ScoutingJanuary - February 2003

Novice Mushers Go to the Dogs

By Doug Smith

A Wisconsin high adventure base gives Venturing crew members their first taste of dogsledding as a winter outdoor activity.

Venturer Sara Rydén anxiously held on to her dogsled while the team of four huskies yipped, yowled, and yanked on their harnesses, desperate for the sled to be untied and their pent-up energy uncorked.

"O.K., ready?" staff instructor Katie Vanderhoof hollered above the din as she prepared to release the team. Sara nodded and a wide grin washed across the 17-year-old's face.

Whoosh. Dogs and driver lurched, then sped down the trail and disappeared into the snowy woods.

"Who's next?" Vanderhoof shouted to the other Venturers and Advisors in Crew 146 from Amery, Wis.

Welcome to dogsledding at Snow Base, one of the programs operated by the St. Paul, Minn.-based Indianhead Council.

"Dogsledding is our most exciting high adventure winter program," said Chris Nelson, program director of the council's Tomahawk Scout Reservation.

You'll get no argument from Sara Rydén and the seven other Venturers in Crew 146. The four boys and four girls (in grades 9 through 12) and two adult Advisors spent a weekend learning the thrills, and occasional spills, of dogsledding.

Learning the ropes

Each Venturer and Advisor drove a dogsled team. But prior to setting out, Vanderhoof, a veteran musher who owns the 28 Alaskan huskies used at Snow Base, gave them some basic lessons on dogsledding.

First, she showed how to tie a knot to hold the sled and team to a tree if the driver needs to stop. Crew members also learned how to put harnesses on squirming sled dogs.

Then Vanderhoof introduced the snub line—a rope connected to the sled and held by the driver.

"Become close personal friends with the snub line," she advised. "If you fall off and aren't holding on to it, you'll end up chasing your team down the trail."

The Venturers learned how to stand on the runners at the rear of the sled and how to use the "brake"—a chunk of snowmobile tread the driver steps on to slow the sled, its effectiveness dependent upon driver determination and dog strength and stubbornness.

"The dogs know how to go forward really well, but not [how to] stop," Vanderhoof said with a grin. "And 'sit' and 'stay' are not in their vocabulary."

Although dogs and driver can be seen speeding through the woods, it's a misconception that a musher simply goes along for the ride, Vanderhoof warned. "It's not just a joy ride; you guys will be working."

On the hills, a driver might have to get off and push the sled, or keep one foot on a runner and pedal with the other, like a scooter.

Few commands are needed, Vanderhoof explained. There's no need to shout "mush" to start the dog team. "Basically, just release the tension, and they'll go."

For turning, gee means "go right," and haw means "go left" (although at Snow Base, the dogs follow a trail they know well).

With the right snow conditions, dogs can pull a driver and sled over the trail at a good clip, Vanderhoof said. But when a team first takes off, a driver unprepared for the sudden lurch can be left in a heap while the sled careens driverless down the trail. And if a sled tips over, the dogs often will continue to pull it—with or without the driver dragging behind.

"There are three basic rules," Vanderhoof emphasized. "Don't let go. Don't let go. And don't let go."

Of dogs and drivers

The sled dog program has been a big hit, not only because it's fun and different, but because of the natural connection between the youths and the dogs.

"The kids just love it," Vanderhoof said.

Venturer Antonio Spargo, 17, concurred: "I like hanging out with the dogs. They're cool."

They are also something of a dichotomy.

Being readied, dogs bark and howl a deafening cacophony in excited anticipation. But once that suppressed energy is released, they run quietly and joyfully through the silent woods. The only sound is their panting, the rapid beat of their padded feet on the snow, and the swoosh of the plastic sled runners.

The Venturers' 10-mile trek through the hilly woods and fields took place on an unseasonably warm February afternoon. The softened snow on the normally hard-packed trails made it a more difficult workout for dogs and drivers alike. The young mushers quickly shed jackets and often stopped to quaff a drink from their water bottles.

And the dogs didn't always cooperate.

Lucas Malarski, 18, discovered that knowing the right knot sometimes wasn't enough.

"I managed to tie the dog team up to a tree once, so I could get a drink," he said. "But when I tried a few other times, they wouldn't let me."

Despite some anxiety and the unexpected hard work, the Venturers relished their dogsledding adventure.

"To get the dogs to go, you didn't have to say anything...just boom, they'd go," said Sara Rydén, an exchange student from Sweden. "It was harder than I thought it would be, [and] I had to get off and help the dogs get the sled up the hills."

"It was awesome," said Lucas Malarski, 18, the crew's other exchange student (from Poland). "It was a new experience, a good experience," he added, wiping sweat from his brow. "And the best part was going down the hills."

Melissa Jasperson, 15, had a different favorite moment during her first-ever dogsledding experience. "The best part was going through the slush puddles," she noted.

"Once I got out on the trail, I wasn't nervous," said Annika Spargo, 16. "The dogs went fastest at the beginning. On the hills, I had to get off and run with them.

"I'm tired, but it was fun."

Doug Smith is an outdoors writer in Minneapolis, Minn.

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