By Sue Bjorkman
Mention dog sledding and the first image that comes to mind is Alaska’s grueling 1,000 mile Iditarod race. This wild event began in 1973 mainly to revive the dying dogsledding tradition. In Chaffee County, Caleb and Deanna Hathaway of Monarch Dog Sled Rides have also revived dogsledding, but not for competition; just for a thrilling winter experience.
The Hathaway’s started this small independent company in 2011 when they moved to Salida. From late November to April, they offer dogsled tours through the ultra-scenic San Isabel National Forest just southeast of Monarch Mountain Ski Area. The ride traverses past historic mines, alongside a creek, by frozen beaver ponds, across fields and through trees.
“It’s always a magical feeling being pulled by a dog team,” says Caleb. “You’re on a sled, wrapped in a fleece blanket, gliding through some really amazing scenery.”
Caleb’s love of working with sled dogs inspired this company. Caleb grew up in Canada and has dual-citizenship. He worked five years for different companies in Whistler, British Columbia, Alaska and Winter Park before starting this venture. One year he helped train and prepare an Iditarod dog team from September until the race in March. A few of his dogs have run in the Iditarod in their career, too.
“I loved doing this in the North and wanted to share the experience with people here. We’re small — just 33 pulling dogs — compared to some of the really big operations with hundreds of dogs, but that’s the way we want it,” says Caleb.
The Hathaway’s live between Maysville and Garfield. All their Alaskan Huskies live there too, each with its own doghouse within a large fenced-in area. At tour time, they transport the dogs from their property in a “doggie hotel” truck.
The Monarch Park Tour meets at the Monarch Park Campground. The fun starts with the human and Huskies meet-and-greet. It’s hard to know who gets more excited about these trips – the guests or the dogs.
“People always ask if the dogs like doing this. I answer, look at them and then you decide. It’s like any dog getting ready to go for a walk. That leash comes out and he gets so excited. If you’ve ever seen any dog that has a job – like a hunting dog — they absolutely love it. These dogs have been bred for generations for this. They can’t help but love it,” says Caleb. “And of course we do everything we can to make it healthy and fun for them.”
There’s definitely a transition the dogs go through, though. When people first meet them, they’re barking and jumping excitedly. But once they’re harnessed and moving, they get very focused and quiet.
“They’re doing their job. It’s hard to bark and run at the same time,” he adds.
The dogs all have imaginative names, like Snickers or Monster or Fuji. While they each have their own distinct personalities, overall the dogs are excitable, smart, driven, and tireless. Guests get to assist in the harnessing process. Then it’s time to ride.
On the Snow
Once the team starts to run, the dogsled ride lasts about 40 minutes. Only two sleds with a max of six people go out at a time, allowing for a truly personalized trip. Snow conditions and weight of the participants determine how many dogs are needed on a team.
“Just like if you were cross-country skiing or snowshoeing, it’s more work to get through fresh heavy snow so we need more dogs. If it’s more packed or icy, we don’t need as many. But normally we use 8-12 dogs,” says Caleb.
The ride varies with these changes, too. In deep snow, the ride is very smooth and the dogs run at about five to eight miles an hour. They run 10-12 miles on hard-packed icier terrain.
“It feels a lot faster when you’re going through the woods and all. You really feel the dog’s power,” Caleb adds.
The view is always better for the Lead Dog, but some are just naturally better leaders than others. Still, all the dogs get a chance to try.
“I compare it to a class of elementary school kids. Every kid wants to be in front. There’s a great feeling of freedom up there. But some kids – and dogs too – start to goof off while others take it seriously,” says Caleb. “We like to put young dogs up there with more experienced leaders to be mentored. The great leaders are generally older, smart and mature.”
A professional guide leads each dog team but sleds have two standing positions allowing guests to take a turn as lead ‘mushers,’ too.
“We let whoever wants to try controlling, braking, leaning,” says Caleb. The sport uses adopted commands from horse and mule teams, such as “gee” and “haw” for left and right. During the ride, guides also teach people the history of the sport, the dog teams and the beautiful area.
They use the term ‘drive’ but ‘mush’ is fun too. Legend has it that the term’s history goes back to the Gold Rush days when prospectors were heading north using dog teams. The French miners commanded their dogs by saying “Marche,” which translates to “march.”
“The English butchered this into “mush,” and the term stuck,” Caleb says.
Visit http://www.monarchdogsledrides.com/ or 719-640-9944 for information and reservations.