By Eugene Buchanan –
Cueball and Merlin are clearly agitated. At the end of their rope. Luckily, that’s literally and figuratively. You see, it’s their job to be at the end of their rope and they are ready to go. Jumping up and down, whining and pulling, pulling, pulling against their tethers, they’re leading the way as we dog sled through Colorado in the Flat Tops Wilderness Area with Snow Buddy Sled Dog Adventures out of Steamboat Springs.
Our human guides have already showed us how to put on the dog harnesses and attach them to their sled ropes. The lead dogs are attached first, hence their giddiness while they wait for the eight others to get hitched up. And with just a little instruction beforehand, we actually get to drive them.
Trained sled dogs lead the way through the snow-covered terrain. Photo courtesy of Snow Buddy Sled Dog Adventures.
With me in our sled is my daughter Brooke and her friend Natalie. I’m bundled up in the front, covered with blankets and pillows, while they’re standing and holding onto rails, one behind the other, both feet — and each of their 100-something pounds — standing on the brakes for all they’re worth, trying to hold Cueball, Merlin and the rest of the team in check.
Soon we get the signal to go.
With that, the girls step off the brake, yell “Ready…Hike!” and, taking their signal from leads Cueball and Merlin, the dogs are off and running. Instantly the scene goes from pure chaos — dogs barking and jumping — to serenity. The only sound is that of our sled whisking over the snow. It’s a frigid, bluebird Colorado morning, the day after a three-day snowstorm. The fluffy white banks of the Forest Service road go whizzing by, along with the trunks of snow-covered aspen trees. The dogs work as a team, pulling with all their might.
We’re just three of about 1,200 people who are lucky enough to dog sled through Colorado with owners Dan and Sarah every season. And all 1,200 come away from the experience mesmerized. “People just love dogs,” Sarah says, who has been running dogs in Yampa Valley Electric’s territory since 2011 and keeps about 60 year-round — which she juggles with kids Giovanni (“Vonn”), 2, and Lark, 4. “They’ve been companions of humans forever. It’s hard not to be inspired by how hard they work and how much fun they have doing it. They’ll run all day if you let them.”
She admits her guests are surprised at how they feel afterward. “Everyone sort of gets a dopamine release after it,” she says. “It just evokes this symphony of feelings people aren’t used to, all coming together in the great outdoors.”
Untamed Excitement: Dog Sled through Colorado’s Backcountry
Indeed, if you want to experience Jack London’s The Call of the Wild in Colorado, there’s no better way to dog sled through Colorado than by taking a dog-sled tour, whisking through a winter wonderland with the patter of paws and yips and yelps of your canine motors echoing through the cold mountain air. You can either do it yourself — yelling, like we did, “Ready…Hike!” and “Gee!” and “Haw!” (right and left, respectively) — or, sit back snuggled in the warmth of a cozy blanket inside your wooden basket while an expert stands behind you and drives the team.
At last count, there were more than a dozen licensed dog-sled outfitters in the state, from Winter Park, Gunnison and Tabernash to Durango, Snowmass and Steamboat Springs. All provide the necessary gear, instruction and, of course, well-trained dogs to pull your sled.
Another leader in the field — a top dog, if you will — is Gunnison’s Cosmic Cruisers Sled Dog Tours, which outfits dog-sled adventures for all ages and abilities. The company, which is served by local electric co-op GCEA, lets guests choose between all-day tours or shorter outings, either letting you drive your own team or relaxing in comfort with your guides at the helm.
A group of fledgling dog sledders learn safety measures before a Cosmic Cruisers tour. Photo by Lydia Stern, Mountain Magic Media.
“We specialize in introducing people to the basics of mushing and, when desired, teaching them to run a team of rambunctious, very experienced huskies on a pristine wilderness trail,” says company founder Lisa Mapes, who runs the business with her husband Dave and children, Merlin, 22, and Ayla, 28. “It’s a great way to get out in Colorado’s vast wilderness while focusing on and learning about these amazing animals that pull the sleds.”
The Makings of a Mushing Enthusiast
Lisa, a former private therapist working with young trauma victims, says she got bit by the dog-sledding bug, so to speak, when she first tried it in 1993. “We used to use horses a lot in our therapy sessions with the kids and then one day, on a whim, I decided to take a kid mushing with an outfitter,” she says. “I went nuts about it and fell in love with it right away. I was just mesmerized how the dogs all worked together and how natural it was for them to pull so hard for so long. It all had such a great flow to it. And the kid I was working with loved it.”
Smitten with the sport, she went home and tried it with her own dogs, to mixed results. “Actually, it was a total mess,” she admits. “I had big mutt dogs, and I threw horse collars on them and grabbed my skis, which didn’t really work. Then I tried it with a sled. I learned quickly that it takes a certain kind of dog.”
Enter four-time Iditarod Sled Dog race champion Susan Butcher, who just so happened to be selling off some of her “retired” dogs from the esteemed 1,000-mile race that runs from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska. “She was my mentor and we developed a long-lasting friendship,” says Lisa, who, after picking up five of Butcher’s dogs, was off and running in the sled dog world.
Lisa then got into dog-sled racing in Minnesota, quickly entering the 200-mile John Beargrease race, whose 80-below windchill temperatures showed her how hard the sport can be. “I had only 2,000 miles of training going into a 200-mile race, but I thought it was enough,” she says. “I felt racing overall was one of the best ways to learn, as you have to deal with everything from food and cold to team positioning.”
Eventually, she began leading tours so others could experience the same joy that dog-sledding brings her.
