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Mushing in the Rocky Mountains

Dogsledding in the Rocky Mountains

by Amanda Castleman

Tongue flapping, the spotted mongrel churned the chest-deep snow. He lunged, twisting on the tugline: just one bell on the tangled wind chime of baying hounds. Then - hike! - the team shot forward over the crusted powder. And we were off, dogsledding in the Rocky Mountains.

Balanced on back runners - slender strips of plastic-coated ash - I was living the legend. I was Iditarod champion DeeDee Jonrowe. I was Anarulunguaq, the first female Arctic explorer, an Inuit woman who helped Knud Rasmussen 2,000 miles across the Northwest Passage in 1923-4.

"Call of the Wild" was a write-off, fantasy-wise, since old Jack London barely acknowledged the fairer sex in his bleak Gold Rush books. So I had to settle for Jessie Arnold, musher and mystery novel heroine.

Dogsledding at the Rockhouse Ranch
Racing across a hillside in Gunnison-Crested Butte.

In my imagination, I was racing through icy drifts, lit only by the Aurora Borealis. In reality, I was skimming around a snowcat track in the Rockhouse Ranch field just outside Gunnison, Colorado.

Never mind, though. The mushing magic was still potent. And, on the plus side, the temperature was a balmy 31°F, rather than those disturbing negative numbers that can lead to amputated limbs.

The dogs, however, were feeling the heat. Husky mixes run best around zero degrees: the alpine air - so harsh to this lowlander - left them twitchy.

Canines basically sweat through their mouths, as guide John Bach of the Lucky Cat Dog Farm pointed out. The dogs' panting releases 90 percent of their excess body heat. Every few minutes, a dog bent and sucked a swallow of snow. "It's called dipping," he said. "They're not thirsty, they're cooling their tongues. It's their version of air conditioning."

Internal furnaces stoked by fats, they charged forward. In Arctic race conditions, these animals average 150 miles a day, burning up to 10,000 calories. Ours are, well, a bit underwhelmed by the cushy conditions in the Rockhouse Ranch back pasture.

"They're bored," John explained. Sled dogs can lope 20 mph. After an initial burst, our team downshifted to about 7 mph. Impatient, I eyed the Elk Mountains. If we busted loose, we could have apres-mush cocktails in Aspen 40-odd miles away. But no, this is just a taster, not an expedition. The call of the wild was replaced by the photo call: my afternoon was earmarked for a college president interview, an art gallery tour and some boutique browsing, at the request of the local tourist board.

So I savored the moment at hand, my two quick turns around the track. John did the heavy lifting; calling out commands, operating the three brakes and, quite literally, dragging his feet to encourage turns. A musher shifts their weight on the sledge, sometimes even trailing a boot, rudder-like, in the snow.

Women Dogsledders
Female mushers have an edge over men in dogsledding due to their lower center of gravity and lighter body weight.

"That's why women have an edge in this sport," John confided. "They have a lower center of gravity than men, plus their body weight is usually lighter."

"Yes! Finally, hips are used for the power of good," I chortled. John stirred nervously on the runners. Maybe he sensed I was scheming a break for hills ... or the Continental Divide, as the case may be.

"Men can be very bitter about female mushers," he continued. Such straight talk made a good impression. I decided not to push this kindly guide off the sled. I would not be a Woman Who Ran With Wolves that day.

Just what sort of wolves were these anyway? The tongue- poker was small with spots: certainly not my vision of a fluffy and ferocious White Fang. "He's got some bird dog in him," John said. In fact, most competitors are hybrids, blending some Siberian Husky, Samoyed and Malamute with, perhaps, German Shorthair or English pointer.

Archaeologists suggest dogsledding dates back 4,000 years in Siberia and North America. Natives of the Southwest also hooked canines to travois - two-pole drag-carts. This remained popular until the early Spanish explorers introduced horses.

Mushing shot to glory during the 1890s Gold Rush to Alaska and the Yukon. A sled relay hustled lifesaving serum across the raw, frigid wilderness between Anchorage and Nome in 1925. Nonstop, dog teams sprinted the last 700 miles at temperatures 50 degrees below zero. Legend claims that wind toppled the last sled: the musher clawed barehanded through the snow to save the medicine, which defeated Nome's diphtheria epidemic. The Iditarod - the "Last Great Race on Earth" - commemorates this heroic effort with a 1,100-odd-mile odyssey each spring.

The 1932 Lake Placid Winter Olympics first featured mushing, which now has over 20,000 racers worldwide, according to the International Sled Dog Racing Association ( The sport ranges farther south than most imagine, even to Florida, where huskies yank carts (called "gigs") through beach sand. However, six-eight inches of snow is the minimum base for a smooth ride.

The Village of Crested Butte
The Victorian Mountain
Village of Crested Butte.

Three feet of snow dumped on Gunnison recently, so we were fine there. The drifts averaged shoulder-height in the nearby Victorian mountain village of Crested Butte. Icicles drooled down three stories from some roofs. The lifts at the resort, perking up under new management, required, oh, a two-minute wait. The vibe was mellow, laced with genuine smiles and more blaring classic rock, surely, than any other ski town on earth. This swathe of Colorado really might break my heart, if only, only, I could be a true leader of the pack.

As the dogs loafed back into base, I finally settled on a more realistic daydream: I was Pam Flowers. This petite lady quit her therapy job in Texas, moved to Alaska and learned to mush at age 35. Eleven years later, she dogsledded 2,500 miles across the Arctic, the longest female solo on record. She retraced the route covered by Anarulunguaq and Rasmussen, across the "frozen roof of the world", the top of America.

Her self-financed expedition persevered through darkness, isolation, one of the stormiest winters on record, a polar bear attack and melting sea ice. The Society of Women Geographers awarded her its gold medal in 1996: she's in good company, the likes of Amelia Earhart, Margaret Mead and Jane Goodall.

Flowers barely scraped over five feet and 100lbs at the start of her journey, chronicled in the book "Alone Across the Arctic". This Everywoman blossomed into a heroine, a modern-day explorer.

Pam Flowers was tough and Pam Flowers was patient ... which is obviously something I need to learn, no matter how mushy I get about dog sledding.

If You Go...

Lucky Cat Dog Farm
Becky Barkman
900 County Road 13
Gunnison, CO 81230

Wild Women Expeditions

Adventures In Good Company
913 Brackenridge Avenue
Baltimore, MD 21212

Photo Courtesy:
crestedbutte: (Photo by Paul Gallaher, courtesy of Gunnison-Crested Butte Tourism Board) dogsled: (Photo by Tom Stillo, courtesy of Gunnison-Crested Butte Tourism Board.