Experience the Rush of a Mush in beautiful Colorado
By Debi Lander
Welcoming howls start a barking chain that reverberates through the valley and tickles my spine. Mushers- burly dogsled trainers and drivers-manipulate dog legs through openings in a harnesses; their motions reminiscent of children dressing Barbie dolls. Tugging here, repositioning a strap there, then straightening out the lines. As preparations continue, blankets cocoon riders, like babies swaddled into bunting.
Hike,” shouts John Holly and the team proceeds, inching forward. Holly, our charismatic musher, stands on the back of the platform controlling the canines with the tone and intensity of his voice.
“Lez go, lez go,” he slurs and the pack picks up speed.
I’m squished against the back of a hickory dogsled at Krabloonik Kennels, tucked in the mountains of Snowmass, Colorado, near Aspen. My companion, Chris, sits between my outstretched legs, practically on top of me. No, we’re not carrying medicine to save a town, like the Disney movie, Balto, or racing in the Iditarod. We’re simply experiencing the ancient form of transportation that helped sustain the Inuit population.
Most often, ten to twelve mixed-breed Huskies run two across, in harnesses tethered to a central tug line. Usually a male and female work side by side, however, our group contains only nine. Pal, the wheel dog, controls the rear, muscling the weight of two. The pairs closest to the sled pull the hardest, while the lead duo master the driver’s commands. The middle of the pack members, I’m told, include good followers or dogs-in-training.
A sled, two adult passengers and the driver typically weigh-in at 550 pounds. So, according to my calculations, each dog pulls approximately 50- 60 pounds, close to their own weight, over the ten mile journey. Hardcore doggies!
We skim over a crest and cross a catwalk, my heart racing as I peer over the trail's steep edge. Then, we plod on through Brush Creek Valley, darting through flakes the size of silver dollars that coat our oversized parkas, mukluk boots and ski goggles.
“Haw Betty,” Holly calls, requesting a turn to the left. The well-trained team moves in unison, proceeding round a bend. Chris and I sense a familiar and unpleasant odor- fresh dog poop. Alonzo is letting go as he runs along. We let go with giggles.
Onward, the sled passes rushing streams and abandoned ranches; only specks of hunter green pine and spruce peeking through. We’re in the white world of Narnia. Being a Floridian, I’m enthralled with the shimmery frosting on the slender branches of the aspen trees.
About five miles into our ride, the group slows to the command “whoa.” Dan Mac Eachen, Krabloonik’s owner, explains, “The dogs would run until they drop without a forced break. They’re pack animals exhilarated by their daily outing.”
Hopping off the back of the sled, Holly approaches us with a command, "Sit," and Chris and I dare not move an inch. Then he asks for my camera, "Smile," and clicks our picture entombed in the winter fantasyland. Just who's trained here?
We scramble out of the sled and are encouraged to pet the panting animals. Affectionate Glue, at the front of the line, licks my face, as I stroke his back. “Good doggy,” I tell him. According to Dan, lead dogs are capable of working all positions, but, by instinct, are born leaders. And contrary to common beliefs, leads are not the biggest, strongest or meanest. Glue, in fact, is the smallest of the team.
While sled dogs make excellent pets, these fellas are not domesticated and certainly not housebroken. Each of the 250 in the extended family has their own little hut with a twelve foot chain, allowing a limited roam. Mushers clean all the kennels and maintain their team.
Dan has been breeding hybrids for Krabloonik from three original sled dog types: Malamute, Eskimo and Siberian, often referred to as Huskies. He mates them with Pointers, dogs with shorter hair. The mixed breeds seem to manage the Colorado summer better than Alaskan Huskies, who over-heat.
Our tail waggers wait impatiently as we cram back into the sled. They turn their heads toward the musher, begging the command “hike” to start the return journey. We’re off, then suddenly the sled stops, rounding a corner. Seems to be time for a synchronized leg lift -a team pee into the now amber snow bank. “Do they always behave like this?” I ask.
“Pretty much,” says our driver laughing again, “a favorite spot.”
As we approach home, enthusiastic yelping returns; the call of the wild from the waiting family greeters.
“Have you seen the newest members?” Holly asks. Nellie has three young puppies that meander at will, charming guests. All newbies hang free until serious training begins around 18 months.
I nab a pup with cobalt eyes and am smitten; but then, I've always been a sucker for puppies and babies. I savor his distinctive puppy breath, full of delicious new life. Doggone it, I hate that my ride and visit are over.
If you go:
Krabloonik Kennels and Restaurant, Snowmass, Colorado, http://www.krabloonik.com/
Winter half-day dog sled rides include a three course gourmet lunch in Krabloonik’s rustic log cabin restaurant. Cost per adult is $265. Summer kennel tours affordably priced at $6.00.
Snowmass Village, a 25-square-mile mountain town, neighbors historic Aspen, CO. Year round activities abound in thee heart of the Elk Mountains and the Maroon Bells Wilderness area, formerly hunted and fished by the Ute Indians.
Winter features 147 miles of downhill ski trails, 43 miles of Nordic cross-country terrain, an outstanding ski school and numerous family activities. Lift tickets and free shuttles connect Snowmass with Aspen Mountain, Buttermilk and Aspen Highlands ski areas.
Summer highlights include music and movie festivals, rodeos, horseback riding, hiking and biking.