It’s a cold, misty morning in western Colorado. The hypnotic silence, embellished by waves of rolling ice-fog, is broken by the grinding growl of the customized dog transport vehicle emerging through the haze. My dog sledding day is beginning at the privately owned Lazy J Ranch in Wolcott as a guest of Mountain Musher Dog Sled Rides, a family-owned operation that has run tours since 1989.
As the stars of the show are unloaded from the truck by the mushers, I am greeted with curious woofs and eager eyes. Most of Mountain Musher’s 86 dogs are medium-sized, athletic husky hybrids, and sled teams are chosen by the work ethic and chemistry of the individual canines. Whimpers of excitement erupt into a chorus of enthusiastic howls as the teams are fit into their harnesses and prepped for the trail. As the passengers are loaded into the sleds, the dogs are nearly delirious with anticipation. Even the old, seasoned vets on the sled team wag their tails as the moment draws near. The younger pups are trembling with energy.
Driving my team today is Sarah, daughter of Mountain Musher owner and founder Wally Glass. In her mid-20s, friendly and mountain pretty, when Sarah switches to “musher-mode” her voice resonates with confidence and authority. Our lead dogs Sassy and Shyka hang on her every command and for a moment the entire team is still.
“Go Sassy! Go Shyka! Woof, woof, woof!” With an unexpected and powerful jolt, the team springs to action. Having secretly doubted the power of these seemingly undersized dogs, the speed and acceleration is quite a thrill. Snug and bundled in the sled, I get a dog’s eye view of the powdered aspen trees as we cruise through alpine corridors. The team displays its true power as we hit an incline, where the dogs dig in and continue to muscle the sled under Sarah’s masterful commands. She eases the team into a more moderate pace as we top out into an exposed meadow.
As we glide into the foothills, I learn more about Mountain Musher’s history from Sarah. Her father is an affable mountain man with a thick red beard and a twinkle in his eye, resembling a not-yet-of-age Santa Claus. After trying out dog sledding as a young man, he was hooked, and it wasn’t long before Wally placed mushing at the center of his universe. Critical of the harsher traditional mushing methods, Wally was determined to prove that you didn’t have to intimidate or frighten dogs into being good sled teams. With a gentle approach that respected the dogs’ natural desire to please — and to run — he taught himself the intricacies of dog handling. Indeed, every dog I met was approachable, well-behaved and had a sweet demeanor. It was evident that besides working hard, these dogs are loved.
And they love to run. When commanded to stop, it took only seconds before their legs became jittery and impatient. Sarah explains that the tourist route is kind of a tease to the dogs. Even though our adventure is two hours long, the dogs could run for much longer.
Because of their husky roots, the cold weather is a non-factor. The team has comfortably run in temps as low as minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit. When not taking guests out, Sarah and Wally will take the dogs out on much longer private runs.
At the midway point of the trail, we stop for hot chocolate and pumpkin bread made by Wally’s wife, Denise. I stretch my legs and play with the happy dogs. While Sarah and the other mushers make handling the dogs seem easy, it’s a lot of work to develop a well-oiled team.
When we load up to finish the loop back to the trailhead, I am given a chance to “lead” the team. Of course the dogs know better — if they actually listened to the commands of the goofy tourist barely able to balance on the sled runners, we’d probably smash into a tree in three seconds.
There’s no doubt Sarah is still in charge, but the dogs humor me nonetheless. And it’s awesome to do some actual mushing. I can see why Wally fell in love with it.
Dog sledding must be experienced to be fully appreciated. The two hours flew by, and I was left wanting more. I wondered if I could enlist my border collie and eight or 10 of my friends’ dogs to create my own motley sled team.
“Probably not a good idea,” Wally advises with a laugh.
Mountain Mushers is a family owned business run by Wally Glass and operates tours out of Wolcott, Colorado (about 10 miles west of Beaver Creek right off I-70). To visit Mountain Mushers and book a tour, visit their web site at www.mountainmusher.com, or give them a call at 970-653-7877.