Two expressions that racing sled dogs must learn from their musher: “Gee,” translation: “Turn right.” “Haw,” translation: “Turn left.” One canine expression that mushers must learn from their team of dogs: “Arhra, Arhra,” Alaskan Husky translation: “Hurry up, you son-of-a-bitch,” an incredibly important dog-ism to remember if you have a team of six anxious dogs, capable of pulling 550 pounds at 15 miles an hour without even panting, harnessed to a basket-style sled held only by a hook in the snow.
“Getting them fired up is not the issue. This is what they love,” explains Pat Campbell, sled dog racer and owner of Siskiyou County’s Dogsled Express. Pat is fluent in Alaskan Husky after 16 years of mushing, racing and sled dog tours. He is human guardian to a combined pack of 80 puppies, racers and retired dogs.
Pat and his team of dogs give scenic sled dog tours just minutes from Mt. Shasta and McCloud, and this month are gearing up for the Siskiyou Sled Dog Races, three days of dogs, action, family fun and snow, hosted by the Siskiyou Snow Dog Sporting Association. The association is a group of local snow dog sports enthusiasts who promote sled dog sports with events and membership activities.
Normally, the Siskiyou Sled Dog Races include a 210-mile qualifier for the Iditarod, the world’s foremost sled dog race, 1,150 miles from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska. The long-distance qualifier, one of only two West Coast Iditarod qualifying races, was canceled this year because of a lack of entries. But the weekend still includes 50, 18, eight and five-mile races, the Snowball fundraiser for the Friends of the Mt. Shasta Avalanche Center and Mt. Shasta Nordic Center, and a dinner and awards banquet. Events on the second day of the event include presentations by Liz Parrish, Iditarod participant who competed the race to celebrate her first half-century, and Barb Schaefer, a 22-year trainer and competitive Siberian Husky racer who raised and trained “Maya” in the Disney movie “Eight Below.”
After just one afternoon with Pat and his team, I understood Pat’s passion for the sport, his close relationship with the dogs and sled dog racing’s reputation as the ultimate team sport.
“If I had known it was this complicated, I don’t know if I would have done it,” Pat admits. The complications begin with breeding and raising championship dogs. Often, Pat can identify a lead dog after only 3 to 4 weeks. He keeps an eye on those puppies that leave the house first and display a natural confidence and curiosity.
Training begins at 1 year old for female dogs and a few months later for males, to compensate for a male dog’s slower tendon and joint development. Each dog can train for 400 to 600 miles before they even see snow, pulling against the motor of an ATV in the spring and summer. Warm-weather training toughens their foot pads and “gets the crazies out of them,” according to Pat, whose philosophy is that training a dog is akin to training a human athlete – building muscle with distance training at walking speed combined with stretching by sprinting.
The true test of a sled dog musher is understanding the formula for a championship team: a number-of dogs, each with an innate ability to be curious, independent and observant, matched by size and ability for the type of race, the appropriate ratio of male and female dogs, the correct pairing of left and right-handed dogs (it’s true) and cohesiveness. A championship team will eat, rest, drink, snack and sleep the same.
Pat, soon to be married, still can’t believe that there is a woman “who will put up with his dog habit.” He wishes he has more time for racing. Thankfully, his business allows him more time to teach dog care to students in the French Creek Outdoor School Program, guide international tourists, champion the cause of winter recreation as an untapped resource in the North State and author a new book, “Song of Runners,” narrated by Pat and sled dog, Casper.
This weekend, Pat and a team of 16 Alaskan Huskies will compete in a two-day, 50-mile race — a muscle- , fur- and adrenaline-fueled launch followed by miles of near-silent, wintry solitude that is ultimately one more trial that will strengthen the relationship between Pat and his dogs.
Spend some time at the Siskiyou Sled Dog Races, Friday, Jan. 22 to Sunday, Jan. 24. Visit siskiyousleddograces.com for race times and information. For more information about guided sled dog tours with Dogsled Express, visit dogsledexpress.net.
Adam Mankoski is a recent North State transplant who feels completely at home here. He enjoys experiencing and writing about the people, places and things that embody the free spirit of the State of Jefferson. He and his partner own HawkMan Studios and are the creators of Redding’s 2nd Saturday ArtHop. Email your North State events to email@example.com.