BIGHORN MOUNTAINS — Silence and the cool morning air filled a parking lot near Arrowhead Lodge Sunday, a place typically reserved for snowmobilers and cross-country skiers.
In the back of three vehicles were large kennels, each filled with dogs that, despite the 20-degree weather, stayed warm in their straw-filled sleeping quarters, using each others’ body heat for warmth.
Each dog came out of its cage with its tail wagging in excitement. They would soon go on a run, taking their loving owners with them.
Groups as small as four or as large as 10, would be hooked up to a sled and hit the trail for an often-romanticized winter sport — dog sledding.
While working with dogs and dashing through the snow may be a lot of fun, it takes plenty of hard work and time for mushers to pursue the hobby.
Dog sledding has long been a part of winter culture. While it’s now used as a form of recreation, sledding used to be an essential part of life in snowy climates. Dogs sledding served as a form of transportation, primarily, for a number of cultures.
The Berges still have a strong connection to the sled dogs from hundreds of years ago.
The Glenrock residents, 20-year veterans of the sport, brought nearly 30 dogs to the Bighorn Mountains this past weekend. Tabetha Berge said her family has 50-60 dogs in its kennel at any given time.
They raise Siberian huskies, a breed whose size, athleticism, intelligence and natural acclimation to the cold makes it the optimal choice to pull a musher through miles and miles of snow.
“Bloodlines are pretty important as a base,” Berge said. “… Our dogs are all bred from working lines, and most of them come from the original Siberian Huskies.”
Just like any athlete, the dogs require top-notch care to perform at their highest ability. This requires a specialized diet of high-protein, high-fat dog food that the Berges have to ship in from out of state.
Berge said they also have to keep an eye on the dogs’ endurance and health. Her dogs travel between 10 and 50 miles per run.
“You have to make sure they are healthy and fit for what they do,” Berge said.
The dogs are hooked up to the side of the trucks in the order they will run in the team. Some howl into the mountains, while others stretch their legs and relieve themselves.
Some of the black-and-white-colored dogs are comforted by their owners with pets and belly scratches, as harnesses are untangled and sleds readied. For local mushers, sledding is a hobby.
Sheridan resident Ben Keller has always had a fascination with the sport. He started out with one puppy, then added a veteran dog from another team. Year after year, he and his family added more dogs, now owning six four-legged athletes.
“It takes a lot of commitment — both financially and time wise,” Keller said. “There’s a lot to it.”
While a dog’s natural instinct is to run and pull the sled, it takes hours and hours of training. Teaching a dog to go is easy, Keller said, but teaching them to stop is a different challenge. One good sled dog will train not only the other dogs, but the musher himself.
“Each dog is different, some take a longer time to train than others,” Keller said. “But for the most part, you get them in a harness, and they know what to do.”
But the training is worth it, if you ask Keller. His children and his wife now enjoy the sport, and it has now become one of their winter rituals.
“It’s turned out to be a really great family sport,” Keller said. “It’s great for the kids to be involved in the responsibility of taking care of the animals, equipment and the husbandry of it. They love being on the trail.”
Building the sport
The Berges, along with Gillette couple Colin and Tara Lynn, compete in races around the region, but hope that the sport grows in popularity. While there are still some races for Wyoming mushers, such as the Pedigree Wyoming Stage Stop Race, many have fallen by the wayside.
“There used to be a nice Wyoming race circuit, and over the years, they’ve stopped holding them,” Berge said.
Mushers hope to see that revived. Wyoming’s strong winters, paired with its abundance of trails, make perfect conditions for a major regional race to be held, Berge said.
“If we can get a good race in an area, mushers will come from all over to race in it,” Berge said.
A small crowd of snowmobilers gathered in the parking lot at Arrowhead, pulling out their phones to take photos of the dogs who were now going wild in anticipation of the run.
Howling from the dogs grew louder — deafening. The Siberian huskies begin to bounce from side to side in excitement, as each pair of dogs is placed in front of the sled.
“They love this,” Colin Lynn said. “They know when they are about to run.”
The dogs are released. The howling is replaced by a rapid pitter-patter of paws on the groomed trail, as the dogs launch from their position in the parking lots onto the trail like a drag-race driver who saw the light drop from yellow to green.
They entered the woods, and silence once again filled the parking lot.