Sports


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