As soon as I exited my car at the Resort at Squaw Creek I could hear them. The anxious pleas of sled dogs, chomping at the bit to get running and pull sleds around the Squaw Creek meadow. Every winter day when the snow conditions are right, Wilderness Adventures Dog Sled Tours takes their 52 highly trained sled dogs from their kennel near Truckee to the Resort at Squaw Creek. Using four or five sleds, they can conduct up to 20 tours a day.
“These Alaskan Huskies are feisty, energized
marathon runners with small, thin bodies
designed to run and run at a steady speed
for hours at a time.”
I recently hopped aboard one of those sleds under the capable hands of musher Matt Byers. The view across the valley to the mountains of Squaw Valley is spectacular, and the motion of the sled sliding smoothly on the snow, was relaxing and fun. The highlight of the journey, however, even for someone like me who is not really a dog person, is watching the behavior of the pack of dogs. These Alaskan Huskies are feisty, energized marathon runners with small, thin bodies designed to run and run at a steady speed for hours at a time. They are the same breed that takes on the nearly 1,000-mile Iditarod sled dog race in Alaska, when they spend days on end running in the below-zero temperatures.
Whether waiting for the next tour or loping around the course, the dogs are always fascinating to watch. Minor dog revolts frequently erupt when one of the 10 dogs on the line decides they want to go in a different direction than the lead dog, and they often emit quick barks and nip at each other as they run. As we slid along, Byers talked about the different personalities of the dogs. Some dogs are all business, while some are taking it easy and making the others take up the slack. But whatever their personalities, they are working dogs. When one of the mushers let his goofy lab Sadie come see the customers, it was quickly apparent that the working Huskies looked at Sadie as a tourist on permanent vacation, and Sadie was smart enough to keep her distance.
Wilderness Adventures owners Brian and Deanne Mass ran their first dog sled tour in 1999 at Sugar Bowl. Brian got into dog sledding after doing a lot of winter camping with a couple of pet huskies. He acquired a few harnesses and a small sled and started having the dogs “pull me on the flat stuff on my snowboard,” he says. He learned from his mistakes, read everything he could get his hands on about sled dogs, and went from four dogs to six dogs and then decided to take the big leap to opening it as a business.
Running a dog sled tour business is certainly not just a job; it has to be a passion to deal with the long and challenging hours required. You need enough snow to run the dogs, but not so much that you can’t run them. The last two winters they were not able to operate due to a lack of snow. But Byers remembers the winter of 2011, when most of the time there was too much snow to run the dogs. Instead, they spent day after day shoveling out the dogs’ pens.
Even on a normal winter day, the daily routine of a dog sled company is a 12-plus hour operation. Each musher takes care of his own team. It begins in the morning with cleaning up after the dogs, dishing out snacks and loading the dogs into the trucks. After a day at work pulling sleds, the dogs return home and are given a health check, with special attention paid to the feet. Then, they eat the big meal of the day, and lay down on a bed of straw in their individual homes.
For the Maas family it has become a family affair. Fourteen-year-old Elias now runs a sled, working every day as an important part of the operation, and 18-year-old Ravyn also helps out.
In general, the sled dog tours run seven days a week between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. But dates and times vary due to snow conditions. The maximum weight per sled is 500 lbs., which in most cases would allow a couple and perhaps one child to fit in a sled.
Photos by Tim Hauserman
For more information or to make a reservation, call (530) 426-3840 or visit tahoedogsledtours.com.