Mushing on in the Fraser Valley
Ryan Summerlin September 19, 2013
Anyone who has wondered what a pack of 90 barking huskies sounds like – and what’s involved with their daily care – need only pay Jeff Martin a visit.
Martin has owned and operated Dog Sled Rides of Winter Park, just outside of Fraser, for 13 years with his wife Tracie. But once the snow melts and the steady stream of tourists stop booking rides, Martin still has his dogs to manage. They’re his livelihood and year-round obligation.
“If you’re used to regular house dogs, this is different,” he said.
Early on a Thursday morning, after he’s sent the older of his two daughters off to kindergarten, Martin starts by rounding up a group of about 10 males he calls the “Hyper Boys” to run loose in the 3.5-acre exercise yard.
“This is my life, moving dogs around, picking up dog poop,” Martin jokes. “I keep feeding them; they keep making more of it.”
Jokes aside, being a dog handler is labor-intensive. Once he’s wrangled up the Hyper Boys and moved them to the exercise yard – a feat in itself – Martin begins lugging two 5-gallon water buckets to the dog yard. Filling each dog’s bowl takes several trips and several refills. And, of course, there’s plenty of poop to move.
As Martin works, he vigilantly monitors the Hyper Boys playing in the exercise yard. He reacts quickly when tension begins to mount.
“Jesse and Dan, can you keep away from each other please? Move along!” he shouted.
The two dogs are on “log probation” – dragging hunks of wood. This helps slow them down and keeps them from picking fights. The huskies pause to look at Martin.
“The strong-willed dogs don’t like to be the first to back away,” Martin said.
Within the dog yard, each adult dog has its own post, equipped with a propped wooden crate for shade, a stainless steel water bowl and a plastic doghouse. The 13 puppies are kept in separate fenced kennels until they get older. Much of Martin’s time is spent propping crates back up and turning bowls back over. The dogs can be rambunctious.
“You have to really love dogs. You have to enjoy hard, physical labor,” Martin said. “And you have to enjoy coworkers that speak a different language.”
Knowing your ‘coworkers’
Martin became interested in sled dogs after taking a vacation to Aspen in 1995. He was working as a computer software programmer in Michigan at the time. After chatting with a dog musher in a Snowmass bar, Martin got the itch.
“I thought it sounded like a pretty cool thing to do,” he said. “Originally, it was just going to be a one- or two-year diversion, and I’d go back to having a real job.”
But Martin found he enjoyed the lifestyle. He’d work hard mushing at a Snowmass kennel in the winters, then have his summers off to live in his car, travel, backpack and bike.
Eventually, though, Martin, now 42, and his wife, 39. decided they needed something more permanent. They began looking at businesses for sale, and found Dog Sled Rides of Winter Park was on the market.
Martin knows each of his 90 dogs well. He’s even put biographies for each dog on his website, www.dogsledridesofwinterpark.com. His bios are honest, with descriptors like “friendly,” “affectionate” and “intelligent” as well as “loud mouth,” “slightly unbalanced mentally” and “goof off” – sometimes all to describe the same dog.
The dogs came to Martin’s property from various places. Many came from the Boulder Humane Society. Some he adopted from kennels or private owners out of state. Most he bred himself. Martin has elected not to spay or neuter the vast majority of his dogs, but his tight management skills have kept his yard from becoming filled with hundreds of puppies.
“When we make puppies, we try to match up the best two dogs – best girl and best boy,” Martin said. “A lot of times that works, but we also try not to exaggerate negative qualities. Every dog has some type of flaw.”
Sometimes the Martins end up with a husky that isn’t fond of pulling, or a dog that becomes injured or too old to contribute to a sled team. In these cases, the Martins try to adopt out the dogs. But while they wait for a new home, the dogs remain with the Martins.
“If we aren’t able to adopt them out, then they stay here. And it’s not a big deal,” Martin said.
Still, maintaining such a large pack of huskies adds up. Like any good business manager, Martin has recorded the average calorie consumption of each dog and calculated his annual feeding costs. Some dogs consume nearly 4,000 calories in the active season, which can cost him almost $600 a year. Feeding the whole pack of 90 huskies costs Martin over $40,000.
That’s all well during the busy season, when the dogs are active and Martin averages about 90 sled trips a week. But to cover his costs during the summer, Martin has to get creative.
About five years ago, Martin introduced a summertime version of sledding – a dog-powered cart ride.
“We have to keep the dogs in shape anyway,” Martin said. “We don’t make a lot of money doing it, but it’s better to make some money than no money.”
Part of the reason Martin doesn’t make the same income with summer runs is because the dogs simply can’t run the same number of trips. The hot sun and the huskies’ thick coats limit their activity during warmer months.
“These guys are designed for cold weather,” Martin said. “We don’t have cold weather in the summer, so we go out at sunrise and sunset.”
Martin figures he could average around 14 runs each week during the summer, but in reality, on a good week he’s lucky to get three or four.
Although riding a bumpy cart through green terrain is considerably different from being gliding over snow on a sled, Martin says both offer fun, hands-on interactions with the dogs. With a cart, riders also get the chance to steer and brake.
“It doesn’t cover our costs, but it helps,” Martin said.
Martin also offers kennel tours to cover costs. This year, he started a “kennel-handler experience” tour as well. He envisions it as a hands-on, “Dirty Jobs”-type experience, giving tourists a taste of what it’s really like to haul water buckets, walk energetic dogs to the exercise yard, and clean up around 30 pounds of poop. To Martin, that up-close involvement is a piece most kennels are missing.
“I can remember the first time I ever saw this many dogs together — it was amazing and thrilling,” Martin said. “I wanted to take part in it.”
Gearing up for the season
With a whiff of fall in the air, Martin is thinking about the upcoming busy season, and preparing to hire more handlers. He looks for higher education and a range of experience in potential employees.
“We like the diversity of doing lots of different things,” he said. “We’re around new people all the time, and it’s nice to be able to relate to your customers.”
A background in athletics is important in dog handling, too, Martin said.
“You need body awareness, and one of the most important things about driving a sled is to know how fast you’re going,” Martin said. “What does that speed mean as you take the next turn in the trail?”
While new handlers need some instruction, the huskies themselves are either born with the ability to pull or they’re not, Martin said.
“Making a sled dog is actually pretty easy,” he said. “If they have good genetics, you don’t have to do anything. All you do is hook them up and they go forward.”
According to Martin, the ability for huskies to mush has been ingrained in their bodies through centuries of breeding.
“Like retrieving dogs retrieve without any prompting, and herding dogs have a need to herd things without instruction, these guys pull without instruction,” Martin said. “It’s just a matter of getting them to do it in a controlled way.”
For the remainder of the off-season, Martin will continue rounding up the dogs for their daily cart pulls, teaching them to run straight, molding their instinct, and practicing “not goofing off with your neighbor.”
Since he’s out training and running them anyway, Martin would like to get more customers involved, especially locals. It helps pad his operation with a little more income, but Martin said it also breaks up the monotony of his daily routine.
For locals, Martin offers cart rides for $30 a person, compared to around $150 for a winter sled ride.
“For $30 a person … it’s a bargain,” he said. “And it helps us out. We need the weight in the cart, and we need the company.”