Sleds skim across the snow with an abundance of dog power

Purebred Siberian huskies can average 8-12 mph over 60 miles

Posted: Sunday, February 06, 2005

OGDEN, Utah - The lot at Hardware Ranch was in a frenzy. But it wasn't snowmobiles - several trailers sat empty, but not a distant engine whine remained - or kids leaping about, looking at hundreds of elk, begging for a sleigh ride.

Instead, it was sled dogs, a baker's dozen, lunging toward the harness, staring excitedly at the sled and 60 miles of pulling ahead of them.

The biting air was pricked with their yelps, half-howls and muted barks as Mike Carmichael, a musher from Avon, readied the sled, straightened the ropes and made last-minute corrections, including swapping his large, nearly identical mukluks, which had somehow ended up on the wrong feet.

"They need markers on these things," he muttered.

The slots in front of the sled, anchored to Carmichael's truck, were eventually filled with lunging, pulling dogs. And the yelps grew more insistent.

Until: "C'mon, let's go."

Silence. A soft clank as the anchor dropped. A flurry of 52 silent feet, pin drops on the soft, groomed snow. And 10 yards later, enough speed to jolt Carmichael ever so slightly off the sled on a trail-beginning speed bump. Almost immediately, the team is up to speed. Over the 60 miles, the dogs will average between 8 and 12 mph.

And these are the slower dogs. The mellow breed. Purebred Siberian huskies, the traditional "commuter car" of Alaska Natives, Carmichael said, bred to get the people to hunting and fishing sites, sometimes many miles from home.

Compare them with Kate St. Onge's bunch: "My dogs are really wired," said the Millville musher. "They are crazy. They have to be moving constantly."

St. Onge runs Alaska huskies, a caffeinated mix of husky and German shorthair, greyhound or Labrador - "something to get the speed in," said St. Onge. "And not such a heavy coat."

Carmichael, a musher for 13 years, and St. Onge, a recreational musher since 1983 and competitive since 2000, are two of a handful of mushers in Cache County. It's a small but varied group.

Carmichael, along with Sue Morgan of Richmond, specializes in distance races - he will qualify for Iditarod this year, and his eventual goal is the even tougher Yukon Quest.

St. Onge and her husband, Rick, run mid-distance sprints - Kate St. Onge placed second in two of the most competitive such races this year.

Amy Eskelsen, Smithfield, has a team made up entirely of adopted dogs.

And the future is Kylie Price, a 15-year-old musher from Millville, who already has her own team. She ran a four-dog team in the first Cache Valley K9 Mushing Challenge on Jan. 8.

It's a sport of passion that requires a love for the dogs and the outdoors.

"They're bred to do it, it's what they (the dogs) want to do," St. Onge said. "It's when they don't get to run and pull the sled and be on the team is when they get depressed."

Kate St. Onge aims to get her dogs going as fast as they possibly can and keep them at that speed for 30 miles. In the World Sled Dog Championships of the International Federation of Sleddog Sports at Bend, Ore., St. Onge's dogs averaged just less than 15 mph over the 30-mile course, a course St. Onge called "grueling."

On level terrain, the dogs can average 18 miles an hour.

Siberians "save a little energy for the way home," Carmichael said. "They go about 80 percent; Alaskans are always going 110 percent. They don't save anything."

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