Some Doggone Fast Sledding

TO WIT

February 11, 1996|By DAVE BARRY

This is the second part of a two-part series titled "Recreational Winter Sports That You Can Do Sitting Down." Last week, in part one, I discussed snowmobiling, with my key finding being that you should not go snowmobiling with adolescent boys unless your recreational goal is total cardiac arrest. Today I'll discuss a sport that is more relaxing as well as far more fragrant: dog-sled ++ riding.

A dog sled is -- follow me carefully here -- a sled that is pulled by dogs. And if you think that dogs are not strong enough to pull a sled, then you have never been walking a dog on a leash when a squirrel ran past. Even a small dog in this situation will generate one of the most powerful forces known to modern science. In some squirrel-infested areas, it is not at all unusual to see a frantically barking dog racing down the street, wearing a leash that is attached to a bouncing, detached arm.

Historians believe that the dog sled was invented thousands of years ago when an Alaskan Eskimo attached a pair of crude runners to a frame, hitched this contrivance to a pack of dogs, climbed aboard, and wound up in Brazil. This taught the $H remaining Eskimos that if they were going to build another one of these things, it should definitely have brakes. Today, dog sleds are mainly used in races, the most famous one being the Alaskan Iditarod, in which competitors race from Anchorage to Nome, with the winner getting a cash prize of $50,000, which just about covers the winner's Chapstick expenses.

I took a far more modest dog-sled ride, up and down a smallish mountain near Hailey, Idaho, on a sled operated by Sun Valley Sled Dog Adventures. This is a small company started by a very nice young guy named Brian Camilli, who plans to win the Iditarod some day, and who bought his first sled dogs five years ago. He now owns 27 dogs, which as you can imagine makes it somewhat tricky for him to obtain rental housing.

I was part of a two-sled party, which required 18 dogs. A highlight of this experience -- in fact, a highlight of my entire life -- was watching Brian and his partner, Jeremy Gebauer, bring the dogs, one at a time, out of the truck. Every single dog, immediately upon emerging, had to make weewee, and then every dog naturally had to sniff every other dog's weewee, which would cause the following thought to register in their primitive dog brains: "Hey! This is weewee!" And so naturally this would cause every one of them to have to make more weewee.

Eventually Brian and Jeremy got all the dogs into their harnesses, at which point the dogs began to suspect that they might be about to run somewhere, which caused them to start barking at the rate of 250 barks per minute per dog.

These dogs were rarin' to go. We passengers climbed into the sleds, and Brian and Jeremy stood on the runners behind. The sleds were tied firmly to the front bumper of the truck, but the dogs were pulling so hard that I swear I felt the truck move; I had this vision of us disappearing over the top of the mountain -- dogs, followed by sleds, followed by truck, all headed for the Arctic Circle, never to be heard from again.

Quickly Brian and Jeremy untied the sleds and whoooaaaa we were off, whipping up the trail at a very brisk pace, the dogs insanely happy, Brian and Jeremy shouting traditional dog-team commands (my favorite traditional command, shouted by Brian, was: "Be nice!").

These guys know their dogs; they watch them carefully and talk to them individually. Every dog runs a little differently, has a different personality. For example, on my sled's team, Sprocket was a good, hard worker, a steady puller with a real nice gait; Brian hardly had to tell him anything. But he had to keep talking to Suzy, who was definitely not pulling her share of the load: She was more waddling than trotting. Brian would shout "Suzy!" and she'd start trotting for a while, but as soon as she thought he wasn't looking she'd go back to waddling. You could just tell that if Suzy worked for a large corporation, she'd spend most of her day making personal phone calls.

But most of the dogs were off to the races. In fact, the hard part is getting them to stop. Brian told us that one of the cardinal rules of this sport is that you never, ever get off and walk behind the sled.

"They'll leave you behind," he said.

We trotted briskly up to the top of the mountain, then Jeremy and Brian turned the sleds around in a maneuver that had all the smooth precision of a prison riot as the two teams of dogs suddenly decided this would be a good time for all 18 of them to sniff each other's private regions. But they got straightened out, and we roared back down the hill; even Suzy was in overdrive. The sun was shining, the valley was spread out below us, the wind (not to mention the occasional whiff of dog poo) was whipping past our faces. It was a wonderful moment, and I felt as though I never wanted to get off the sled, even if there had been some way to stop it. I'll write when we reach Brazil.

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