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Illustration by Todd Detwiler
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Illustration by Todd Detwiler
The idea of a sled dog club in our temperate city sounds implausible—and yet the Gateway Sled Dog Club has been racing for 28 years. “When people first hear about us, they go, ‘Oh, is that like the River des Peres Yacht Club?’” says demonstration chair Michelle Podolak. Although both groups seem to lack the conditions necessary to accomplish their goals (navigable water, lots of snow), the sled dog club boasts a membership of more than 25 families. Members race on snow when it’s available or travel north for competitions. At home, they participate in parades, hikes, runs, weight pulls, and something called “urban mushing.” Strapping all manner of sleds to Siberian huskies and Alaskan malamutes, the club is literally “pulling together” however it can.
• In urban mushing, a rig or cart is used rather than a sled. It’s done on trails or grass instead of snow. In bikejoring, a dog pulls a driver on a traditional bicycle; in skijoring the person being pulled is on cross-country skis. In canicross, a runner wears a harness connected to one or two dogs.
• Rigs are often handmade from bicycle parts and include brakes for those particularly exhilarating downhill pulls.
• The dogs are trained to respond to a series of standard commands: “Hike” means “go,” and “whoa” means “stop.” “Gee” calls for a right turn, “haw” a left. “On by” tells the dogs to keep going in spite of the handsome dog they’re passing or the scent of chicken bones down in that ravine.
• The dogs are hooked to the rig or sled with a series of ropes. The central gangline connects the rig to the dogs. A tugline connects each dog’s harness to the gangline. (Sometimes the terms tugline and gangline are used interchangeably, which can get confusing.) A neckline connects two dogs’ collars so the pups don’t wander astray. “Line out” is a ready position in which each dog is in order and the gangline is pulled taut.
• An X-back harness is best for lightweight pulling. “Harnessing dogs is like dressing a 2-year-old,” says club member Laura Stange. Some dogs are prone to pull right or left, so the pack is laid out accordingly. You wouldn’t want two dogs that pull left in the lead.
• Most of the club’s races require one to four dogs and run between 1 and 3 miles. Colored paper plates are sometimes used to mark the course: Red plates are placed at turns. After the turn, a blue plate indicates the correct path forward. A yellow plate denotes an upcoming hazard, such as a tree root, rock, or deep puddle.
• Before a race, mushers will often give their dogs “baited” water, flavored with something appealing (e.g., tuna water, bacon grease) to ensure that they’re well hydrated. After a workout or race, club member Connie Meech gives her dogs salmon jerky for a job well done.
• Huskies are great for mushing because they are both stubborn and aloof. “Some of them are all brawn and no brain, but they love to run,” says Meech.