Dog sledding in Grand County: A quiet ride
November 25, 2008
Well-trained huskies stand on their hind legs and howl in excitement upon my arrival.
I am escorted to my “throne” and swaddled in down, feeling like Arctic royalty.
Then, eight eager canines are joined to the tow.
It will be one of the high points of their day, and a high point of my season.
Gus and Eleanor ” smart, experienced and hard-working ” are hooked to the front.
Brothers Jesse and Luke ” fun-loving, a little too eager to be number one ” are last.
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And the musher, Jeff Martin ” Alpha of them all ” stands his post behind me.
With a simple command, we are off.
The start is charged as dogs run alongside the team, cheering us on until the fence runs out.
If we were a ship, the entire village would be on shore showering blessings at the start of our long and adventurous journey.
The Martins, Jeff and Tracie, own 84 dogs and run four sleds, four times a day. That’s 16 teams of eight dogs that make up Dog Sled Rides of Winter Park.
“Are some shouting ‘pick me, pick me,’?” I had asked Jeff about the symphony of barks and howls heard earlier as each dog was selected for the ride.
The chorus fades in the background as we ride away.
“I don’t know, I don’t speak ‘dog’, yet,” he says.
(When I asked the same question to four-year dog handler /reservationist Connie Scott, she said, “After the sled leaves, they act upset with pitiful howling that they didn’t get to go out.”)
Jeff was being modest. In my view, he does speak “dog.”
It’s a language of energy and actions, respect and companionship.
As the leader of high-performance canines, Jeff knows each of their names, their ages, their harness sizes, who is friend and who is foe, where each lives, what each eats.
He knows each distinct bark, and when seeing dogs in the distance, Jeff can identify each by stride.
The soft pattering of paw steps and dog pants fill the air. The sled feels as though we are traveling over a carpet of silk.
The Martins’ dog sleds have reign to 600 acres of Denver Water Board land.
The thick woods are accessed right from their own home and kennels.
Along the way of my 45-minute ride, Martin points out mountain peaks, a view of the ski area, a bed of packed snow occupied by a moose he’d spotted earlier that day and at one point, a glimpse of another Winter Park Dog Sled rounding a corner a few minutes behind us.
Dog sledding was the earliest form of winter transportation. Human beings’ livelihoods depended on dogs for hunting and protection aided by keen senses of canine hearing and smell.
And now, just petting a dog has therapeutic benefits for most.
Jeff’s wife Tracie Martin, who acquired her degree in therapeutic recreation and completed her internship at the Sports Center for the Disabled, Winter Park,
appreciates the “live element” of dog sledding.
To a husky, pulling a sled is primal.
The Martins have been operating their dog-sled business for eight years and have never once had to teach a husky to pull a sled.
“It’s just really cool to watch dogs do what they were bred to do,” Tracie said.
They do, however, have to teach them to stop, to not chew the equipment and to leave their partner alone.
For the Fraser couple, owning a dog-sled operation doesn’t end when the last snowflake melts.
In summer, spring and fall, the dogs drain energy during organized play groups in a large fenced-in section of land.
Jeff knows each individual canine’s diet and feeds them accordingly. A few local restaurants help out by providing fish scraps year-round.
On the day of my ride, six, 5-gallon containers are filled with the pack’s evening course: Fortified dog food topped with fish skins.
In feeding them, bathing them, brushing them, exercising them, nursing their illnesses, attending to wounds and helping birth their puppies, both Tracie and Jeff have mastered the nuances of canine pack orientation.
“I’ve learned so much from those guys about communication,” Tracie said. “And their willingness to love you right here and now. They don’t think about what happened yesterday, unlike humans who fret and emotionalize on everything.”
Losing them to old age is the “hardest part,” Tracie said. “Both Jeff and I cry each time we lose a dog.”
As we round the final corner, the dogs are working just as hard as when we started.
Along the route we had stopped to take photos and enjoy the scenery.
A couple of times we stopped to remind Jesse to leave his brother alone.
We enter the Martins’ dog campus to an atmosphere now peaceful.
The last ride of the day is complete, and dogs are resting for tomorrow’s reservations.
I thank each dog on the line for my ride with a gentle rub under the chin.
“It’s pure energy harnessed onto pulling a sled as they are doing what they love,” Scott said.
“We’re just glad they let us be a part of it,” Tracie said.
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