The cry of "Hite! Hite!" rings out over the snow-carpeted valley and echoes off the mountain peaks. Thirteen huskies, lying obediently on their bellies, spring to their feet and make a mad dash up the winding path into a forest of gray-white aspens. Behind them the sled shoots forward. Over the excited howling of the dogs and the hiss of runners on snow and the festive jingling of the harness bells, the driver calls out his commands. High, trilling, birdlike sounds spur the dogs to sprint furiously down a hill. Low, throaty moans slow them.
I might be traveling in the Yukon Territory, circa 1890, but I am not. The scene is Snowmass Village, Colo.—just 13 miles outside of Aspen—where I have come to take an authentic dogsled ride. The sled driver is 31-year-old Dan MacEachen, owner of Krabloonik Kennels. According to MacEachen, Krabloonik (named after the first lead dog he trained, the word meaning "Big Eyebrows" in one of the Eskimo dialects) is the largest freight-carrying dogsled operation in the continental United States. Krabloonik has some 80 dogs, hybrids of all three types of sled dog—Malamutes from Alaska, Siberians from northeastern Asia and Eskimos from Greenland and Labrador—which are trained to pull heavy loads (a half ton is no trouble for a 13-dog team) exactly as their forebears did centuries ago on the frozen Arctic tundra. The dogs are massive—some weigh upward of 100 pounds—and stand more than 25 inches tall. Bred for endurance, not speed, they have thick coats for the subfreezing temperatures; long, muscular legs to negotiate Colorado's deep powder snow (stubbier legs suffice in the hard-packed Arctic); and huge lungs and chests, the better to work in the thin 9,000-foot atmosphere. From mid-December through mid-April, MacEachen offers sled rides to tenderfeet like me ($30 per person for 2½ hours) as he drives through a spectacular landscape of hills, valleys and forests that sits just under the 14,000-foot peaks of the Elk Mountains in the Colorado Rockies.
MacEachen's dogs are four-legged living history. During World War II the Allies decided to invade Norway and set about fashioning frontline supply and medical-evacuation systems to combat the bitter Norwegian winter. All motorized vehicles failed. As a last resort, they decided to try old-fashioned dogsleds, and turned to a man named Stuart Mace. A graduate student of high-altitude plant genetics at the University of Colorado, Mace had already been commissioned by the Army to teach rock climbing to mountain engineers. Although his previous experience with sled dogs amounted to "hearing stories from my uncle," the Army, nevertheless, appointed Mace commander of the dog detachment of the 10th Mountain Division, and stationed him near Leadville, Colo. From here the Army sent him off to Northern Canada and Alaska, where he proceeded to buy more than $3 million worth of huskies. (While the term husky is used loosely to refer to working dogs of mixed breeds used to pull sleds, no pure breed of Arctic dog is rightfully called husky except for the Siberian Husky.) Now 60 and retired from dogsledding. Mace explains the virtue of the plan: "Dogs were superior to snow vehicles. They could go anywhere and come back. They didn't break down or run out of gas, and they could draw for seven days without food."
The invasion of Norway never came off ("Stalin didn't want us to get anywhere near Norway," says Mace), so the "K-9" Division was reassigned as a rescue operation for pilots who had been downed in the Arctic. The dogs also made it possible to break up secret German weather stations in Greenland and aided medics during the Battle of the Bulge. After the war, Mace gave up his academic career and, along with 14 of the army dogs, eventually made his way to Ashcroft, an abandoned silver-mining town some 12 miles from Aspen, where in 1949 he set up a dogsled touring operation named Toklat. His dogs were used in the Sergeant Preston television series that ran for three years. Working with the dogs was a labor of love. "There was a lot to learn in developing empathy with other living things," he says. It was also backbreaking. By the age of 55, Mace had developed traumatic arthritis from overworking his joints and could no longer drive his teams. "I'd reached the end of a category," he says sadly. "I was no longer a young man."
