A Man and His Dogs

By Beacon Staff

I’ve never fancied myself a musher, a driver of a sled of dogs. I’m more the kind to huddle in a cozy cafe and read about some intrepid musher braving cold, ice, and sudden death to deliver critical supplies to a desperate small town in the frozen Arctic. So, given that it was far too early in the season for a dog-sledding trip, I felt safe as I drove down the Ferndale driveway, noting as I made the five-minute drive from downtown Bigfork, how quickly and easily one can attain the feeling of absolute wilderness. Mark Schurke was waiting for me at the end of the driveway. Mark, along with his wife Samantha, own and run the dogsledding operation known as Base Camp Bigfork.

It’s impossible, as I open the car door, to ignore the sound of the dogs. Not a bark, not quite a howl, more a kind of yodel. “During the summer,” Mark explains, “they’re pretty quiet. Probably wouldn’t pay any attention to you driving up. But now that the nights are getting colder, they know that winter is coming and they’re getting excited.” About winter? “These are all Inuit dogs,” he continues. “The Inuit people have lived with these dogs for centuries. The dogs are bred to co-exist with humans and to pull sleds. They know when the weather gets cold, they get to pull. And for that, they’re full of energy.”

It’s not really a kennel where the dogs live, more a dog park. Each enclosure, about the size of a suburban backyard, holds two or three dogs. “Dogs are pack animals,” Mark tells me. “They like each other’s company.” A pair of dogs sharing a kennel play with each other as we talk, the play ranging from petting to biting, but clearly a happy interaction of an amiable, energetic breed. “We have 15 dogs, which gives us two teams of six and three spares.”
I ask about the dogsledding experience Base Camp offers. “I learned dogsledding from my uncle, Paul Schurke. Probably better known as an Arctic explorer, he also owns a 70-dog operation in Northern Minnesota, where I worked as a guide for five years. At Base Camp Bigfork, we can take up to four adults at a time, maybe another one or two if they’re kids. And they mush the teams. If there are two per sled, they usually trade off.” I do a little quick arithmetic. Two sleds, four guests. Mark anticipates my question. “I make the trips on cross-county skis. That leaves me free to launch the sleds and, if I’m going at a sprint, I can lead the dogs.”

Launch the sleds? “Yes, I liken the start to a launch of the space shuttle. You’re all tucked in or holding on to this sled and the dogs are eager to go. Especially the first start, it feels a bit like launching into the great unknown. You do what you’ve been trained and trust in the system. Not many of us get to pilot a space shuttle, but …”

And how far and how fast? “Our basic trips are either half or full day trips,” he says, “although we also do winter camping and multi-day trips with lodging. On a half-day trip, we’ll probably cover eight to nine miles of trail. The dogs normally pull the sled at about the speed of a fast jog and on the narrow trail, where you’re jumping over fallen logs, dodging branches, and negotiating sharp turns, it seems plenty fast. In an all out sprint, the dogs can run faster than a man, probably about 20 miles per hour.”
OK, if I hadn’t been terribly excited about the prospect of mushing a team of dogs through the frozen hills at first, Mark’s enthusiasm is infectious. I’d never really thought about piloting a space ship, either, but like the dogs, I’m feeling the excitement build and I think I’m going to have to try it. I mull over my first mission: Mr. Spock, set a course. First star on the right. Warp Nine. Engage!

Base Camp Bigfork (phone 871-9733) maintains a website, www.basecampbigfork.com, and a shop at 8525 Highway 35 in Bigfork, where year-round guided tours and rentals of snow shoes, cross country skis, kayaks, stand up paddle boards, and mountain bikes are also offered.