On a brisk and sunny morning in Logan Canyon I got to see one of the great northern traditions that is still practiced by outdoorsman who love dogs and snow. The Cache Valley K9 Challenge is hosted every year at Peter Sinks in Logan Canyon and is made possible through the collaboration of Cache Valley Mushers, Arctic Breeds Rescue, the Utah Department of Transportation, and the Forest Service. Teams of 4,6, and 8 dogs, or a 2 dog junior team, pull mushers on 7 or 12 miles of groomed track.
"There is Wonka, Oliver, Kevin, Grahm ... Grahm is an old lead dog, Oliver is just starting out being lead dog..."
That was Musher Kenny Rosser, who says it's not just sleds the dogs get to pull. Skijoring and bikejoring are musher lingo for having one or two dogs pull a person on skis or a snow bike. In summer, the dogs pull everything from mountain bikes to four-wheelers.Rosser says races like the K9 Challenge give lovers of arctic breeds such as Huskies, and Alaskan Malamutes an opportunity to meet and do what they were born to do -pull.
Arctic Breeds Rescue, a non-profit based in Provo, helps match athletic dogs with active caretakers who provide dogs with a lifestyle of work and exercise. Brigham City resident, Lee Oakley, describes what these dogs need to thrive.
"They are a working dog so to get them out where they are running, like doing the sleds or bikejoring, skijoring, doing all of the activities, it makes the dogs much more comfortable. If they don’t do that then the dogs get anxious, because of their size, they can be destructive. I've known dogs that have literally pulled the carpet of the floor or disassembled a couch. They are not a dog for everyone; for the outdoor enthusiast, they are awesome."
On site at the race, was canine and equine veterinarian from Park City, Utah, Kim Henneman. Vets are always at the races, and on Saturday Dr. Hennemen was teaching 10 Utah State University vet students the unique techniques associated with caring for sled dogs.
"On the physical exams for the muscular skeletal stuff, the big things we want to look at are split pads, we're looking for frost bite, so I will do a quick, 'how ya doin -you are a very good boy', I'll do a little bit of neck moving..."
For the past six years, Dr. Henneman has been traveling from Utah to Alaska to serve with fifty other veterinarians at the Iditarod. Over the course of 8 days, 72 teams of up to 22 dogs will travel the historic Iditarod trail, stopping every few 100 miles to refuel and allow vets to check on the dogs. She says,
"We love the people, its wonderful meeting all these native Alaskans and learning about their culture. Meeting the mushers, the mushers are wonderful people, and seeing the northern lights."
Even after working for days with fewer than 4 hours of sleep and the threat of frost bite, Dr. Henneman returns ever year.
"There are just so many aspects of it, you get to eat caribou and muskox and beaver. It's just a fun challenge and that is why we keep going."
However, it doesn't matter how much love, time and resources are available for dogs, without snow the dogs can't race. It has been a record year for snow in Utah and the mushers are loving it, but for the 2nd time in three years the start of the Iditarod had to be moved north from Anchorage to Fairbanks. Mushers have noticed the effects of climate change as warm temperatures have altered the route of the last third of the race, which is typically run over ice in Norton Sound. Last year, extremely warm temperatures on the trail melted raw food caches and several teams of dogs became sick. Henneman says,
"There are concerns with many of the natives because it’s effecting fishing, it’s effecting subsistence hunting because the animals patterns have shifted, it is effecting their ability to store and use water for the rest of the year. You can definitely see the changes up there."
While northern Utah has over 160% of average snow pack this March, snow based recreation could still be threatened by long term trends in snow pack decline. Snow pack at elevations above 8000 feet remains stable, but lower elevations have had significant declines from 1950 to present.