150 furry coworkers: The hidden life of a Breckenridge dogsled guide
Dogsledding in Summit County
Price: $90 for adults, $50 for kids (ages 4-8 years old)
Where: 6061 Tiger Road in Breckenridge
Here’s your chance to moonlight as an Iditarod racer. Good Times Adventures in north Breckenridge offers half-day tours with a trained guide and team of eight sled dogs on the outfitter’s private tracks on Tiger Road. The tours are currently booked solid until early January, but it’s never too early to schedule a trip for later this winter. Reservations for the 2017 holiday season begin next November.
Adopt a sled dog
Before starting, our guide told us two of the dogs in our team, Bacon and one-eyed King, were up for adoption. Kennel manager Sarah Spalla said her dogs retire after 8 to 9 years of work and make mellow, well-trained house pets. They’re great with kids and older couples, and the kennel usually has at least four or five animals ready for adoption.
What happens if dogs don’t find a home? That’s not usually a problem, Spalla said, but they won’t be homeless.
“If for some reason a dog doesn’t find a home they have a place here with us,” she said. “They’ll run until they don’t want to anymore. They’re with us forever, but we’re always looking for active, caring homes.
“This sled is like a car stuck in drive,” our guide said before almost anything else. “If you go off the brake, the dogs will take off.”
On a stunning December morning, our small group of amateur dogsledders met with Courtney Donald, a guide at Good Times Adventures in Breckenridge, for a few hours sliding around on fresh, soft snow with huskies that live to run. It had snowed 12 inches the night before and the pine forests on all sides of the team looked like something from a Colorado postcard, or maybe a Christmas Eve dream.
“The big powder days are softer and slower, the spring ice days are faster and a little more frightening,” Donald, 25, said. “It’s like a day on the (ski) hill.”
The car analogy is still no joke. As soon as our guide walked past the team — eight dogs staked to a track in the woods, attached by full-body harnesses to a small sled made for two — the dogs started fussing and fiddling and nearly backflipping, yowling for someone to just take them on a run already. She knows them each by name, and after giving us a crash course on dogsledding technique, she introduced us to the homebred animals tasked with pulling us through the thick, white-capped forest.
In the third row were Bacon and one-eyed King — the wheels of the team, Donald said, and King really did have just one eye — followed in the second row by Dr. Drea and Missy Elliot. The lead dogs, Juan and Sherpa, were calm compared to the wheels. They’re the brains.
In the fourth and final row were Scarlett and Axl Rose, the youngest engines on the team and easily the wildest. Like his rock star namesake, Axl Rose was more spastic bird than earth-bound creature — he’d float off into the woods if it weren’t for the harness.
“I always try to give people something they can handle, and that comes to asking people what they want and also reading them,” said Donald, a self-described “Air Force brat” who moved around plenty as a kid but has called Summit County and Good Times home for three winters. “Sometimes they say they want an advanced ride, but they really don’t.”
Donald then asked who wanted to drive first. There was a pause, a few glances around, and I couldn’t help myself. About half of my group had been dogsledding in the past, and the other half (myself included) was brand-new to this whole thing. I wanted to see what these little balls of adorably furry energy had in store.
I stepped on the snow brake, Donald released the team, and when everyone else was settled in the sled behind our guide’s snowmobile, she gave me the hand signal to ease off the brake. We were off.
Like most guides at Good Times — and dogsledding outfitters across the Rockies — Donald had hardly any snow experience before taking the job three years back. But, also like most guides, she loved working with animals and had threes years of raft guiding experience.
“The job was a lot harder than I expected,” Donald said of her first season working with a dog team. “It’s very physically demanding in a way that raft guiding just isn’t. You’re walking around a lot more, and having two huskies on a leash is not a walk in the part. They’re trained to pull and they will pull you.”
They might be trained to pull, but they’re trained to pull as a single unit. Even a spastic pup like Axl Rose fell in step with the leader when our sled took off, and every guide has a close connection with all 157 team dogs.
That’s right: kennel manager Sarah Spalla oversees 157 huskies of various ages, from 12-week-old puppies to retired leads more than a decade old. Spalla breeds the majority of her dogs on-site in north Breckenridge, where they live year-round in a massive and sprawling kennel complex. It’s home to leash posts, wooden bed boxes, an open chain-link yard for puppies and a cabin for mixing up “soup” — the name for a heated mix of meat scraps the dogs eat after a tour — where Bone Thugs-N-Harmony played over outdoor speakers as guides leashed up teams.
“We like to start training them from a young age and that’s why we like to do our own breeding,” Spalla said while spooning steamy soup into plastic bowls. “The huskies are the ideal winter travel machine. They’re very hardy, easy to care for, easy to work with. They just have gentle dispositions.”
Spalla compares sled dogs to horses: commercial outfitters use huskies, transport outfitters use Alaskan malamutes — the draft horses of dogsledding — and serious competitors like Iditarod drivers use Alaskan huskies. They’re faster and easier to race, she said, but they can be testy like a thoroughbred racehorse.
Also like Donald, Spalla was a raft guide with hardly any dogsledding experience before joining Good Times about 12 years ago, and she had absolutely no breeding experience when she took over as kennel manager. She learned it all on the job, she said, and she must be doing something right: In that time, the team has grown from 70 dogs to 157, and all dogsled tours are booked solid from the third week in December to the second week in January. Donald is one of 12 guides, and Spalla credits they as much as the dogs for a smooth operation.
“They’re the reason this thing works,” Spalla said. “They bust their butts to make this all happen. We have great dogs, but the guide crew is a very tight crew.”
Back on the track
Wow. I didn’t know what to expect, but I wasn’t disappointed. When a team of dogs takes off, it really is like driving a car with a perpetual engine. They aren’t uncontrollable — the team slows on uphills and speeds on downhills, but never went faster than 20 miles per hour that snowy morning — and half the excitement simply watching Donald’s coworkers at work — or play.
“It’s nice when people are excited about this, without a bunch of expectations,” Donald said. “They are just animals. A lot of people want them to be snowmobiles and just go fast all the time, but they only go a certain speed.”
It’s what Donald loves about her job and team: They’re animals, and like most work animals they’re happiest when running for their master. Unlike a ski patrol dog, the sled dogs don’t belong to their guides, but the guides still work daily with up to 16 animals. They feed them, run them, train them, lead them and, after a long day on the tracks, hug and kiss and snuggle them.
“They all have their own personalities,” Donald said. “My dog, Gumbo, is the first dog I started training. I have a special connection with him. I run him every day.”
After running a half-mile or so into the woods, Donald made the sign for “stop” and I stepped down on the snow brake. The thrumming dog engine came to halt. It was time for someone else to give it a try, and so I reluctantly stepped away from the sled. The dogs jerked slightly forward until I stomped back on the brake, remembering Donald’s first words. We made the switch and were off again.
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Jeff Shiffrin, with his wife, Eileen, made the Vail area their home decades ago, and together raised Mikaela and Taylor Shiffrin, who was a member of the two-time NCAA Champion University of Denver Ski Team.