August 6, 2013
So at a family reunion near Bend, Oregon, I found myself at the base of the ski lift on Mount Bachelor.
It was the middle of the summer, so the lift only took you to the top of the mountain for the view and a really mediocre lunch, no skiing.
On the way down the lift, some guy said something about some sled dogs we could look at, so I said sure and we meandered over to the wooden structure a hundred yards from the ski lift to check them out.
And here is where things got so crazy fun.
So we wandered over to the little wooden shelter to see DOZENS of little doggies all leashed there, yipping and digging and snipping and gloriously happy to receive guests. My first note was that they were NOT Siberian Huskies at all! They were much more like black or white Labs, but smaller. I turned to the first person there that I saw (a young woman named Rachel) and commented that the little doggies looked nothing like the Husky that I expect to be pulling a sled. “You’ve just been listening to Hollywood” she said. “Real sled dogs ARE bred for speed and endurance, but need NOT be Huskies at all!”. I perused and pet each happy doggy, which included all manner os small, energetic, and varied animals… the words “really good mongrel” almost seemed to come to mind! There were NO pure breeds that I could recognize! But, even though each dog was different, each was energetic and happy to meet anyone. Rachel introduced me to many of the dogs, sort of looking off to the SIDE of where each dog was as she introduced him to me.
Soon, talking to Rachel, I learned that she has raced in the Iditarod twice, coming in around the middle of the pack. Not a bad performance, coming in around the middle of the pack in the Iditarod: What has got to be one of the more demanding races on Earth! In it, you race, SOLO, for DAYS through the snow of Alaska, your sled pulled through the narrowest, flimsiest of trails behind a pack of dogs running at full speed. One person and her dogs, in the snowy wilderness, running at full speed for DAYS. The race is OVER one THOUSAND miles long, and the temperature with wind chill falls below NEGATIVE ONE HUNDRED DEGREES fahrenheit. Coming in in the middle of the pack is really not a bad accomplishment at all! Not bad for a girl with a small, rag-tag pack of dogs! As I was talking to Rachel about this, I noticed that she was wearing really thick sunglasses, and I could just barely tell that behind them, she was never making eye contact with me.
That was when I figured out she was blind.
Suddenly, the idea of racing across the snow of Alaska for days on end, over 1000 miles, in temperatures falling below negative 100 degrees, all alone with nothing but a tiny sled and her pack of small dogs, took on a whole new meaning.
Soon we got to talking about the possibility of making a touch-sensitive GPS or audio GPS, but all navigation technology is forbidden on the Iditarod: It can be only you and the dogs. Rachel wanted to have cameras on the sled that could broadcast what she (would be) seeing (if she could see) to the rest of the world, so all of us could watch her online as she raced, but both Google and Apple had determined that they COULD NOT BUILD A CAMERA AND TRANSMITTER that was tough enough for the job. At first it may seem simple to mount the desired hardware on the sled.. until you realize that it is COMMON for the sled to TIP OVER AT FULL SPEED, DRAGGING THROUGH THE SNOW, UPSIDE-DOWN, MANY TIMES IN THE COURSE OF ONE RACE. Quite simply, the conditions are too grueling for technology to be able to reliably work.
So, it costs them about $50,000, as I recall, to GO to the Iditarod, and one might wonder how they come up with the money to do it! And the answer is so cool: They TRAIN the dogs all the rest of the year by having them frantically pull a golf-cart all around the Mount Bachelor ski slopes! Selling rides for $10 a pop! HAR!!!! So, the name of the game is simple: Train the dogs year-round by having them pull tourists around the ski slopes on golf carts with dead batteries, and hope they sell enough tickets at $10 a pop to be able to afford to go to the Iditarod that winter! Half Kick-Starter, half transportation, and one HUNDRED percent AWESOME, this is how Rachel and her Dad (who helps manage the details) pursue their PASSION.
Always curious for the unusual, I dropped a few twenties for myself and a few family members to take a ride in the golf cart, doggy-propelled. As soon as my miniscule deposit on this coming winter’s hoped-for adventure was in hand, Rachel and her dad started collecting about 8 doggies, attaching them to the long line hooked to the front of the golf cart. As soon as the first little dog was hooked to the line, ALL the other dogs started going CRAZY! Th yipping and yelping and jumping became CRAZY! Eight dogs would pull the cart, but Rachel and her Dad had about a dozen or 16 dogs handy, and each dog was DESPERATE to be the one chosen to pull! They were all barking like CRAZY, straining at their leashes, trying to be one of the ones chose to pull the cart! Rachel had to CARRY each dog from his little area to the golf cart as they struggled to RACE to the cart! Soon, 8 dogs were on the line, and myself and a small handfull of my family seated in the huge (3-row, 6-person) gold cart. SKI GOGGLES were offered to us all, to protect us from the dust soon to be kicked up (remember, this is in the middle of the summer, at a ski-slope! We would be racing on DIRT!) With ski goggles on and 8 frantic doggies yipping on the line, Rachels’ dad shouted “MUSH” and OUR HEADS WERE THROWN BACK FORM THE ACCELERATION! We were JERKED up to about 20 miles per hour! The acceleration was MUCH stronger than MOST cars, as the little doggies JERKED that huge golf cart up to speed! In mere SECONDS, we were RACING along the dusty ski-slopes of mount bachelor, the doggies running at full speed while the golf cart bounced and lurched and sped wildly up and down the slopes! YEEEEE-HAW!!!!!!!! The trail was so bouncy, the turns so tight, and the speed so high, I was afraid I would be tossed from the golf cart!!! This was no ordinary round of golf! We were FAR outracing ANY golf cart powered by batteries!
All too soon, we were brining the golf cart back to the station, giddy with hilarity of the whole thing, and the dogs still thrilled from their sprint… and Rachel and her Dad $40 closer to their dream.
See their page here:
and, if in the area of Mount Bachelor, save a few $20 bills and look them up… it will be worth it!
Photos Thanks to Dan Meyer