MANCOS – A strong organizing committee and robust sponsorship to guarantee a $10,000 top purse could bring high-caliber sled dog racers back to Southwest Colorado in force, says a veteran musher.
“We have everything else – spectacular scenery, expansive trail systems, challenging high-elevation terrain second to none and cooperative snowmobilers to groom trails,” said Rick St. Onge, who lives in Mancos. “It would take three to five years to get into the circuit, but I’d love to see the best teams here again.”
St. Onge, a retired orthopedic surgeon and sports-medicine specialist, and his wife, Kate, arrived here for the first Mancos Mush in the winter of 2005-06 with 35 years of sled-dog racing under their belts in New England and Utah.
The Mancos Mush attracted competitors from Alaska, the Yukon and Canada. But declining prize money and organizational disputes doomed plans to turn the event into a multiday stage race that would take teams to Vallecito, Silverton, Ouray, Ridgway and Montrose.
So for the moment, the region hosts only local recreational events such as the 3-year-old Pagosa Paw. That event, scheduled Feb. 22-23 at the Kuhn Ranch near Pagosa Springs, offers skijoring as well as sled racing.
Participants come from Colorado, Arizona and Utah to vie for medals and trophies but no cash prizes, said Jaclyn Bramwell who, with husband, Forest, is coordinating the event this year.
Gregg Dubit, executive director of the Four Corners Office of Resource Efficiency, breeds sled dogs at his Hesperus Dog Ranch as part of a dog-sled tour business.
Dubit and his wife, Gretchen, were committed leaders when sled-dog racing took hold in La Plata County in the early 1990s. In 2005, they helped organize the Mancos Mush.
Gregg Dubit cited several reasons for the decline of sled-dog racing in La Plata County: lack of prize money, a lengthy process to get a permit to hold races in the San Juan National Forest and the still-recovering economy that crimps the budgets of mushers.
It’s not cheap to own sled dogs. In a 2007 survey, the International Sled Dog Racing Association found that 36 percent of participants had at least $25,000 invested in the sport.
Dave Steele, executive director of the association, credited abundant snow this winter for bringing mushers back after several years of sporadic snowfall.
“Poor snow – it’s been up and down in recent years – reduced participation,” Steele said in a telephone interview. “For the five years prior to this winter, up to 40 percent of races in the U.S., Canada and Alaska were canceled. But all of a sudden we have snow around the Midwest, the Great Lakes and New England, and the number of races are up.”
Despite weather setbacks and the economy, sled-dog racing has held its own, Steele said. One segment, dry-land racing in which dogs pull wheeled carts or mountain bikes, is growing, he said.
“The advantages are that you don’t need snow and you need only one or two dogs,” Steele said. “Urban mushers – as we call them – can live in an apartment but still race dogs.”
Ryne Olson, a 2007 Durango High School graduate who got hooked during a sled-dog outing as a birthday gift, today owns a kennel in Fairbanks, Alaska.
Olson finished fourth among rookies and 31st out of 66 mushers in the 2012 Iditarod. She’s run several shorter races since, including Alaska’s Quest 300 last year.
“I’m a senior at the University of Alaska/Fairbanks, so I can’t take more time off,” Olson said by telephone from her Ryno Sled Dog Kennel. “But I plan to do the Yukon Quest, another 1,000-mile race, with my own dogs for the first time, in 2015.”
In hard-nosed competition, Siberian and Alaskan huskies and malamutes paired in 2- to 16-dog teams run sprints as short as 2 miles, mid-distance races and multiday events such as the renowned Iditarod – 1,100 miles between Anchorage and Nome, Alaska.
Start with malamutes
The St. Onges started racing sled dogs in Massachusetts with fewer than a half-dozen malamutes. But as they gained experience, picked up race victories and delved deeper into canine physiology and mentality they began to breed their own bloodline of Alaskan huskies, the descendants of the work dogs of ancient Athabascan villagers.
They now have 32 Alaskan huskies at their Galloping Husky Ranch a half-dozen miles from Mancos. Each dog has its house in a common area where they hang out when not training. An adjoining play yard allows them to run free.
The dogs, which weigh about 55 pounds, are fed kibble and meat morning and evening, with a snack of broth-laced water at noon. They consume 8,000 to 12,000 calories a day.
“Each dog has a name and a distinctive personality,” St. Onge said. “They’re just as individual as people, half as intelligent and more reliable than humans.”
The dogs are harnessed as leaders who run at the head of the pack. They are followed by swing dogs, team dogs and lastly, next to the sled, the wheel dogs. Some can pull in more than one position.
Sled dogs are fast, mentally tough, have tremendous stamina and are extraordinary processors of oxygen, St. Onge said. Their VO² max – milliliters of oxygen per kilo of body weight per minute – dwarfs human output.
Bicyclist Lance Armstrong of Tour de France fame had a V0² max of 82, St. Onge said, while a sled dog’s number will be around 220.
The endurance of the dogs is crucial, St. Onge said. In 2006, at a multiday race in Bend, Ore., the Galloping Husky team finished in second place, 17 seconds behind the winner, he said.
Let it be known, St. Onge said, that Kate St. Onge is the No. 1 musher.
“She runs the A team, I run the B team,” St. Onge said. “She is always listed as the winner of record.”
The St. Onges are going to the Rocky Mountain Dog Championships in Soda Springs, Idaho, on Saturday and Sunday and to the American Dog Derby on Feb. 13-15 in Ashton, Idaho. The latter race has taken place annually since 1917 except during World War II.
They enter races with confidence, Rick St. Onge said.
“We’ve always finished in the money for the past 15 years,” he said.