In the midst of Iditarod season in Alaska, I had a small glimpse into the 45-year-old tradition right here in the Arkansas Valley. I stood on the back of a sled powered by a team of 12 dogs with names like Rhino, Crackle, Derailer and Toad. The team pulled four adults with ease and speed. Caleb Hathaway, owner of Monarch Dog Sled Rides, drove the team. Standing behind Caleb, I could see everything: the trail laid out in front of us, the two riders in the sled and the second team behind us. It was a great vantage point to watch Caleb as he steered and commanded the team.
I busted out my GoPro for the first time since I bought it two years ago. I used the chest mount and I believed it was recording the entire time. (It was not.) I also brought along my old voice recorder from college and my fanciest camera. I looked like quite the tech nerd. I clearly need more practice with the GoPro (“Bro, am I on?”) and a higher quality voice recorder.
When I imagined dog sledding, I always envisioned cold temperatures and fur-lined hoods, a la the 1994 Disney classic, Iron Will. But, par for the course this year, it was a balmy 36 degrees and endless sunshine. While it didn’t detract from the magic, the team would’ve preferred colder temperatures. At every stop, they plunged into the snowbanks and rubbed their faces on the trail. A few times they grabbed mouthfuls of snow as they ran.
Near the end of the tour, I traded places with another rider and sat in the sled. It certainly took less effort than standing and holding on in the back. Being on dog-level, I could watch their gait and how they reacted to each other and the changing slope.
Caleb has 34 dogs in his fleet, plus four puppies in training and two nameless 2-month-old puppies. Caleb said he holds off on naming his dogs until they reveal their personalities, so they will be named soon. This litter will be named after trees, like Willow and Aspen.
Caleb said he once trained a team that raced in the Iditarod and many of his current dogs are offspring of Iditarod racers. The lead dog on the other sled was named Michael Phelps. Caleb said he’s part of the “Olympian line.” His brother is named Shaun White.
Common phrases I heard were, “Ark, quit it” and “Rhino, straight ahead.” The command for “turn right” is “gee,” and “haw” means “turn left.” The dogs knew the loop though. The “straight ahead” command was more for when (usually Rhino) would start to lag a bit.
Included on the tour was a meet-and-greet with all the dogs, a brief history lesson in dog sledding, instructions on how to put on the harnesses and a 45-minute ride with a few stops and hot drinks. We got to meet the puppies at the end of the tour and puppy cuddles are delightful.
Dog sledding is truly fun for the whole family, especially for dog lovers. And who isn’t a dog lover? For more information visit MonarchDogSledRides.com.