Eight energetic dogs, each with a mind of its own, sprinting in eight directions ought to mean utter chaos. To my disbelief, my first-ever dog sledding experience in the Paradise Valley in northern Montana was extraordinarily calm and coordinated. Four of us had assembled at the Chico Hot Springs Resort and Day Spa, a favourite hangout for actors Harrison Ford and Dennis Quaid. “The weather is nice and cool, the forecast is snowy without rain, and the dogs love it,” said Wolf Drimal, the master of the pack.
Fresh snow landed on the ground as Drimal pulled out the wooden sled. “There are two types of sleds—basket sleds and toboggan sleds,” he explained. “Basket sleds are lightweight, and toboggans are more durable and capable of carrying bigger loads.” We were going to use the basket type, easier to navigate and manoeuvre up difficult terrain.
A cold trail: Sledding uphill in Paradise Valley. Photo: Bhaskar DK
Laying the rope lines—made of high-tension polymers—before fixing the harnesses was the next step. Drimal walked us through the different lines: the gang line that ran from the sled to the dogs, the tug lines, and the neck line, which he explained was important to keep the dogs together and maximize their pulling strength.
It was time to get the stars of the primitive transport out into the open. Chako, Chatta, Sigrid, Knik and the rest, a combination of black, white and grey huskies, were tied one by one to the gang line. The sled had both Alaskan and Siberian huskies in the gang. “Alaskan malamutes are muscular and can pull heavy loads but lack the speed. These can pull more weight over long stretches with less food than any other draft animal,” quipped Drimal, kissing one of them with a mixture of pride and affection for his adorable huskies. But all sled dog breeds are known for their agility, speed, endurance and loyalty.
It was time to learn some commands before the action. Let’s go (start), Gee (right turn), Haw (left turn), and so on. “Lastly, don’t forget the brakes—they’re critical. If these huskies start pulling away and you forget the On Bye or Whooa commands, this is your only saviour,” cautioned Drimal, showing a 2-pound, foot-long metal hook. “One last thing,” he said. “Never lose your temper with the dogs. It is supposed to be fun for both you and the dogs.”
Persistent snow made the dogs cheerful and the huskies turned around, one last time, and Drimal seemed to understand. Standing the runner up on rubber treads as thick as an SUV’s, he gently called, “Let’s go!” Boom, off we went, pulled by two lead females (J.R. and Bean), two males (Polson and Lasar), and the wheel (the last two dogs near the sled) at more than 15 miles an hour (24 kmph). Lead dogs are critical as they take the commands to regulate speed and direction for the entire team.
A cold trail: Different lines of ropes help control and guide the dogs. Photo: Bhaskar DK
Huskies, I learnt, weigh 35-50 pounds (16-22kg), and are incredible winter athletes. From late November to early April, they work every day of the week and usually log over 1,200 miles. If you were wondering if this was an exploitation of their adaptation to the harsh winter conditions, be assured that they just love to pull. “It is easy to make these dogs run, but extremely difficult to stop (them)!” Drimal narrated an incident in which the mush was dragged along for miles, when he lost balance on the shaft and tripped.
The Denali trek to the Gallatin National Forest reserve is miles of snow-covered paths, uphill and downhill—terrain that forces you to learn that sledding is more than just riding and issuing commands to steer the dogs. To steer, you have to adjust your body weight to the way the dogs turn. As we raced uphill, it was a beautiful setting of mountains decked with fir, spruce and lodge pole pines that reminded me of the stories of early civilization and primitive transportation. It wasn’t all smooth and easy—we had awkward moments all along the route, falling off the sled, getting our feet stuck in a snow pile, pulling muscles, and even running into trees when we were unable to control the sled. Our greatest challenge, though, was to keep pace with the power of the huskies!
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While I struggled to hold straight and tight on the sled, Drimal said calmly: “Remember, each one of us is the alpha male at all times. If we are tired, hesitant or uncertain, the rest of the team will pick this up and become confused and unresponsive. This can be particularly dangerous on longer journeys.” Fortunately, we all bonded well, cruising through the cold terrain. There was understanding, comfort and friendship in the team.
After incredible sledding on the uphill, we opened blankets and unwrapped a picnic basket right in the heart of the incredible landscape. Starving after our hard work on the sleds, we tucked into hot French onion soup, homemade huckleberry cheesecake with hot chocolate, apple cider, smoked beef—the Montana speciality—and hot coffee. Afterwards, while we played in the snow, the dog pack feasted on chunks of raw meat.
Most of the work that goes into training the sled dogs is planned in summer. Drimal’s kennel has dogs ranging from 15 days to 14 years old. Almost all of them are working dogs who pull sleds.
Chatta, a husky from the pack.
Awestruck at the amazing pulling power of sled dogs, I asked about their diet and health. “In winter, each adult dog receives about 3 quarts of hot water every day, along with frozen bits of lamb, beef, red meat and liver.” Drimal added that while the dogs could run effortlessly in sub-zero temperatures, they couldn’t tolerate heat. This was when I started to feel the cold, and thought of changing my own food habits—but we still had ground to cover before we could reach the Chico resort.
The century-old resort, which is on the US’ National Register of Historic Places, has rustic cabins, luxurious chalets, a gourmet restaurant and superb wine cellar. Montana’s locals treasure it as a vacation hot spot. “I bring my children here often, but this is my first experience dog sledding,” said Mike Harrelson, who fell in love with the open skies and mountains of Montana 15 years ago and decided to live in Bozeman.
The restaurant and rooms had to wait. At the end of a day-long adventure in the cold, I needed Chico’s hot springs even more. Even after years of running, hiking and weight training, I didn’t possess the same endurance as the huskies that had brought me here. Jumping into the natural pool, I let the hot water run over my aching muscles until I felt as if I was in a Chennai summer. There, in the pool, I ended my Montana adventure, but the bonds I had formed with the huskies that day will bring me back again.
Children will enjoy the nature trails, hot springs, wildlife and the husky dogs sledding.
Many attractions in Montana, including Yellowstone National Park, offer senior discounts.
The cities of Bozeman and Missoula have many LGBT-friendly destinations.
Graphic by Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint
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