Red Wing ELC students will help at Sunday’s John Beargrease Sled Dog MarathonWhen I began working at the Red Wing Environmental Learning Center, I had a student named Aaron Tonder. I remember during a cross country skiing program Aaron told me about his skijoring experiences and suggested the ELC run a dog-sledding program.
By: Jason Jech, Red Wing ELC Director, The Republican Eagle
When I began working at the Red Wing Environmental Learning Center, I had a student named Aaron Tonder. I remember during a cross country skiing program Aaron told me about his skijoring experiences and suggested the ELC run a dog-sledding program.
There’s a natural connection between dogs and kids, so a program seemed like a great idea.
Over the next year the Tonder family connected me with people to assist with this program. That next winter we ran a dog sledding program. Over the years we have done quite a bit with dog-sledding, and the trips are memorable.
On Sunday, we will take a group of our instructors and instructor candidates up north to work the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon.
Dog crew members
As part of the dog crew, we will help at the starting line by holding the dogs until the signal is given. Following this we will head to Two Harbors and help at the crossings, conducting vet and bag checks and maintaining the bedding area for the mushers and dogs.
As we head to this race I can’t help think of Aaron and the impact he has had on me and others who have experienced dog sledding through the ELC.
One would think with dog sledding that all you do is say “mush” and hold on, and that is partially true. The one rule our students learned early is never let go of your sled!
Sled dogs typically don’t know the command for stop, so if you fall off, that just means they can go faster. The dogs are taught a number of basic commands. Typically the command for go is “hike” although “mush” and “all right” are sometimes used depending upon the trainer.
“Gee” means turn right and “haw” means turn left.
Mushers will also use the commands of “easy” to slow down and “Whoa” for stop. The final command used by most mushers is “on by” which means pass another team or other distraction.
Believe it or not, dog sledding is a team sport. Everyone needs to work together to succeed.
The mushers don’t simply jump on the runners and yell out commands. They run and push on the hills and act as a cheerleader to help motivate and encourage the dogs.
I have heard people say, “Isn’t it cruel to make the dogs pull like that, or don’t they get cold?”
The worst thing you can do to a sled dog is to take the team for a run and leave that dog behind. It is in their blood to pull; that is what they love to do. They also enjoy the cold, much more than even we hardy Minnesotans do.
The canine lineup
There are certain positions that must be filled and personalities that must be understood to create a successful dog sled team. Just like people, some dogs get along better with certain dogs than others. A musher needs to know who likes each other and who doesn’t.
Dog team members are given titles according to their position in the team relative to the sled.
The first position is the lead dog. These dogs steer the rest of the team and set the pace. Leaders may be single or double. Qualities for a good lead dog are intelligence, initiative, common sense and the ability to find a trail in bad conditions.
The next position is swing or point dog. These dogs are directly behind the leader. They swing the team behind them in turns or curves on the trail.
Next in line are the team dogs. Located between the wheelers and the swing dogs, these dogs add power. A small team may not have dogs in this position.
Finally you have the wheel dogs, who are nearest the sled. A good wheel dog must have a relatively calm temperament and not be startled by the sled moving just behind it. Strength, steadiness, and ability to guide the sled around tight curves are valued in “wheelers.”
People from the Polar Regions have used dogs and sleds for a long time. Working dogs were used in everyday life to protect and in hunting. Explorers relied on sled dogs. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police started running dog-team patrols in the frontiers as early as 1873. Early inland settlements were dependent on sled dog freight haulers and later as mail teams.