Omaha’s tongue flopped along the side of her face as she and Motor Man sprinted through the slush. Mid-morning sunlight cut across the trail in strips, warming the snow to a consistency resembling wet cement. Behind the two leaders, 10 more Siberian Huskies kept pace in pairs, an elegant line of canines in constant, almost synchronous motion. It was nearly identical to the picture that danced through my head as a kid reading Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, which my imagination revisited with seasonal regularity well into adulthood.
Then one of the mid-team swing dogs took a dump mid-stride. Sometimes realizing a childhood dream can be odorous business.
The morning had already started on relatively un-romantic footing. I’d arrived at the Westside Trailhead just north of Seeley Lake to a chorus of barks. The Montana Mountain Mushers club—a statewide group of dog sled racers and enthusiasts—had scheduled a weekend fun run for Jan. 6 and 7, and one of their rank, Rob Loveman, had agreed to take me out on the trail early for a taste of the sport. Western Montana has long been a hotspot for dog sledding, producing Iditarod competitors including Darby’s Jessie Royer, the top woman finisher in the iconic Alaska race last year. The Blackfoot-Clearwater region has played host to the Race to the Sky every year but one since 1986, a competition that’s drawn mushers from across the globe.
Loveman was running late, but Choteau-based musher Clayton Perry was already busy prepping his team for an overnight trip. More than a dozen of Perry’s dogs howled and fidgeted in anticipation. Several flipped their food bowls, spilling the oatmeal-like liquid Perry had just ladled from a plastic bucket and lapping it off the packed snow.
I called to Perry over the din of the dogs, asking how he’d gotten interested in mushing. “Probably back when I was a kid,” he answered, before disappearing around the corner of his trailer.
Loveman cruised into the parking lot on an ATV, his team already attached to their tow line ahead of him and his sled taking up the rear. He introduced himself with a blustery wave, his mustache a graying mirror of the fur lining on his parka’s hood. When we’d discussed the morning’s logistics over the phone, Loveman had said I could ride along provided I sat in the sled. That sounded more like the province of tourists than wannabe mushers, but I’d agreed, figuring it was as close to the real deal as I was going to get. But Loveman must have forgotten that plan. As the team strained forward at the trailhead, testing the grip of the sled’s anchor-like snow hook, he shifted both feet onto one runner.
“Quick,” he shouted. “Get on.”
Startled and confused, I gripped the curve of the sled handle and stood sideways on the empty runner. Loveman yanked the snow hook from the ground and the whole outfit lurched forward. Thirty feet later, I lost my first fight with gravity. Loveman hammered the brake with his foot and yelled for the team to “whoa.”
“I think we’re going to have to get more friendly,” he said when I’d caught up. I placed one foot on each runner behind Loveman’s feet and gripped the handle. A second later we were racing through the pines.
Between tips on how to distribute my weight or turn the sled, Loveman talked about the strange path that led him to mushing. A native of Los Angeles, he’d been enamored with Siberians since college, and got into skiing as a wintertime alternative to climbing. Those two interests led him to ski-joring, a sport in which cross-country skiers are towed by dogs. Then, in the mid-2000s, he took his first crack at mushing in the Hope Valley south of Lake Tahoe, with two of his own dogs and two borrowed from a friend. It was a steep learning curve at first, but in 2007 Loveman competed in the Race to the Sky, then the Iditarod in 2009. He was yanked from the latter after a few days, he said, because he was “going too slow.” Now in his early 60s, Loveman said his racing days are over, though he will be volunteering with the Race to the Sky next month.
Several miles down the trail, Loveman turned the team back toward the trailhead. “So, you actually hooked a collie up to a sled?” he asked. I’d told him the story over the phone: At age seven, I became obsessed with Disney’s dog-sled-centric film Iron Will, and in an attempt to either facilitate my dream or shut me up, my mother attached our border collie, Freckles, to an old wooden sled. I crouched behind that sled on our snow-choked side street and shouted “mush.” Freckles shot me an incredulous look. Then he sat down.
As Loveman’s team took another corner, I tried to forget for a moment that I was standing behind him, focusing instead on the line of dogs in front and the soft rumble of the runners slicing through the slush. The barking grew louder as we approached the parking lot, and the air reached a level of pungency slightly stronger than what you’d find near the back of a pack string. Several more mushers had arrived. More than three dozen dogs came into view, every one of them trail-crazed and raring to run. Loveman made quick work of reattaching the team to his ATV and sailed off for his home down the road. Before heading out, I strolled over to Seeley Lake musher Roberta Reiley, who was simultaneously prepping her team and trying to sell one of her Siberian pups to a couple of ski-jorers, and asked her about the sport’s appeal.
“To get out and relax,” she said. “Get away from the nonsense.”
The reality of the sport seemed far messier and more laborious than I’d imagined as a kid. Still, after 24 years of daydreaming, it felt good to reply, “I totally get it.”
This story was updated Jan. 12 to correct two errors. An earlier version incorrectly stated Loveman's hometown and the year he competed in the Race to the Sky.