Dogs Working

Our destination was Tin Cup.

Just three people live in Tin Cup. It’s a sort of ghost town making a comeback up in the mountains near Gunnison, Colorado. In summer temporary residents show up for the glorious mountain scenery and remote trails through Gunnison National Forest. But the three permanent residents mean that in winter the county plows the road just enough so they can get in and out on snowmobiles or four-wheel drives. If it snows.

It’s snowed. Snowed enough for our transportation to be happy about it. To be, in fact, ecstatic about it. Of course, snowmobiles and four-wheel drives don’t get ecstatic about much of anything, but our transportation would be a runnered sled and a team made of equal parts enthusiasm and fur coats.

Our transportation would be led by Pilgrim, running loose up the road, ranging side to side, exploring and okaying everything ahead, checking out the woods from time to time, and the whole time running. Running like only a happy dog runs, a dog doing everything possible to make the trip a success. Pilgrim is eleven years old.

One other dog ran loose as well, Lily, who functioned as a sort of dignitary. Lily’s job was mostly self-defined, but it seemed to consist of checking in with the passengers from time to time. She would run for long stretches until occasionally bumping alongside the passenger area, hopping aboard right on top of everything else, and checking things out. Five to six minutes allowed her to catch her breath, and then she’d jump off and run again.

The other eight dogs made up the team. The team is harnessed in pairs, two in lead up front, two in wheel nearest the sled, and two more matched pairs as in-betweeners. The strongest pair pulled just behind lead. They were the younger dogs, just over a year old, their speed and endurance a given.

The two passengers, seated on the sled tucked into what amounted to a tent zipped open to the breeze had a down sleeping bag for additional warmth, on top of winter coats, snow-pants, wool socks, boots, oversized mittens, scarves, you-name-it. It was breezy for the passengers, but not frigid.

Behind the passengers our driver, Becky, stood on thin rails gripping the driver’s bow in her experienced, seriously-mittened hands. Becky is owner-operator of Lucky Cat Dog Farm out of Gunnison, her operation centered around training and running sled dogs. Becky doesn’t race the dogs, and she doesn’t breed the dogs. She selects them through adoption or purchase and makes sure they have what they need to work for a living. In the morning they get dry dog food, a technical mix assuring 28% protein and 35% fat, the fat being the essential. Their evening meal is either meat or bone served in their individual living quarters which are outdoor doghouses lined with fresh straw.

All the meat and bone are processed by Becky herself. A bandsaw and cutting table create individual portion-controlled hunks of deer and elk. It’s served raw, the meat thawed, the bone frozen. The meat and bone portions are all processed during fall hunting seasons, the castoffs and extras after dressing out the game. Becky processes enough for all the dogs for the entire year, packages it all in five-gallon buckets, and freezes it. She recently had to purchase a walk-in freezer, though until last year’s warmer-than-ever winter she could keep everything preserved merely by freezing it hard in winter and housing it carefully in a shaded shed. She keeps fifteen dogs, but sometimes boards a couple for other owners.

Becky brought ten dogs for our outing, so she kidded that the others left behind would be jealous this afternoon when everybody else got back home. And the five left back would have scrounged through all the doghouses and scattered last night’s elk bones all around their enclosure, but they would all find one again. Tonight would be meat night.

For us the trip wasn’t very much work. We first bundled into the sled interior for the trip out to Tin Cup, but later spouse and I both got a chance to “drive.” I went first, standing up in the sled while it was still in motion, turning around to grab one hand onto the driver’s bow and then maneuvering one boot onto the nearest runner. Becky moved a foot and my second boot came around as we shared duties in back. There really wasn’t anything to actually do, as the dogs see the route clearly and were following Pilgrim racing along ahead. We didn’t even have to shout, “Mush.”

At one point Becky mentioned that she had spotted a lost GPS from a previous trip laying along the roadside and wanted to retrieve it on the way back before it disappeared under fresh snow. Carol volunteered to jump out of the sled and grab it while Becky and I both stood on the snow brake. The plan sounded like it might turn into some kind of desperate maneuver, but in the end the team were agreeable enough to wait a few seconds. Just a few though. Once they saw her turn back to the sled they started pulling even against both of us on the brake, and Carol had to trot and jump into the moving vehicle. She had fun, and the GPS looked OK though the batteries were out. Carol eventually tried her hand at driving, just before the dogs returned us to our vehicles parked roadside where we’d left them two hours previous.

We got a chance to meet all the dogs and help remove their pulling harnesses. They like the entire process, because it includes petting. Rico & Isaac had wheel. Smokey & Shiva pull just ahead of them. Granger & Salmon (Sammy) are brother and sister pulling second. Sisters Xotil & Dulce pull lead. Shiva back farther is their third sister. They had just run 14 miles pulling a sled that weighed, loaded, over 600 pounds. Even divided eight ways it’s a substantial task.

After a short break and some water each dog was helped into their individual riding cubbies mounted atop their pickup. Except for Rico– he takes a running start and just jumps up and in all by himself. Last we assisted in getting the big sled itself up to the top of the roofmount. When everything was stowed we said our good-byes and thank yous.

If you’ve never had an opportunity to try dog-sledding I highly recommend the experience. Even to a rookie it was obvious how wonderfully happy these dogs are just to pull. Their rambunctious enthusiasm to get started included loud barking and a lot of jumping in place.

Just dress as warm as you can, because the main idea is that you’re traveling over snow. Pulled by eight small engines in warm coats.



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