Expanding the Pack
And this, of course, has meant even more dogs, with their pack growing quite a bit from her early days. Lisa and Dave now have 60 dogs at their 260-acre mountainous ranch 15 minutes outside of Gunnison near Antelope Hills. Lest you think it’s tight quarters, there’s plenty of room for them to roam. The dogs each have their own house with a chain, as well as six pens and 2.5 acres for general romping, chasing and roughhousing. Throw in a discreet breeding area, family pens, alone-time pens, hourly rotations to run and more, and, while it might not be the Hilton, it’s the next best thing for a hound.
Which is what she has, actually — an Alaskan Husky Greyhound mix, which is a super-fast mixed breed — as well as other pure and mixed breeds, all bred with the single purpose of running. This fall, Lisa received six more Canadian Inuit dogs from a village near the North Pole, dogs originally bred for hunting polar bears and now used for hauling sleds.
“The ranch is great for them,” she says. “There’s plenty of room for them to roam around and they usually howl every night after dinner. Out here, no one else can hear
Sled dogs at Cosmic Cruisers are outfitted with harnesses to prepare for a run. Photo by Lydia Stern, Mountain Magic Media.
While you’d think telling them apart might be hard, she and Dave have it dialed in, even for the newcomers. The dogs carry such names as Sneaky Pete, Joe Dirt, Marge (from Fargo), Odin, Toby and more; all have their own personalities and mannerisms, just like people. And while they might age faster (remember, seven dog years to every one human year), they have a pretty good retirement plan. While some will still pull and even lead teams at age 12 or even 13, their AARP years (usually up to about age 17) involve swimming in the pond, lying in the sun, hiking with Dave, Lisa and the kids, and sleeping everywhere, “from on top of beds to chairs, rugs and even clothes.”
The hardest thing to do, she adds, is retire a dog from pulling “because they’re just filled with so much passion for it — they love to do it so much. And that’s what most of our guests take away from the experience.”
All Work and All Play
As far as positioning, sometimes she’ll put one lead dog up front and sometimes two, usually running anywhere from eight to 12 dogs per sled. And guests can drive their own teams on a dog sled through Colorado, which isn’t too hard with some basic instruction. “Kids actually pick it up a lot quicker than adults,” she says. “They don’t overthink it.”
That played out when Brooke and Natalie, remembering the pointers they received at the beginning, came into a corner braking and then let up just a bit, feathering them, almost, to let the sled slide out and away from the turn, and not clip the inside wall of snow. It works, and soon we’re back on the straight-away, trotting away toward our turnaround point — a wall tent, deep in the forest, complete with cayenne/cinnamon hot chocolate (you have to try it), battery-powered chandeliers and bling lights, and cookies warming on a grate over a crackling woodstove. And the dogs, bless their souls, also get a chance to rest and relax, with a lucky three even getting to come inside with us humans.
The dogs have just as much fun come summer, joining their horseback outfitter trips or just running loose on their ranch. “Our philosophy is happy dogs equal happy humans and fun mushing,” Lisa says. “Dogs are our life and livelihood — it’s a partnership of respect, love, amazement and pure joy. Each animal is an individual with wants, needs and uniqueness that we try to honor.”
As with Sarah and Dan, Lisa and Dave consider their dogs family, which can make for a rather raucous dinner table. But neither they nor their kids would have it any other way. “Both of our kids grew up raising dogs and dog sledding,” says Lisa. “They love it and are both pretty experienced mushers.”
And she’s thankful for the help.
Great Expectations: Going on a Dog Sled Tour
As with Snow Buddy, Cosmic Cruisers runs trips every day of the week from late November to April. All-day tours stop for lunch in Gunnison National Forest, and they offer half-day outings outside Crested Butte. When you tour on a dog sled through Colorado, Lisa says, just open up your mind, enjoy the experience and hang on for the ride.
“You’re being pulled by dogs with indomitable spirit and unbelievable teamwork,” she says. “They’re amazing athletes and pull even at 11,000 feet altitude with ease. They love running and dislike stopping.” She also says to never underestimate the power of a sled dog. She’s had dogs pull fence posts out of the ground and even a fender off a truck.
Their guests, who hail from as far away as Brazil, Australia, Africa and China, love the experience as much as the dogs love giving it to them. Lisa says they’re forced to turn people away every year and feel bad about it, but with 60 already, they can’t really add more dogs.
“People just don’t know what to expect, but then they love it,” she says. “At the start, a lot of people are kind of overwhelmed — they’re surprised with all the noise. They’ll often ask, ‘Why are they screaming and jumping?’ It’s because the dogs are so excited. Our guests are just amazed at their enthusiasm to go running.”
Clients are also amazed at the peacefulness that ensues once they take off through a wintry oasis, the dogs working as a team while the world, as well as their troubles, evaporate into a rooster tail of snow behind them.
A group of dog-sledding passengers pose with their tour guides and their dogs. Photo courtesy of Snow Buddy Sled Dog Adventures.
“Once you pull that cord and are gliding along in this snowy wonderland, it’s pretty magical,” Lisa says. “I’ve had some people break down and actually cry, saying they never thought it’d be so spiritual.” She says that holds especially true for people coming from a big city who are all wound up, as well as for kids with challenges and disabilities.
“You just get to see them shine,” she says. “It’s so great to see that transformation in people. Everything just slows down and all their worries melt away. It’s pretty addictive.”
At the time of press, Snow Buddy Sled Dog Adventures’ and Cosmic Cruisers Sled Dog Tours’ PACFA (Pet Animal Care Facilities Act) licenses were in good standing.
Eugene Buchanan, a former publisher and editor-in-chief of an outdoor magazine, is now a freelance writer from Steamboat Springs adding new outdoor adventures to his more than 25 years of experience.
Want more canine content? Check out this article about Colorado’s Avalanche Dogs.