CHEMULT — As mushers lined up teams of six or eight dogs in the parking lot at Walt Haring Sno-park on Saturday morning, the air was filled with globs of heavy, wet snow and a cacophony of barking, yapping, whining and howling from dogs eager to start their runs.
Instead of waiting patiently until it was their turn to take to the course at the Chemult Sled Dog Races, a (nearly) annual two-day event held in northern Klamath County, many of the excited dogs had to be held in place or have their lines untangled by handlers.
“The start is the worst part, because they want to go so bad,” said Jessica Pulliam, a 28-year-old who lives in Welches near Mount Hood. “It’s like telling a kid in a candy store, no, you can’t have any candy yet, you just have to wait a little bit.”
Although there was not enough snow in Chemult to hold the event in 2014 or 2015, 37 teams from across Oregon and the Northwest turned out to compete in the International Federation of Sleddog Sports-sanctioned contest, which included nine different categories run Saturday and Sunday.
Pulliam took first place in the advanced skijor division, which requires one or two dogs to pull a musher riding on nordic skis.
Three-year-old littermates Argo and Amos, who are jet-black German shorthaired pointers, Alaskan husky and English pointer crosses, pulled Pulliam 4.4 miles in 15 minutes and 31 seconds, although a thick layer of wet snow prevented Pulliam and other skijorers from getting into the skate skiing motion that allows teams to travel most efficiently.
“These guys, what they were bred for is to go 25 miles at 20 miles an hour, so they’re more marathon runners,” Pulliam said. “The cool thing about this sport is that essentially any dog can do it. I mean, I’ve even seen Chihuahuas do it, although obviously it’s not much help in terms of pulling.”
While there were plenty of specially bred pooches on hand Saturday, some participants, including Pulliam, said they originally discovered sled dog sports as a fun activity to do with pets they already owned. Jane Devlin, 52 and of Bend, said sled dog racing felt like a natural outgrowth of her work with a group that found new homes for unwanted huskies.
“You start rescuing Siberian huskies, and then you find out what they’re supposed to do, and then you get hooked on the sport and get more dogs,” said Devlin, who ran with six of her 11 dogs. “I went to a mushing boot camp where we had instructors from Minnesota, and they taught us how to teach commands and train the dogs. And then you kind of want to try racing and want to test them a little on a new course.”
Although some of Devlin’s huskies come from long lines of sled dogs, some of her rescues take a little longer to adjust to racing with a team.
“The running lines of Siberians take to it pretty well; the challenge is when you get dogs from other people,” Devlin said. “You have to train them to your rules, your house, your voice. You can have a great dog, but it takes a while, just like any rescue, to get used to you.”
Many drivers said offseason training is just as important for sled dogs as it is for human athletes.
“In summertime it’s a little bit warm (for the dogs), so we do a lot of swimming and biking and hiking — they love to swim,” Pulliam said. “When there’s no snow, we dryland train, so there’s bikejoring, which is the same as skijoring but on a mountain bike.”
Devlin said she spends the summer months agility training (that is, coaching dogs through an obstacle course) with each of her huskies.
“That’s how I get the relationship with each dog,” Devlin said. “It’s for their confidence and their bodies, because they’re climbing on things and running through tunnels and learning to trust me. So when they’re (racing) on a team, they know I’m in charge.”
Devlin said racing is a challenging activity for her and a good way to meet new people, but it also fulfills the needs of dogs who have been bred to enjoy long runs in the snow.
“In the winter I try to get out every weekend. Now that we have snow, it’s good for the dogs’ brains to get on different trails,” Devlin said. “Just like us, they can get bored of the same thing, but then you get on a new trail, and they speed up. It’s like they want to see what’s around the next corner.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0305, firstname.lastname@example.org .