November 26, 1979
Enter Dan MacEachen. MacEachen, an introvert who admits to getting along better with dogs than he does with people, emigrated to Colorado from New Jersey in 1969 and found work as a dishwasher. Later he hired on as a kennel boy at Toklat and worked his way up to a team driver. When it became obvious that Mace would have to bow out, MacEachen offered to run the operation. At first Mace refused. "I tried everything I knew to discourage Dan because the dogs are a cross; they demand total devotion. I wanted to make sure that whoever took over was as committed to them as I am," he says. Finally in 1974, after serving a 4½-year apprenticeship, MacEachen persuaded Mace to let him take over and he moved the dogs to their present location, about a mile from the Snowmass ski resort. "I did it to preserve a dying art," MacEachen says. Even now the kennel doesn't pay for itself, and he must find part-time work wherever he can as a carpenter and cook to support it.
Taking a ride in one of Krabloonik's two-passenger sleds is a serene experience. I sit back on a varnished pecan-and-hickory sled, which looks like a combination elongated rocking chair and chaise longue, and let the dogs and driver do the work. It's roughly the position I assume when propped up in bed watching Johnny Carson. Between me and the sled's wooden slats is a slab of foam rubber; thick woolen blankets cover me. The 200-pound sled is 110 inches from stem to stern and glides on two steel-shod runners. All joints are secured with rawhide; screws would make the sleds brittle, and brittle sleds break. Designed and built by Mace, MacEachen's sleds are creations of the white man. The Eskimo had scarcely any wood but found other ways to make the environment work for him. He fashioned sleds from frozen meat, skins and sinew; the runners usually were made of whalebone covered with mud and a thin layer of ice. In an emergency he could eat the sled.
MacEachen's dogs lope along at a leisurely eight to 10 miles per hour on the flat and may go as fast as 25 miles per hour downhill. When they do, it feels like 50. At those times, I bounce up and down like a passenger in a speedboat. The real thrill, however, is not the sled ride itself but observing the fascinating interactions between dog and dog, and dog and driver.
At the start of each day MacEachen sets out from one to three sleds in the snow just in front of the kennel. Instantly the dogs let out a chorus of yelps and frantically strain at their chains (they are chained to prevent fights). The dogs want to work and, in some way, see it as a reward. "They pull because they love to," MacEachen says. "They have been bred for centuries to work. If I left a dog in the kennel and never allowed him to join the team, he would feel useless and die of a broken heart." The desire to work is so strong that once a week MacEachen even harnesses Suet, who is 13 and retired. Suet shows his appreciation by pulling harder than any other dog. When the dogs are selected for a team, they rush to the sled and sit contentedly in the snow. The day's rejects let out miserable howls. The dogs are attached from the front and back of their harnesses to a main gang line, a quarter-inch-thick steel cable that runs some 35 feet from the sled to the lead dog. Except for the leader, who works alone, dogs usually pull in male-female pairs because dogs of the same sex often fight viciously. The pair closest to the sled are called wheel dogs; they are the biggest and strongest. Up front the dogs are usually smaller and faster.
Once the team is ready, MacEachen yells "Hite!" (mush is strictly a Hollywood term never used by professionals) and they are off. A freight-team driver uses neither whip nor reins. He communicates verbally, with the old ox-team commands. Gee means go right, haw left, and whoa is stop. While I relax inside the sled, MacEachen guides it by standing on the back runners and constantly shifting his weight from side to side. Without these operations, the sled would careen wildly and soon smash into one of the aspens that line the trail. At times MacEachen will lean out from the sled at a 45-degree angle, like someone hiking in a sailboat, or he may even jump off altogether and run alongside, pointing it in the right direction. This is a risky maneuver. Should MacEachen fall, the dogs, who are petrified of being run over by the sled, will take off, leaving me a prisoner in a runaway sled.
MacEachen keeps the gang line taut by frequently pushing the brake, a giant metal claw, into the snow. This is an important maneuver for if the line goes slack, the sled may hit the wheel dogs or swing dangerously, resembling a Winnebago in a heavy gale. In addition, MacEachen constantly calls the dogs by name. "Faster, Kaweasuk [Little Clown Face], you're not pulling. Good, Kyloo [Pretty Little Girl]." The idea is to make the dogs work out of a personal commitment to him. But respect has to be earned daily, and there is the ever-present danger of anarchy. Once MacEachen was driving his team past a house where a little girl stood in front with her dog. "The lead dog wanted her dog, but I talked him out of it," he says. "But the second two bolted, and suddenly the whole team took off after the girl—over a fence and across a frozen pond. She just made it into the house, and we ended up on her porch." Extreme hunger can also cause distractions. While they can survive for days without food, the dogs do love to eat.
