SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. - Owners of Husky Express Dog Sled Tours Dotty Dennis and David Beck harnessed their team Friday as they prepared to take a client on a Hope Valley tour. The dogs howled and shook with anticipation.
"He's not cold, he's just excited," Beck said as he pointed to a trembling brown and white husky.
"They're natural pullers and they're very smart. It's not like working with horses," he said.
Neither the dogs nor their mushers are strangers to competition. Reebok - the white Siberian husky who lead Friday's tour - once raced the Iditarod, a 993-mile dog sled competition in which mushers and their teams travel from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska.
Dennis, who's raced throughout the country, got her own taste of the famous Alaskan sled dog competition in 1978 when she worked as the handler for Susan Butcher, the second woman ever to win the grueling event.
"When you're helping with the handling you get to be on the inside of the big race. I know all the dirty secrets, and I'm not telling," Dennis said.
She started running dogs with wheel carts in Las Vegas before moving closer to the mountains in 1992. She launched Husky Express Dog Sled Tours with her partner, Beck, that same year. It's a good way for people to see the huskies doing what they're born to do, she said.
Dennis and her dogs compete throughout the winter, but this year will be the first time in 15 years that she'll head to Truckee for a dog sled race. The event is the revival of a sport that all but disappeared from the region for almost two decades until one musher decided to bring it back.
Dog sledding and racing has a long history in and around Lake Tahoe. The sport developed in California during the Truckee winter carnivals in the late 1890s, according to Tahoe historian and author Mark McLaughlin.
Early mushers would harness motley groups of dogs to the ganglines, creating a culture of dog sled derbies around Tahoe's North Shore. Dog drivers from Montana to Alaska migrated to Truckee to compete in the races that soon became national events, McLaughlin said.
When airplanes began replacing the Pony Express as the country's main method of mail transit in the 1920s, dog sledding proved its merit as more than just a diversion.
"These planes would frequently go down, and they would use dog sleds to rescue the people. These dog sleds were much more universal than just competition. ...The dog sleds were part and parcel of this sense of winter country," McLaughlin said.
After World War II, much of the energy around mushing died down, according to McLauglin, and it wasn't until 1979 that dog sled racing returned to the region. The competitions continued for almost two decades, but poor snow eventually brought the races to an end in 1997.
Sierra Nevada Dog Drivers Vice President Preston Springston remembers competing in that last Truckee dog sled race. That experience helped convince Springston to pack up his Southern California home and move to Truckee in 2008 where he now runs Seawolf Racing Sled Dogs kennel.
Last year, Springston decided to bring dog sled racing back to Tahoe. The event would be called the Jack London Commemorative Sierra Sled Dog Derby in honor of London's connection to a 1915 Truckee race that Springston claims was the first dog sled competition in the lower 48 states.
"It's really great to have it come back because it's part of the history of the region. Sled dogs were so important in the late 1800s and early 1900s. I hated not to have a race," he said.
Springston's 10 dogs have already run about 300 miles this winter in preparation for the event set to take place March 2-3 at Sugar Bowl Resort.
Dennis said she will compete in the event, along with her 7-year-old grandson and his two dogs. it could be the last hurrah for the musher who says she plans to hang up the harness at the end of season.
"We're going to retire. We're old, like the dogs. ... It's a lot of work, but we really like what we do. It's a lot of fun and people are so appreciative," Dennis said.