As our sled races through a white-blanketed expanse, pulled by an eager team of dogs straining to go faster than my husband-musher is permitting, soft snow swishes with abandon into the air. A bit lands refreshingly on the small portion of my face that is still exposed. It doesn't get much better than this. I have a priceless view of the wide open winter spaces, of these energetic dogs and their darling wiggling behinds, and of my husband happily holding the reins. We're on a dog-sledding adventure, sailing through the winter stillness on our way to lunch and a dip in Granite Creek Hot Springs.
Not everyone comes to Jackson Hole to ski. Sometimes a snow-lover wants to try something different.
When I signed up for this excursion, I was expecting that both my husband and I would be sitting in the sled the entire time, driven by an experienced musher. I was surprised, then nervous, then excited by the last-minute news that both of us would be briefed in basic commands and drive the team ourselves.
After warming up in the hut, we tromped out to the surprising kennel area, where each dog was chained to a round house made of recycled cable spools. Some rested inside, some paced, a few reclined on the roof. We petted a few pups being cuddled by a caretaker while the mother stood by. Our guide selected his teams and led them over to the sleds. Following his instructions, we helped ready our sled as the dogs moaned and yipped.
We attached the reins to our excited team of six Alaskan racing sled dogs (sleds usually go out with between six and ten dogs), and, after a few test drives in camp, with a jerk we were off.
My husband started as musher, standing on the rail in back and directing the dogs. It looked difficult, until I took over the reins later. I was almost fully reclined, cuddled up to my neck within a waterproof sled-cover. This is definitely the best spot for observing the dogs up close, huffing and puffing and panting along the otherwise tranquil trail, and it is the only position from which to get photographs while moving. Our group of sleds stopped periodically to admire the views along the forest trail, giving us a chance to change positions and the dogs a chance to squat.
Not living up to the thoughts of overworked animals previously lurking in the back of my mind, the dogs always eagerly begged to get going. They barked and howled and strained at the leads, anxious to get back on the trail. These animals are bred for racing, and that's what they want to do. Extremely physically fit, they are said to have three times the aerobic power of a marathon runner. (Everyone seems to want to know what the dogs do with all that energy when the snow melts. According to professional musher Frank Teasley of Jackson Hole Iditarod Sled Dog Tours, "We condition them with 700-pound, four-wheeler quad-runners.")
It wasn't long before I wanted to mush, too. As I mentioned, it's really quite easy. I just applied my body weight on the brake runners to stop and released my weight to the side rails to go, helping the dogs out now and then by pedaling (pumping with one leg) or running behind and pushing. I yelled "gee" for right and "haw" for left, and "all right" for go (not, as I thought before this adventure, "mush"--the slang for the French Canadian term marche, which means "to march"--and not "hike-hike," though it is a term sometimes used in other places). It was thrilling to stand upright, flying through the snow at an average 8 to 12 miles per hour, sometimes accelerating to 20 on the return downhill run. And even I, a born-in-the-city slicker, could do it.
The only thing that could make me want to stop did--a warming dip in the hot springs and some great grub. So, as we approached the fabulously scenic Granite Creek Hot Springs, my thoughts turned to wondering why anyone would be crazy enough to change into a swimsuit in an unheated hut and then traipse through the snow and jump in a spring. But I was the only one to hesitate and thus the last one in. Turns out once you're in a swimsuit, it just doesn't feel as cold as you think it will. And, as touted, the large pool of spring water is blissfully warm, even hot in spots, and the expansive view from it is breathtaking. Of course, I wasn't so nutty as to dive in the snow afterwards, a la Scandinavia, as some did with loud yelps.
Lunch was simple but nutritious, with hot drinks, soup, and a choice of hot-off-the-grill barbecued steak or trout. We relaxed and chatted about experiences while the dogs lolled tree-side, enjoying their own banquet and indulging in a short nap.
After the carrot cake, the speed picked up again as we gathered our things, sought out our dogs, and tied up the teams for the return trip. Our sled was among the last scheduled to leave, so we were able to position ourselves trailside and experience the excitement of watching the other teams heading off. This is one sport where it is almost as much fun to watch as it is to do.
The ride back was a little lower-key, perhaps because we were getting more experienced at our task, perhaps because we were anticipating the end of this exciting adventure. As we headed around the last, somewhat sharp bend into camp, our sled tilted and almost overturned. While I took a bracing dive into soft powder snow, my husband managed to hold on to the team and keep the sled upright. Though no one was hurt, this upset acted as a return to reality, confronting us with the fact that even something this much fun can also be dangerous.
After detaching the dogs, we watered and fed them from recycled coffee cans and returned them to their houses, then reluctantly hiked back to our van. I admit I was looking forward to relaxing in my room and warming my tootsies in my new Teton Toasters slippers, but as luck would have it, there was more. On the way, our dog-sledding day was capped by spotting an enormous Bighorn ram this close to our van, providing a perfect ending to this all-around exhilarating excursion.