During a ride, MacEachen stops his dogs every so often and orders them to lie down. They reluctantly get on their bellies and wait. The dogs are by no means tired; indeed, their six-mile trip is ridiculously easy for them, so easy that MacEachen is afraid they'll get bored (it's like asking Clydesdales to give rides in Disneyland). He stops them to enforce discipline, to let the dogs know they are part of a team and he is the boss. He also uses the rest time to allow passengers to take pictures of the landscape. (At these times, MacEachen forbids me to pet or speak to the dogs.) "The dogs are fiercely independent," MacEachen says. "If you're not even more bullheaded and persistent, they've got you." Keeping control is all-important. During a recent trip, Kaweasuk, eager to get going, rose without permission. MacEachen immediately hit him unceremoniously on the head with a rolled-up newspaper. Kaweasuk contemplated the situation for a brief moment and sat down.
There are two classes of sled dogs: followers and leaders. Most dogs are content to follow. They will pull until they literally drop and are virtually oblivious to pain. "The dogs are stoic and don't express hurt," MacEachen says. "By the time they complain, they're almost dead." But one dog in 50 is born with a fierce desire to lead, a quality that can't be taught with much success. It must be instinctive. Seventy-five percent of lead dogs are male, but the best ones are female, because of their calmness and stability. The lead dog guides the others, keeps them strung out and sets the pace—she'll automatically slow down if the other dogs are tired. She is not distinguished by physical strength or aggressiveness (in fact, she may be submissive around the kennel) but by intellect and the willingness to subordinate herself to the collective purpose of the team. A good lead dog like Kiyu eagerly translates MacEachen's commands into action (when the team is stopped he won't take his eyes off the driver) and resolutely refuses to fight while harnessed. Tovarich is a different story. Unless tightly controlled, he slackens the pace, wanders aimlessly in the path or stops altogether. Tovarich is not stupid; he is simply demonstrating his independence. Sometimes, a lead dog's urge to lead can be downright heroic. Mace once had a dog named Nanki who went blind but had memorized the trail and was able to fool him. It was only when Mace changed the route that he discovered the truth. Even so, Nanki continued to lead by the sense of touch and smell until he went deaf and could no longer hear Mace's commands.
Because of the close interaction between the dogs and their master, a dogsled team reflects the personality and determination of the driver. Mace's teams were spirited and feisty. MacEachen's are calmer. "I try to be relaxed," he says. "Any anxiety I show transfers immediately to the dogs." Jim Kern, a first-year driver at the kennel, is still learning, and his teams mirror his tentativeness. One day he took me out with a team led by Amarak. Amarak is 10 years old but had never been a lead dog before last winter (MacEachen has only six leaders and is always desperate for others). He seemed to understand the commands but showed little interest in being directed by Kern. Amarak would respond to a stern "Hite!" yet a few minutes later he'd slow down and soon he'd be lifting his leg in front of a tree—the supreme gesture of canine disdain. While a serious, well-behaved dog may do this to mark the trail, Amarak was leading the way to mutiny. Before long, the others were following his example—Nausatak and Nanuk and Enuk were malingering as well. Biddy was so uninterested, her tug line went slack and stayed that way; she was strictly going along for the ride. By midtrip the team was obviously running Kern.
Despite the battle of wills between driver and team, the dogs feel no aggression toward man. It is a common misconception that Arctic huskies are mean brutes capable of reverting to wolves at any moment or without provocation. The fact is, they are among the oldest domesticated dogs—Malamutes served the Innuit (called Mahlemuts) tribe of Alaska thousands of years ago. During World War II the Army was completely unsuccessful at training them to be attack dogs. Their gentleness to humans (though they sometimes fight to the death against each other and can single-handedly bring down an elk) resulted in some curious problems on the Sergeant Preston set. "Sometimes we wanted them to spring at an actor," Mace explained to me with a shake of the head. "They wouldn't. So we'd put a piece of meat under the hood of the actor's parka and yell, 'Up!' The howls and snarls were inserted in the sound track later, and we always had to be sure that the camera didn't pick up the wagging tails."