Everyone knows that kids love sledding. They also love dogs. Combine the two, with a dose of clear, Colorado-blue skies, and you have the perfect family winter adventure.
That’s what we found when we ventured out with Double T Kennels of Steamboat Springs, Colo., on a 10-mile dogsled trip in the Flat Tops national forest. Meeting us at the trailhead was co-owner Tami Thurston, who wore her dogsled strips on her sleeve. Tami runs the company with her husband, Tom, who at this very moment was halfway through his fourth Iditarod race, just leaving the town of Cripple on an 80-mile run towards Ruby in 21st place.
When his Iditarod dogs are home in Steamboat, the couple runs 50 dogs throughout the season. Six of the eight dogs barking and yelping at our trailhead – Jumbo, Sable, Lo Mein, Goat, Elton, Pot Sticker, Blossom and Tony – have raced in the Iditarod.
“Out kids love Chinese food, so they named a couple after their favorite food,”
says Tami. “Lo Mein and Tony (named after bull rider Tony Mendez) are the lead dogs. Tony always gives 150 percent. All he wants to do is please.”
It didn’t take much to please Casey, 9, and her friend Molly, also 9. As soon as we stepped out of the car, they went straight to the dogs and began petting and snuggling, the dogs reciprocating readily. “A lot of people come out here thinking the dogs aren’t going to be friendly, but that’s not the case at all,” says Tami, unhooking them one-by-one from their ropes to their sled tethers.
Our dogs today are either retired Iditarod dogs, dogs that didn’t make the team, or too young still to race the greatest sled dog race of all. And they’re all Alaskan huskies, “faster dogs, built for distance.” Which means there’s plenty of paw-power for our trip.
After a quick lesson – stomp on the brake hard to slow down, move both feet to the same runner to keep it level when necessary, and above all, don’t let go of the bar – we load Casey and Molly in cocoon-like comfort into the sled, one of four hand-built by Tom, who’s also a general contractor by trade. Then Tami offers a final word of advice. If a rabbit crosses the trail? Hold on like crazy.
With that, I un-weight the brake, a massive metal claw that digs into the snow like a giant grappler hook, and the dogs take off, like they’re chasing a rabbit around a greyhound track. The kids, meanwhile, scream with delight. We settle into the perfect speed, between 8 to 10 mph, the same most mushers cruise at during the Iditarod. My key is Jumbo in the rear – keep him trotting, says Tami, and not loping. And also keep the front tether from slacking off Tony up front. Tami adds that last year, Tom used the brake almost the entire time on the Iditarod.
We quickly settle into a soothing cadence, watching the Flat Tops mountains appear around each new bend. Casey and Molly are giddy and comfortable in the sled. With a full front zipper and cozy blanket, Tami says many younger kids fall asleep in the sled as soon as it takes off.
Soon we stop and I let Casey stand on the runners in front of me, guiding the team. The snow is too fast and firm for her to run it by herself, so I stand behind her, ready to stomp on the brake when needed. She yells giddy-up, I un-weight the brake, and we take off again, the dogs easy to please. The wind ruffles our hair as Casey holds on with both hands, having the time of her life.
At the turn-around at Stillwater reservoir, we circle wide and regain the packed-snow road. From there, the dogs are horses heading back to the barn. Tami advises me to use the brake a lot more, and I do. When pressuring the brake, I do so to the rubber mat right behind it, which serves as a lesser brake.
We careen down the straight-aways and around turns and so back at the trailhead where we started. I stomp hard on the brake and set a metal hook in the snow as an anchor. Tami’s seen enough dog tangles to know not to give them free reign. Then she unhooks them one-by-one, with Casey and Molly helping, and fastens them to the static tether. She then lets Casey and Molly unhook them individually, where they rush back to their kennels in the truck and a healthy meal of high-performance dog kibble, raw meat and fat back home.
–Double T Kennels run dog sled trips from December through March outside of Steamboat Springs, Colo. Reach them at (877) 903-MUSH, www.ttkennel.com.