Dogs are man's ultimate companions; no other cross species interaction has been more powerful to human/non-human co-evolution (when the other species wasn't being domesticated for food). Dogs, who are pack animals at the core of their being, consider us to be their packmates. We are their life long companions, as they are ours.
If you're a dog lover, which most all of us are (sorry cat-folk, if you're feeling left out click here), there's a very special sport you can participate in that will help you enjoy a rough winter: Dog Sledding!
Sled Dogs are Athletes
Americans take the word "sport" very seriously, but make no mistake, the dogs you see in this dog sledding quick snap, are athletes. They train like athletes, they develop their skills like athletes, and they take their sport very, very seriously; you need only spend a few minutes with them to see it in their behavior. The day I spent with the athletes of Endurance Kennels, 20 miles north of Duluth, Minnesota, taught me so much about what it takes to be a champion sled dog.
Must Love Dogs
Every sled dog, much like your dog at home, has his or her own personality. Some are loud and forward, others are shy and reserved. Part of the fun of spending the day sledding is meeting the dogs and learning about their unique personalities. It's quite similar to meeting a new human friend (without the licking), and boy do these dogs get excited when new people arrive. I made an instant connection with Turbo, who you see in this photo along with his trainer Tone.
Turbo is Serious About His Craft
One of the first things you notice when you interact with a dog like Turbo, is that he's lean, pure muscle. Turbo is a greyhound/hound crossbreed sled racing dog, which means he's a runner. It's in his blood and in his dreams.
And He's Got Awesome Booties!
Turbo's booties aren't to make a wintertime fashion statement, they're to protect his hind feet during a sledding run. In fresh snow they prevent fissures, which are like paper cuts in the webbing of dog feet. Turbo's greyhound heritage means he has weaker feet than a racing dog with more husky heritage (huskies are genetically closer to wolves, which encounter fresh winter snow runs on a regular basis).
Grace teaches us something else about sled dog genetics. See those beautiful blue eyes, those are the results of her Siberian Husky heritage. The baby blues came from the Husky portion of her parentage, but don't relate to any other traits that make her an amazing sled racing dog. They just make her look beautiful before and after the race.
Excited About Sledding
Remember how I said Turbo was excited about racing. These dogs live for the run; the sled had to be tied up to trailer due to sled dog "over-enthusiasm" (a serious condition in a champion sledding dog).
Seriously, We're Excited!
See what I mean. They've been training to be champions since they were puppies. Tone told me it's their choice to become runners, some dogs don't "take" to some aspect of the sled runs, and therefore choose to do something else with their lives (fashion model or fetching star). The puppies that fall in love with their training become the dogs you see here.
And, We're Off...
You will feel the power of these athletes in motion in the first seconds after takeoff. I weigh almost 200lbs, my assistant was no spring chicken, and I'm not revealing Tone, the musher's, weight as it is a closely guarded secret. Add all that human bulk to the mass of the sled and you have a lot of "stuff" these dogs are hauling as they run. You can instantly respect their power and commitment to their sport.
Take a Dip
Do you see what Mindy is doing in the right side of this photo? She's taking a dip, placing her head down to lick the snow while the sled is in motion, what mushers call "dipping." Mindy is a little thirsty during the run, but mushers discourage the behavior since it takes focus from the run.
I Seriously Love Racing
When it was time to stop and take an official drink of snow, you could see a look on Mindy's face that said it all: I seriously love racing!
We're Headed to the Races
Grace and Valor are showing you their modeling poses in front of their custom designed mobile dog sledding trailer. It's how they get where they're going, be it to the professional races, or to your backyard for a private sledding event (Valor's face says: make sure your backyard is big enough for a serious run because we go far!). It's literally a mobile doggie athlete's village.
What do beautiful husky sledding dogs like Toivo do in their retirement years (7+ depending on the dog)? They stand around looking fabulous... and they mother and father the next generation of racers. Toivo is one of the friendliest dogs I've met in my life, and he graciously agreed to take some time out of his schedule to take me skijoring, but that's a story for another piece.
Must Love People
One of the unique things about the sport of dog sledding making it totally different from some human sports, is your participation. The athletes love it when you come to visit them, they love to meet you, they love to run with you, and they love to show you their sport. You get to be a participant in their athletic training without having to be an athlete yourself. The dogs don't judge your skills, they're too happy showing you theirs.
Photographs taken on March 2nd, 2015 at Endurance Kennels north of Duluth, Minnesota by Kevin Richberg and Storm Farnik