Mushing through the dog days of winter


MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Thursday, February 18th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio today. Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: And I’m Megan Basham. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: dog sledding.

For thousands of years, dog sledding—or mushing—helped humans thrive in winter. Archeologists believe Native Americans first began using dogs this way.

REICHARD: Today, sledding is done more for enjoyment than necessity but some enthusiasts in Utah are working to keep the tradition alive. WORLD’s Sarah Schweinsberg has our story.

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: Tourists wearing snow pants, big, puffer jackets, and ski goggles climb into a big white van. After a bumpy ride, the driver pulls up at the end of a snowy road where six sleds and some eager canines wait. 

The driver tells her passengers to be prepared.

BRADIE: As we get out, they’re gonna get louder because they know as soon as this big white van pulls up, they get to go running and they love it.

Sure enough, when the van doors open, 72 sled dogs send up a welcoming chorus. 

AUDIO: [Dogs barking, howling]

The dogs are harnessed to sleds in pairs of two. They howl and playfully snap at their partners. Others jump and lunge into their harnesses. 

A musher steers each team. They help guests climb into the sled and wrap up in blankets. 

Snow is starting to fly. It’s time to ride. 

Wade Donaldson guides one sled. Unlike traditional, wooden sleds, this one’s frame is made of plastic, but it still has wooden  runners. Donaldson steps onto the back and gives the team the go-ahead. 

DONALDSON: Hike! 

Donaldson saw mushing for the first time when he lived in Northern Minnesota in college. After school, he bought his first team as a hobby. A couple years later, he decided to make a business of it. So he started Bear Ridge Adventures. 

DONALDSON: It’s just so cool to be on the trail with a group of dogs. It almost feels like you’re taking a step back in time… I think it really gives you some perspective.

The dogs pull the sled uphill. It glides over the snow by pines and aspens. This is the most physically demanding part of the trail.

DONALDSON: They’re gonna have to work pretty hard going up, because they’re gonna put us up on top of that mountain in front of us. 

 As they run, some dogs reach their noses out and scoop up a mouthful of snow. 

DONALDSON: You call that dipping. That helps cool them down and keep them hydrated. 

All that moving, keeps a dog’s digestive system operating. The smell from behind isn’t always pleasant. 

Wade Donaldson only uses voice commands to direct the team. 

DONALDSON: Hold on. Whoa. 

DONALDSON: I don’t have a steering wheel, I have no reins, it’s not like riding horses. All I have is voice commands. So if you’re going to turn to the right, the command is Gee, I want to go to the left, the command is Haw.

Donaldson says a good musher knows his dogs. How they move, so he can spot injuries. Their personalities and strengths, so he knows who to put in the front, middle and back.

DONALDSON: You want a dog that’s very disciplined and focused and can can do their job, and be independent and smart. So the dogs right behind the leaders, that’s what you call your swing or your point dogs. A lot of times they’re kind of your backup leaders. 

Males go in the back because they’re stronger. 

DONALDSON: So like the two right in front of us are what you call the wheel dogs. And they’re the ones that are really going to dig in and pull a lot harder. So the dogs closest to the sled physically are the ones that are pulling the most. 

AUDIO: [Stopping the dogs]

At the top of the mountain, Donaldson stops the team for a breather. If he didn’t stop the team, they’d just keep going and going and going. These teams can cover 100 miles a day.

DONALDSON: They just want to run and run… I can’t stop them sometimes.

To stop them, Donaldson pushes an anchor called a claw break into the snow. 

DONALDSON: They feel the tension on that line. So as soon as I pop that out, they’re gonna want to go again. 

Sure enough, after about 30 seconds, the team wants to take off. Donaldson says these tours let people see how much the dogs love their job. 

DONALDSON: I think the sport of dog sledding  has faced more and more scrutiny from people who maybe don’t totally understand a working dog. Where I’ve had people before that come out. And they think these poor dogs. But this isn’t your poodle. This is what they want to do. 

The dogs on the teams are short and weigh 45 to 65 pounds. Wade says small dogs can cover more distance. 

DONALDSON: If you’re going to run a marathon, you don’t very often see a great big, 350 pound guy that’s very competitive doing it. Same thing with the dogs.

Mushers started breeding today’s sled dogs during the Alaskan Gold Rush 170 years ago. Prospectors began cross breeding native Malamutes and Huskies with foreign breeds like St. Bernards and German Shepherds. 

That mixed dog heritage shows up on Donaldson’s team. Some have short hair like a Labrador. A handful have long, thick coats and icy, blue eyes like a Husky. Others are a mix. 

DONALDSON: There’s a lot of variation within their body type or their color pattern. And that’s just because somewhere in their bloodlines, there’s just kind of this mixed bag of dog genes.

Now, it’s time for the fun part: the downhill. 

DONALDSON: This part’s really fun. 

The trail narrows through the trees. And it isn’t always smooth. As the dogs pick up speed, the sled goes airborne over bumps. It lands with a thud. 

AUDIO: [SLED LANDING]

It feels like riding a roller coaster. On one turn the sled almost tips over. 

AUDIO: [Screams]

Wade Donaldson has had a few spills over the years. But not today. 

DONALDSON: It’s pretty smooth sailing from this point on.

These dogs easily cover 5 miles in an hour. And that’s with stops along the way. 

DONALDSON: Whoa guys. K move up. 

It’s the end of the day. Now it’s time for these snow buddies to rest and eat. 

The mushers load the dogs into several trailers filled with fresh straw. Back at their kennels, these canines will eat a mix of kibble and beef. 

Making sure so many dogs get exercise, training and medical care is a full-time job. And it comes with quite the food bill. 

DONALDSON: Last week, I helped unload a semi trailer of dog food. So he brought in 20,000 pounds, the whole truck. And that’ll last for a couple of months.

Wade Donaldson says the time commitment and expenses are some of the reasons there aren’t as many mushers these days. 

That’s why it’s so important to him that more people get out on the sled and into the woods with these furry friends. Maybe just one more person will come to love the sport as much as he does and almost as much as the dogs. 

DONALDSON:  That’s one thing about these dogs that you have to admire is that they are so driven and so passionate about their work that they just want to go.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg in Coalville, Utah.


(Photo/Sarah Schweinsberg)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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