Evidently, it starts with just one dog. That first fluffy Siberian Husky that captures your heart.
It was going to be a family dog, maybe even one to enter in a dog show, but just maybe.
Sometime after falling hard for that first Husky it seems completely natural to want to find a pal for your beloved dog. The first one was sooo cool – and two would be twice as fun. Perfectly rational behavior.
But something happens next that is difficult to explain: they multiply.
Not by breeding, mind you, but the result of their owners feeling compelled to own ‘just one more’ Husky. Before you know it, ‘one more’ might be 20. And somewhere along the line, many Husky owners turn to dog sledding.
Barbara Schaefer, the World 2002 Gold Medal champion of the International Sled Dog Racing Association, can attest to that fact. “Fourteen years ago I got my first Siberian Husky, Kyla … then we got a Husky for my husband, John … then we were up to six dogs,” Schaefer said, coming around to the current number of Siberian Huskies she owns: 19 – and counting. The Grass Valley resident’s Huskies range in age from 2 weeks old (she’s keeping the whole litter) to 13 years old.
Another Grass Valley musher, Becky Boyes, has a similar tale to tell. “I got my first Siberian Husky 25 years ago, a black and white with blue eyes named Misty,” Boyes said. Within three years of getting Misty, now deceased, Boyes had four Huskies and was showing them competitively in Southern California. She started buying from a Northern California breeder, soon moved up north, and was introduced to the world of dog sledding by attending a race in Truckee in the late ’80s.
That race changed Boyes’ life. “Someday before I die I want to try that,” she remembers saying. She continued to breed and show Huskies until some friends arranged for her to race a team of Huskies for her birthday about five years ago.
“I came back with an ear-to-ear grin and said ‘I want to do this,’ ” Boyes said. Tom Boyes, Becky’s husband, asked if she was serious. “Then let’s go,” he told her. They quit their jobs, sold their home in Sonoma and got in touch with Schaefer, whom they knew from dog shows. They had a 30-day escrow, no jobs and no place to live. “Barbara said, ‘Bring your trailer and come stay on our property and we’ll train dogs together,’ and that’s what we did,” Becky Boyes said.
Boyes ran her first competitive race in 1998. She’s up to 14 Huskies now, including two pups that she expects to be future racers.
Both Boyes and Schaefer have passion and enthusiasm for dog sledding and a deep love of the Siberian Husky breed as well. “The purpose of the Siberian Husky breed is to run at a fast pace over a long distance. It’s a breed standard – they’re supposed to run,” Boyes said. “They love running,” Schaefer said. “It is their passion.”
The women train using ATV’s, harnessing their dogs – usually six to a team – gradually increasing distance and hills. “I train on dirt, starting in September. It’s like a marathon runner. We do muscle training on dirt and running training on snow,” Schaefer said. She actually has two teams of dogs. She trains the A Team herself, and has a trainer come four days a week to train the ‘Doggie Bag’ B Team.
Boyes starts in October, training 1.5 miles at first, working up to eight miles on dirt three times a week by Christmas – that’s the equivalent of 16 miles on snow. And just in case you think the human musher stands on the sled exerting no energy, think again.
“It’s not an easy sport,” Boyes says. “It takes endurance and stamina. On the trail sometimes you get off the sled and run or kick the sled to make it go faster.” Schaefer says training is “physically demanding” and notes that the dogs weigh about 50 pounds each, meaning it’s a real workout just to get them in and out of the high dog cages that are stacked above the sides of her industrial truck.
And owning up to 20 Huskies means feeding 20 Huskies as well.
Boyes’ Huskies get special diets, vitamins and extra food during racing season. Her food and supplement bill can run $350 a month during the winter season. Schaefer gets a special raw meat mixture from Washington state. Her dogs go through 400 pounds of that a month, in addition to 240 pounds of kibble.
But the sport is not all hard work and endless expenses. There are rewards, too, that even a non-musher can relate to.
“When you’re out on the trail there is an incredible quietness. You only hear the dogs’ harnesses and the sled runner along the snow. And there’s excitement, too. At the starting gate we can push speeds of 25-30 miles per hour. Plus, I have a sense of pride and accomplishment and the bonding I do with the dogs,” Boyes said.
Schaefer also mentions pride, along with danger.
Schaefer has been sledding longer than Boyes, and she’s also got 10 years of volunteering at the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Alaska under her belt. She garnered the nickname ‘Dog Drop’ because her volunteer slot was caring for dogs that were taken off a team. At night she and her husband slept in a freezing condemned building.
The Iditarod is probably the one event most people associate with dog sledding. It’s a 1,049+ mile race in the harsh conditions of Alaska in March. Since the race began in 1973, 421 mushers from four continents and 13 foreign countries have competed.
Next year Schaefer has set her sights on training for the 2004 Atta Boy 300 in Bend, Oregon. It’s quite a change from her usual 6-dog, mid-distance (up to 25 miles) race. The Atta Boy covers 300 miles and usually takes 8 to 9 days to complete.
“I’m not planning on winning – just finishing,” Schaefer said.
Sled Dog Races in 2003:
February 8-9: Chester, Ca.
February 15-16: Mt. Shasta
February 22-23: Portola
March 1-2: Foresthill
Additonal information available at http://www.sleddog.com
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