The huskies and Belgium shepherds are barking wildly and yelping with their noses to the sky as three girls, ages 9-12, hustle them out to the sled line. The dogs are anxious to run, anxious feel the wind in their fur and the ground slip by beneath their feet. So are the girls.
Jenny Greger (11) and Rachel (9) and Alexandra (12) Fessenden started running sled dogs and racing a couple years ago. I feel free (when dog sledding), says Alex. Jenny elaborates, Its fun and there is no one there to bother you. No one tells you what to do.
Dog sledding has always been a means to freedom. For early cultures (archaeologists believe dog sledding is at least 4,000 years old) it meant freedom to move about in the winter. It was a utilitarian way to transport goods and people over otherwise impassible snow. It was a way to hunt, to carry meat home, and may have been the reason people could live in such hostile environments before the advent of modern comforts.
Today snowmobiles and airplanes have mostly replaced dog sleds in northern peoples work-a-day life, but mushing (as dog sledding is also called) has found its niche in winter recreation and racing.
Jennys mom, Cara used to show dogs in California, most of whom came from a ranch near Livingston. She moved to Montana and met Rob who was managing a kennel of AKC Alaskan malamutes. Rob started mushing the malamutes in the winter when they werent being shown and realized that dog sledding was what he wanted to do.
After a stint in Alaska, Rob and Cara, now married, moved back to Montana, bought a place on Bozeman Pass and began raising sled dogs for Rob to race. It was a match made in heaven, laughs Cara, between Rob and me and the dogs.
The love for dogs, mushing and freedom was passed from Rob and Cara to their daughter Jenny. As a family they run their dogs up Jackson Creek, Mill Creek and around West Yellowstone. You can enjoy your dogs and be a musher without racing, says Cara.
When Cara and Sue Geske (the Fessendens mom) met through the AKC dog club it was another match made in heaven. Cara and Sue would meet up at events where Rob was racing and Sue was working as a veterinarian. Then, four years ago, the two families were in West Yellowstone and decided to pack out a trail in the park.
Rob, Sue and the three girls donned snowshoes and stomped out a path that the dogs could run on. Using two dogs and a sled, the girls took turns mushing around the park while the packed-out trail ensured the dogs stayed on course and didnt take off into the fresh powder and surrounding town. The girls were bit by the dog sledding bug.
Since their first experience in West Yellowstone, the girls and their moms have entered several races. Sometimes with comical results. The dogs had run the Root Beer Classic race near Polebridge, MT several times with Rob. They had always veered right at the junction leading to the longer course. One year Cara and Sue decided to run the race, but to do the shorter, six mile course. At the junction, Cara stopped and was able to route Sues dogs to the left, but her own pack headed to the right, insisting that they knew the course better than she. Sometimes the dogs are in charge, Cara acquiesces.
Another time the group was mushing up Mill Creek in the Absaroka Range. Jenny was driving the sled while Rachel was sitting in the basket. The sled flipped. Jenny was dragged behind, but she never let go. The first rule is to never let go of your sled, explains Cara, and Jenny was tough; she held on. As a concerned mom she jokes, Sometimes I think we should duct tape their hands to the sled.
Despite the occasional spill or ornery dog team, Cara and Sue believe that dog sledding has been beneficial to their daughters. Dealing with dogs requires patience and daily attendance. The dogs need love and care regardless of how their handlers feel. While Rachel and Alex, help with dog chores once a month or so, Jenny lives with the dogs and spends more time scooping poop, feeding and generally maintaining forty dogs.
Whats hard is trying to pick up poop in the hard snow or when it gets all snowy and packed and the dogs get trapped in their homes (and have to be dug out), says Jenny. Rachel agrees, The hardest part is picking up poop and bones and the chores. Alex says whats difficult for her is when I dont know if the dogs are growling at an animal or me, or when you try to harness them and they jump up on you.
But, it is the chores and dog training that help build responsibility in the girls. They have to learn patience and how to deal with their emotions, says Cara. Sue adds, Its a way to be an active kid, to gain confidence in a sport and to feel a sense of accomplishment.
While sled dog racing is still a male dominated sport (only about 25% of racers in the 2006 Iditarod were women) there is no physical advantage to being a man. As long as the racer has the ability and the dogs, he or she can be a top contender. It is one of the few sports where there are not separate categories for men and women and both can participate on a level playing field.
There are, however, separate races for kids and adults, although not many in the west. Most of the major races, according to Cara, dont have kids divisions. But she feels it is important for the progression of the sport. If kids dont have race experience they are less likely to participate as adults.
Cara and Sues daughters have done well; theyve placed in several races around the west and northwest. But, as Cara says, Whats important is whether you win or lose, did you have a fun time with the dogs? Whether or not someone else is faster, if you respected what the dogs need and got out in a natural setting (youve succeeded).
As the dogs glide silently up Mill Creek or around West Yellowstone with a young girl gripping the sled handle, the bond between girl and dog, mother and daughter, and friends strengthens. The girls are building confidence, having fun, communing with nature and finding a place for themselves in the world. They are learning responsibility and to sometimes put the needs of others before themselves. Thats a lot for a sport to offer.
This story originally appeared in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle