By Jack Russillo · 2 years ago
It’s going to be cold in the Pacific Northwest this winter, providing the perfect environment for dog sledding.
Never tried it before? We’ve got you covered. Here’s how two regional dog sledding companies are doing what they love and making this traditional snow sport experience available to anyone:
Laurence “Captain Larry” Roxby is passionate about his dogs.
It’s a big reason why his dog sled touring business is the only one in Washington state certified by the US Forest Service and why his Flying Furs racing team is famous throughout the PNW dog sledding scene.
Before he runs his team of Alaskan huskies each morning through some of the 186 miles of groomed trails in the Fish Lake Sno-Park northeast of Cle Elum, Roxby makes sure that their health is taken care of. By the time his clients arrive at 8:30 a.m. for the first run of the day a half hour later, the canines have already eaten over 16 ounces of homemade chicken soup to ensure that they’re properly fueled for the arduous day ahead of them. Roxby only runs his dogs in the morning—with the occasional exception during the winter—to ensure that his team never runs above 60 degrees and doesn’t risk getting dehydrated. It’s this attention to detail that’s helped keep his dogs in racing shape for long periods of time. For example, his oldest companion, a 14-year-old husky named, “The Traveler”, has run over 28,000 miles during his life and is likely participating in his final running season this winter.
As Roxby goes over his safety instructions, the dogs are led out of their large white trailer—already fitted with their booties and harnesses—and fastened to the tug lines that secure them to the rest of the sled. The guides, many of which have at least 10 years of sledding experience, then help their guests settle into the six-foot bed of the sleigh for their hourlong excursion through fir trees trees, along snow banks, and across rivers.
Some of the antsier dogs—Roxby compares their energy “10-year-old boys on Red Bull”—can’t seem to hold still while they wait to start running. Others sit calmly on their hind legs waiting for the call from their master. One or two might take the opportunity for an early bathroom break. Once the clients are tucked securely beneath their wool blankets, a silence creeps over the group as the dogs begin to realize that they’re close to takeoff. Roxby belts out an emphatic “HIKE!” and the dogs are off to the races.
The huskies run as hard as possible—reaching speeds up to 20 miles per hour—during the initial seven-mile downhill portion of the trail. As they continue on to flatter ground, they slow down to around 10 miles per hour.
As the sleds make their way up various switchbacks on the trail, the dogs are usually the first to notice any other forms of life. It’s not uncommon for the huskies to bark at cougars, bobcats, lynx, or snowshoe hares. But their owner has trained them well, and they continue to haul their human cargo further up into the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Roxby notes that big cat sightings occur about once a week, particularly in the early-morning runs. After passing over the Chiwawa River and by the Trinity mining camp, the sled arrives back at the trailhead for a homemade meal before parting ways.
Reservations required, $165, $110 per child for one-hour rides
When people show up to Mount Bachelor’s dog sledding touring company, they usually aren’t overly disappointed to learn they won’t get to control a dog sled on their own.
The first activity that draws guests in is typically brushing the dogs—a crossbreed between German shorthaired pointers and Alaskan huskies known as Eurohounds—which the owners of the dog sled ride company say is important for developing a relationship with the friendly canines. Next, it’s time to feed the leaner husky crossbreeds snacks while instruction begins on how to act in the sled.
Oregon Trail of Dreams’ founder Jerry Scedoris started dog sledding in 1977 and opened up the central Oregon touring company in 1992 to give more people the opportunity to experience the traditional method of snow travel. In the last decade, he’s seen over 45,000 people come through the dog sledding operation at Mount Bachelor. His daughter, Rachael Scdoris, has been mushing since she was three years old and is a four-time veteran of Alaska’s 1,000-mile Iditarod race. A one-time winner of the U.S. Paralympic Cycling National Championship, the younger Scedoris became the first legally blind person—she was born with congenital achromatopsia—to complete the race when she finished 57th in 2006. Rachael and her husband, Nicholas Salerno, now own and run the business. Between the two of them and the rest of their staff, they have more than 100 years of mushing experience to help explain why they require a trained musher to steer the sled.
Huddled in a circle at the ski resort’s lodge, Jerry tells the detailed history of the sport before Rachael goes over the basic things to know before getting settled on the sled: wear waterproof clothing; fasten your hats and gloves tight; and, most importantly, keep all of your limbs inside of the wood-and-aluminum toboggan at all times. Controlling a pack of at least eight fit dogs and keeping a sled upright can be a tricky ordeal, so they instruct beginners to lean into the sled when going around corners to help eliminate the risk of tipping over and also consolidate momentum for increased speeds.
After the dogs have been properly fed and the new mushers have been educated, it’s time to get everyone properly situated into their sled. Depending on the trail conditions, eight to 12 dogs are garnered with harnesses and fastened to the sled. Days with more fresh powder or slush on the trail require more dogs while smoother, groomed snow allows for fewer dogs to haul the human cargo, which the elder Scdoris assures never goes above 450 pounds.
Once the hounds and their reins are set to the sled, the customers take their turns stepping into the seven-foot-long sled basket. The guides then help the client(s) onto the two-feet-wide platform below the basket, with their knees bent in front of them, and cover them with a wool blanket. If multiple guests are on a single sled, then they should be sure to get as comfortable as possible, as they will not be changing positions until the ride is complete.
In the moments between getting secured on the sled and take-off, one’s view is full of steamy dog exhales and wagging tails. After the musher deems all dogs and human cargo ready to go, they shout out a release word like “Hey!” and the sled bursts forward. The dogs, excited for their first run of the day, take off at maximum effort.
The initial portion of the normal course at Bachelor starts downhill, allowing for speeds up to 15 miles per hour in the early going. As the ground flattens out, the pace will decrease to below 10, closer to the average speeds of sled teams participating in the Iditarod. Roxby’s huskies in Washington are able to reach slightly higher maximum speeds than the Scedoris’ pointers because of their increased muscle mass, but the pointers have an advantage in endurance with their leaner frames.
The trail descends some 500 feet down the mountain, weaving between hemlock groves up near 6,000 feet of elevation before carving through Douglas fir and pine trees at the bottom of the runs. The 10,000-foot peaks of the Cascades loom in the distance. The sled passes by a snow-covered lava flow before returning back to the lodge. From there, guests are welcome to stay and hang out with the guides and the dogs before heading off the mountain.
$118 for one hour, $590 for two adults for half-day