My recent travels took me on a quick flight from LA to Central Oregon, to a wilderness I visualized in the childhood pioneer-life computer game, Oregon Trail. From the 3,300-acre peaceful snow-shrouded Sunriver Resort in Bend, Oregon, we drove a short distance to Three Sisters Wilderness near Mt. Bachelor where we were greeted by 30 Alaskan Huskies chained equidistant to the ground.
The dogs had glowing blue eyes, slender bodies, little hair, and seemed to want love and cuddles. Quickly they warmed to me by backing their behinds up – demanding to be petted and rubbed, like they might be happier if I took them home. All about the same size, they ranged in color and many looked like mixes of Golden Retriever or Labrador.
For about ten minutes we had time to bond with the dogs before heading on the “Oregon Trail of Dreams,” a company owned and operated by Rachael Scdoris, a world-renowned athlete who completed her first Iditarod finish in 2006. She is the first legally blind person to complete the 1,049+ mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race across Alaska.
Now imagine the sound of 30-40 dogs howling and barking for attention, like they were saying, “pick me, pick me!” against the still winter backdrop. Those not picked right away seemed to let out a collective groan of disappointment when they realized they weren’t selected yet.
It was bitterly cold in February, so it didn’t take long before it felt like frostbite would set in, even with gloves off for less than a minute. Once squished into the sled – seated upright and covered with blankets – our professional musher (driver) let us know we were about to take off as he provided an informative running commentary about the dogs, their capabilities and training, the commands to make them go, how to stop the sled, and what Husky life is like when they are not running through the snow.
Most of our sled dogs were between 3 and 4 years old and the whole crew is fed around 350 pounds of raw chicken daily, along with kibbles and treats. Each dog is placed at a specific spot on the harness based on size, age, training, and leadership abilities. The two leading dogs are the strongest and most experienced. Did you know Alaskan Huskies are not considered a pure breed? The term is defined only by its purpose, which is that of a highly efficient sled dog. The Husky is a blend of various Northern breeds, chosen particularly for skills such as pulling.
The ride on the trail through the Deschutes National Forest engulfed with snow covered trees was exhilarating and freeing as we were whisked at 12-13 mph over the snow by ten Alaskan Huskies. From the comfort of the Iditarod sled, I gazed in amazement at the beauty of the wilderness, while the winds whipped and the snow pelted my face. There was almost near silence except the dogs panting and the sled dragging gently on the snow. My heart was probably pumping as fast as the dogs’, as they surprised me with a backdraft of occasional doggie fluffies (farts) and pooping mid-stride.
Our fun, personable musher controlled the sled and disciplined one dog who kept turning around and yapping at another dog. I took great delight in helping him call out the dog’s name to behave, like I was a teacher talking to a student. Thrilling and beautiful, the energy of the dogs came alive as they do not like to stop or be anchored. The dogs wanted to keep pulling, likely due to their racing adrenaline. After about 30 minutes, we returned the way we came and the “musher” let me ride standing up on a little bar at the back of the sled, which was just as joyful a way to experience this wintry wonderland ride.
Dog sledding gave me a new appreciation for the care that goes into the dogs and their athletic superiority. But I was still left wondering how I could take a few of the pups back home with me to L.A.