Traveling at the Speed of Dog

By Beacon Staff

OLNEY – When the dogs see the rope that will secure them to the sled unfurled and laying on the snow, they start to moan and grumble to each other, to howl and yelp in anticipation of the run – except for Ricky. Katie Davis, 28, walks Ricky, 8, to the front of the gangline and secures it to his harness.

One of two lead dogs, Ricky, (inexplicably named after pop star Ricky Martin), is not like the other dogs. He is calm where they are frantic, stretching and looking straight ahead. “He is very serious about his job,” Davis says. Unlike some of his teammates, Ricky keeps his tongue in his mouth. He wears his game face, barely glancing behind as the other dogs are secured to the gangline in five rows of two, going back to the sled. The dogs that don’t get to go are heartbroken.

Davis likes Ricky as a leader because she can trust him. Some older sled dogs, she says, can grow wily, and begin to think they’re smarter than the musher commanding them. Davis, who competed in the 2006 Iditarod, has worked with leader dogs that veer in the opposite direction when she yells, “Gee!” the command for right or “Haw!” for left.

But cruising along a network of trails halfway between Whitefish and Olney at a brisk clip, Ricky and his co-leader, Nora, 4, respond instantly to commands, guiding the team around sharp turns and pulling hard and fast along flat stretches – even while a reporter huddles in the sled’s basket, jostled and struggling to scribble notes on a wet pad.

Davis, along with Brooke Bohannon and her husband Sean Hard, both 32, are training the dogs for the first ever Flathead Sled Dog Days, a race series scheduled for January 4, 5, and 6 on a 100-mile course in the Stillwater State Forest. As of last week, 28 teams from all over the country had signed on for the race, and more are expected to join as the deadline approaches. “Mushers are notoriously late,” Bohannon says.

The event will have two divisions: a 50-mile race for six-dog teams taking place over two days, and a 100-mile race for 12-dog teams over two days. A shorter event than the well-known 350-mile Race to the Sky, which passes through Seeley Lake and circles Lincoln, Bohannon and Davis hope their competition will bring mushing to the north valley.

As organizers, Davis and Bohannon will not be competing in the race, but they have been training the dogs for a surrogate musher since before snow fell, beginning in September with the sleddog team pulling a four-wheeler for 45-minute increments. Davis has about 20 dogs; Hand and Bohannon have 30. Between feeding, cleaning, watering and training, Davis estimates she spends about 50 hours a week on the dogs. “It becomes very time-consuming this time of year,” Bohannon says.

The women are nonplussed when asked what it is about mushing that compels them to dedicate every winter to long road trips into Alaska and Canada, and live at the end of a treacherous, snow-covered road with access to miles of trails – not to mention the care of dozens of dogs which, when excited, become quite vocal. Davis pauses. “I love dogs,” she says, shrugging.

Davis finished 59th in the Iditarod, noting that she finished with 15 out of 16 dogs, while many mushers who began with 16 dogs finish that race with as few as eight dogs – when many quit from exhaustion or injury. There is something different in dogs that finish the 1,151-mile race, she says, a new look in their eyes. “They know something,” Davis adds.

She and Bohannon have just about everything in place for the competition, but hope some snow between now and the event will improve trail conditions. Training last week, a few inches of light powder on the hard base beneath made for good conditions – save for ruts from the tire tracks of Christmas tree hunters, which threw the sled from side-to-side. The dogs were undeterred.

To someone new to mushing, three fundamental misconceptions exist about the sport that don’t reveal themselves until you’re on the sled, flying down the trail behind 10 dogs kicking snow in your face. First, no one actually yells “Mush!” anymore, instead mushers click or whistle to command the dogs to accelerate.

The second incorrect assumption is that the musher is the athlete. The dogs are the athletes and the musher is more like the coach, evaluating them to determine which dog pulls best in different positions and assessing fatigue on long rides. The dogs must also be monitored for damage to the pads of their paws. On this day, Bohannon puts booties on Roadie, a dog healing from a cracked pad.

“It’s our job to monitor how hard they’re going and make sure they maintain a certain amount of control,” Davis says.

The third mushing misconception consists of what’s difficult about controlling a team of dogs: It’s not the going, it’s the stopping and steering. The dogs are mid-sized and lean, with long legs and different colored coats. Davis and Bohannon feed their dogs a special high-protein food, and supplement it with meat and fat, which the dogs eat voraciously.

“They’re marathon athletes, so think about people who run the Boston marathon,” Bohannon says. “That’s what these dogs are.” Bred for competition and endurance racing, once set in motion, the dogs take hours of exertion and miles of pulling to fatigue. And once they’re cooking along, they don’t want to stop, even when the musher yells, “Whoa!”

Two slightly scary braking methods are employed. The first involves stepping on a cleated rubber plate suspended by bungee cords a few inches above the sled, between the two runners. Stepping on a flopping, snow-crusted piece of rubber while traveling at high speed requires a bit of practice. But it’s still slightly less-unnerving than using the snow hook, a large double-hook on a rope that can be stomped into the ground like an anchor once the dogs have slowed down enough, or stopped.

While stopping is tough, the travel is oddly peaceful. Its incongruously soothing nature makes for one of long-distance mushing’s hazards: It’s easy to nod off and fall from the sled. The dogs lunge and lope along, but they’re clearly happy doing what they were born to do. The dogs relieve themselves while they run, and at certain moments lean over and grab a mouthful of snow for a moment of distraction. But mostly, it’s quiet, and the only sound is the snow under the sled.

It’s a benefit of travel by dog not lost on Davis, who returns from inspecting the trail, at one point, on a noisy snowmobile in a cloud of exhaust.

“See,” she says, waving the smoke away. “That’s why dogs are better.”