Excited yips and howls cut through the freezing air. A dozen sled dogs strained at their harnesses, eagerly awaiting their cue. All they wanted to do was run.
Suddenly, the sled dogs went silent — it was go time.
In one smooth motion the dogs took off as a team, pulling Bondurant residents John and Liz Stewart on sleds behind them.
The Stewarts are racing their dogs in the Eukanuba 8-Dog Classic Race, a two-day event that runs through Driggs, Idaho, and Alpine. Local mushers will also compete in the Pedigree Stage Stop Race, which starts Friday in Jackson.
When John Stewart says he has been mushing since he was 5 years old, he’s not joking. His parents, who live in Scotland, run Siberian huskies as part of a touring operation. He has been around the sport since he was born.
Stewart described his foray into the dog sledding world as “gradually building” and now “culminating to where we are today.”
“It’s a crazy sport,” he said with a smile.
Unlike her husband, Liz Stewart wasn’t born into the sport. In fact, she stumbled into it. While working for a tour kennel in Park City, Utah, she happened upon a parking lot full of race dogs. She was hooked.
John and Liz Stewart met for the first time when he came to Jackson Hole to compete in the 2012 Stage Stop Sled Dog Race. Actually, she had seen the truck full of dogs he worked with — but not him — in 2011.
“We met through the dogs,” she said. “I thought I knew everything about dogs back then, but it has opened my eyes into a whole new pack mentality. It’s so fun, and the dogs are such a joy to be around.”
Alix Crittenden, also of Bondurant, is racing in the Stage Stop, an eight-day race through Wyoming and eastern Idaho. (For details on the kickoff events in Jackson see page 2 of the Stepping Out section.)
Like Liz Stewart, Crittenden didn’t know from the start that she wanted to be a musher. After working at a horse ranch in Colorado during a summer break from studying, she started to look around for other seasonal employment.
“I decided that I didn’t want to go home and become an accountant,” Crittenden said. “And I decided I wanted to go live out West. What could I do that was adventurous? I Googled ‘dogsledding jobs.’”
Up came Frank Teasley’s kennel and Jackson Hole Iditarod Sled Dog Tours. It was supposed to be just a “one-winter thing,” Crittenden said.
“That first winter I met my husband in the bar, and the rest is history,” she said. “Dogsledding is kind of like drugs: You get really addicted to it. But I think drugs would be cheaper.”
Crittenden started guiding for Teasley. When a position working with the race dogs opened she jumped at the chance. She worked the Stage Stop race as a handler and then moved to Alaska for a brief hiatus to work at a kennel and mush up north.
After touring all over Canada, Alaska and the United States, Crittenden took sixth in the 2014 Stage Stop Race, the top female racer.
“It was all the dogs,” she said. “I was just holding on.”
Still, she thought that might be it. Not so fast.
“If someone told me I’d be running dogs for a job, I would’ve laughed,” Crittenden said. “I’ve always been around animals. My folks raised me to be adventurous and to look outside the box. But not to this extent.”
Dedication is a must
Mushing takes a unique kind of person. It’s a sport that demands round-the clock-attention for other living creatures — athletes, no less — that depend on mushers to meet their basic needs.
“They’re my dogs, they’re my friends, they’re my buddies, they’re my co-workers,” Crittenden said. “It’s a deep connection.
“You’re working toward the same goal every single day,” she said. “We’re busting our butts to meet this goal of running this race that feels like it goes on forever. When you can accomplish that, it’s amazing.”
The mushers “drop,” or attend to, their dogs at least seven times a day — whether they’re traveling and in kennels on a truck or at kennels in their yards — at roughly three-hour intervals.
“You’re not successful if you don’t take care of the dogs,” Crittenden said. “And that’s having your head in a box full of pee.”
That’s the not-so-glamorous part of dogsledding.
“Everybody thinks it’s all glory,” Crittenden said. “But I would say that probably 25 percent of it is actually on the runners and 75 percent of it is taking care of the dogs.”
Mushers’ utmost priority is taking care of their dogs. The Stewarts and Crittenden reiterated, through their words and their actions, that they have prioritized the health, safety and well-being of their dogs over everything else.
“I hope everybody understands that we aren’t making these dogs do this,” Crittenden said. “We are asking them to do it, and they do it willingly and they love it.”
That often means having “your suit and boots with you” at all times. Liz Stewart said she and her husband will go into Smith’s to do their shopping and water their dogs in the parking lot if they have to.
“The amount of time and dedication is huge,” she said. “It’s a full-time job.”
Caroline Griffitts, the chief race veterinarian, sees that dedication firsthand.
“Vets and mushers work together to keep dogs as healthy as possible,” she said. “It’s not just a sport, it’s really a lifestyle. Their entire life revolves around these dogs. No one wants to see a dog that is injured.”
