Mushers slog through the elements | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Mushers slog through the elements

Gregory Crofton, Tahoe Daily Tribune

Jim Grant/Tahoe Daily TribuneTwo teams of sled dogs run the trail in Kirkwood Meadows on a snowpack that is rapidly disappearing.

KIRKWOOD — All it took was a yap.

A dog’s bark from inside a passing car set off a chain reaction in the pack. Siberian huskies, 17 of them, howled, barked and squealed for two minutes, feeding off each other’s enthusiasm.

Then — as if someone flicked a switch — silence.

“They’re just kind of talking,” said Scotty Mistak, 18, who works for Chris Miller, owner of Running Creek Dog Sled Rides. “They do it for about a minute or so then just go quiet.”

A dog sledder likes to see a pack feed off each other. It means there’s teamwork — teamwork that enables the dogs to pull a sled loaded with 500 pounds worth of people as fast as 22 mph.

This year is the third season Running Creek has operated sleds at the Kirkwood Meadow. Miller has driven dogs competitively for eight years.

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He estimates this season will only last a few more weeks because of the dwindling snowpack. Miller typically gives about four tours on two sleds each day. Despite steady business, he still must support his “hobby” of dog sledding with a full-time job as a bartender. He lives south of Gardnerville at Topaz Lake where his 31 dogs make themselves at home on a 3-acre ranch.

All of his animals are related by blood. They were bred from his first husky, Dakota, who today is 10. Miller says he’s willing to make sacrifices, which include buying pounds of chicken (in the winter) or kibble (in the summer) each week. Why does he do it?

“They can take you to heaven,” Miller, 34, said.

“Hooking all the dogs up, conquering the elements, seeing the backcountry and seeing them all work as one solid team,” Miller said. “And it’s all about braving the elements — that’s what I like about it.”

The dogs run seven months out of a year and need to train to stay in shape. Miller uses an ATV to run them beginning in September. As a general rule, loyal females go up front, strong males end up nearest the sled.

The huskies, more wild than domesticated, according to Miller, get hitched together with a plastic-coated cable of steel and climber clips. It can be dangerous trying to control that many animals at once.

“There is a lot of strategy to it, but if you know the dogs, you can kind of predict what they’re going to do,” Mistak said. “You’ve got to be prepared for anything, you never know.”

People who want to experience dog sledding come from across the United States and the world. A family from South Carolina on Friday was set to load Pearce DeChamplain, 3, on a sled. DeChamplain is a fan of the movie “Snow Dogs.” He said he was excited to sled because he wanted to “ride through the mountains.”

The Running Creek reservation book fills quickly. Prices are $65 for an adult and $35 for a small child. A ride lasts about 40 minutes. To book a reservation, call Miller at (775) 266-4720.

— Gregory Crofton can be reached at (530) 542-8045 or by e-mail at gcrofton@tahoedailytribune.com

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