DOGS, SNOW AND SLEDS: Paws power popular program that provides 1,400 rides per year
Rosy has sky blue eyes and a white coat. She’s hearing impaired, loves to be pet and leans her head on any lap she can reach. She’s a sled dog in Grand County.
Rosy and 19 other huskies make up a team cared for by Steven Peterson, the man who runs a dog sledding program through Snow Mountain Ranch at the YMCA of the Rockies.
The headquarters for the program sits in a room attached to the YMCA’s library, where Peterson and his team hang out with the social sled dogs. The windows overlook the snowy terrain the team races across.
One crowded section of the wall bares the hundreds of reviews from people who highlighted the sled dog experience as the best part of their time at Snow Mountain Ranch.
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A POPULAR PROGRAM
The program provides sled rides to over 1,400 visitors every winter. A dog musher and pastor, Peterson moved to Grand County after competing in dogsled racing for many years.
When he moved here from Minnesota, he couldn’t find a place to live that would house his team and had to sell all of his dogs except for three, who were retired.
“It was really hard to say goodbye to it when I came here, but I really felt I was supposed to come here,” Peterson said. “Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I would be doing it again and that it would be such a meaningful program to so many people.”
Eight years ago, the YMCA of the Rockies asked Peterson to give a couple presentations. At one event, he suggested setting up a small track that his retired sled dogs could pull children around.
This presentation was extremely popular and the sled dogs gave rides to 60 kids. Peterson and Snow Mountain Ranch realized just how popular this program could be.
Having found a place to live with a team of dogs, Peterson began a recreational team.
That team started with six dogs, but was so popular that it eventually turned into the 20-dog team Peterson looks after today. The dogs live at Peterson’s house and he cares for them himself, trucking them into the ranch for dog sledding.
TIME FOR TRAINING
The dogs begin training for the winter season in late August. The runs are short and early in the morning, as Peterson won’t take the dogs out if it’s hotter than 50 degrees. He has them pull ATVs in the first months of training until there’s enough snow to have them pull the sled.
During this time, Peterson is also training his mushers. Before learning to drive the sled, a whole different skill set, they learn about the dogs.
“(The dogs) all have unique personalities, unique strengths,” Peterson said. “There’s so much that they’re learning even before we have snow.”
The training routes grow longer as it gets colder, going out four times a week, until there is enough snow on the ground. Public dogsled rides begin in mid-December.
This year, riders have three options for the dogsledding experience. The most popular ride is the intro ride, a trek just under two miles available two days a week to anyone. The long dogsled ride is 50 minutes and available one day a week to those staying at the ranch. The third option, an immersive experience that lasts two and a half hours, is new this year.
Participants are involved through the entire process of working with the dogs, doing everything from harnessing them to learning to drive the sleds. The experience will only be offered six times this season.
Peterson encourages guests to make reservations for any ride early. It’s nearly impossible to get a time slot for dogsledding day of, so book ahead.
Once on the snow, Peterson wants everyone to enjoy time with the dogs he cares so much for.
“I hope they have fun; I hope they recognize that these dogs are really well treated,” Peterson said. “They love what they do… The love that these dogs can give is amazing. They’re very affectionate.”
MORE THAN A SLED RIDE
Peterson has been working with sled dogs for 21 years. He occasionally competes in races, participating in two last season. He plans to compete in a 65-mile race this year.
Through these races, Peterson has been raising money to honor his daughter, Bethany Adams, who died two years ago at 39 after battling cancer. Last year, he raised enough money to send an underprivileged child to a YMCA camp every summer in perpetuity.
This year, his goal is to raise enough money to send two children to the camp every year.
“I couldn’t save her, but I can see that her life continues to have an impact,” Peterson said through tears. “As long as I am able, I will continue to drive that as much as I can.”
The most rewarding part of Peterson’s job changes from day to day. Of course, he finds passion in building a relationship with the dogs. He finds value in teaching his young team members about communication and leadership.
But working with the riders seemed to mean the most, especially families experiencing a pain he relates to.
“We might have a little kid on the ride that has cancer,” Peterson said. “That’s pretty rewarding to do something really unique for people with difficult life situations. I try to make that really special.”
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