Griffitts started as a trail vet for the Iditarod in 1993. Since then she has worked at races all around North America and in Europe and Russia. She said injuries vary based on the type and distance of a race, as well as the snow and trail conditions.
Weather a huge factor
“The weather is the biggest question,” she said, referring to the upcoming race. “When the weather is good the trails are absolutely beautiful and well-groomed. But it’s Wyoming — everything can change.”
Griffitts said she and her team of veterinarians will be “keeping a close eye on the dogs.”
Race organizer Dan Carter also recognized the dedication mushers have for their teams.
“It becomes pretty obvious once you get into the sport how important it is to take really good care of your dogs,” Carter said.
“It’s such a consuming hobby,” he said. “If you don’t really treasure the time that you spend with your dogs, then you’re not going to be in it for very long.”
Good mushers don’t just take care of their dogs —they know them. Very, very well. Which dogs enjoy running together? Do they have matched strides? What are their personalities?
“It’s like a giant puzzle,” Crittenden said. “We’re always taking it apart and putting it back together.”
Placement on the line is strategic. The lead dog has to be strong-headed and focused, while the wheel, or the dog closest to the sled, tends to be younger. Leaders are often switched out to give them a break from the pressure.
Bad placement won’t get results.
“It’s like if you played your linebacker as a wide receiver,” John Stewart said. “It just wouldn’t work.”
When you get it right, Crittenden compared it to a “magic carpet ride.”
“You’re constantly looking for that, and you don’t get it every run,” she said. “Like any other athletes, there are good days and bad days. But everybody I know lives for that one run where everything clicks, the team moves as a unit, and it gets better and better throughout the run. That feeling, that’s why I’m doing this.”
Mutts with impressive pedigrees
A good sled dog isn’t always one that looks like a husky in a Disney movie. The dogs the Stewarts run are yearlings from a kennel in Canada. Crittenden described the Teasley team she races as “really well-thought-out mutts” with pedigrees “you can trace back decades.”
The Stewarts’ team also has breeding that goes back more than 30 years to ensure lungs that can go, go, go and a size that helps with deep snow and big hills.
Liz Stewart described a dog that’s a good fit for mushing as a dog that is “willing to run into a brick wall, they love it so much.”
But that doesn’t mean mushers run their dogs into the ground. Quite the opposite.
All three mushers talked about how they set the dogs up for success on each and every run. The dogs’ speed is monitored with a GPS unit, capturing everything from the temperature to average speed, maximum speed and distance. Everything is later recorded in a field notebook.
The goal? To have the last mile be the fastest. It keeps it fun for the dogs and helps them stay strong for races.
“You don’t want to go out crazy like a bat and come in like a snail,” Crittenden said.
On tough uphills a snowmobile — something puppies are trained to run after — offers motivation to chase to the end of the run. Crittenden, letting her dogs rest during a recent training run, guided the machine while letting other recreationists know dogs were on the trail and keeping an eye out for elk and moose.
When ice started crusting a bootie on Frank, one of the lead dogs, the mushers stopped the run to take it off. The other dog — with frosty eyelashes and whiskers — kept busy eating snow — panting.
The hardest part for Crittenden is to not constantly chatter at the dogs. She wants to encourage them but knows they do better without a lot of talk.
“I have to put my headphones on,” she said. “otherwise I can’t shut up.”
What’s on her playlist?
“Top 40,” she said, “with some fiddle and folk thrown in.”
This year the mushers have had to take into account heavy snow that has thrown off kennel maintenance, training schedules and trails.
“You have to be innovative,” Liz Stewart said. “There are so many variables in our sport. It’s not like soccer, where all you really need is a ball, some cleats and a nice pair of shorts.”
The mushers lost several days of training during the massive snowstorm that blanketed the area earlier this month.
“It’s one of those winters where everything that could go wrong has,” Crittenden said ruefully. “The snow has overtaken us this year.”
Working around the weather was tough.
“It was like trying to keep a 3-year-old on the couch for five days,” Liz Stewart said.
It’s all about creating normalcy and remaining dependable for the dogs.
“They are so dependent on a routine,” Liz Stewart said. “They thrive on consistency, they thrive on a pattern. It’s the hardest part of mushing, but it’s also a joy because you get to be with your dogs. If you stick with it they can reach their highest potential.”
‘Amazing what they can do’
Despite the weather mayhem the dogs and their mushers are still ready to race.
After the last relatively long training run, the Stewarts were pleased with their dogs, who wanted to move faster than the controlled 14 or 14.5 mph they were held at.
“It was a stand-on-the-crank-brake kind of day,” Liz Stewart said. “I loved it.”
Crittenden noticed progress — something any dedicated musher, works hard to achieve.
“To take care of the dogs day in and day out,” she said. “It’s rewarding to see them run better. You can see the improvement.”
In the best shape possible, Crittenden said, the dogs are kind of like Marines.
“It’s just amazing what they can do,” she said. “When everything works they’re a solid unit of forward motion.”