THERE ARE TWO things huskies love. One is eat, and the other is pull. And if they're excited about either, they make a helluva lot of noise.
So I'm learning at the end of a dead-end road just north of Duvall, far from Alaska or the Yukon. I'm also discovering how Northwest mushers train with ATVs and three-wheeled carts instead of sleds. That's the reality of our climate, where warm temperatures and dirt roads are the norm instead of frozen trails. Usually by January, enough snow has accumulated to sled, but serious training starts in September, as soon as the weather is cool enough so the dogs don't overheat (over 60 degrees is too hot).
Here, on a pleasant November morning, Heidi and Ryan Bahrey's 25 Alaskan huskies are howling, yowling, and yipping—literally climbing the walls of their fenced enclosures. It's a raucous chorus interspersed with excited, anticipatory barks.
The huskies are thoroughly worked up because Heidi and her husband are pulling harnesses, a towline, and an ATV—the "snowless sled"—out of the garage. Today is training day, and for a husky, nothing is more thrilling.
Heidi, secretary of the Northwest Sled Dog Association (NWSDA), goes from one kennel to another and harnesses eight lucky huskies for the morning run. Ryan corrals the frenzied dogs one by one and snaps them onto the gang line, or towrope. Then we're off! Even with two adults riding a 400-pound ATV, the team—each member less than 60 pounds; an impressive strength-to-weight ratio—yanks us forward then settles into a solid 10 mph clip along rolling Snohomish County logging roads.
"People always ask, 'How do you teach them to run?'" Heidi says with a laugh. "That's easy: They love to run. The real problem is teaching them how to stop! That's why we have good brakes on the ATV."
AS THE TOUR de France is to cycling, Alaska's famed Iditarod-always more than 1,000 miles-is the holy grail of sled dog racing, but it's not for every competitor. "For the majority of mushers, the Iditarod is a tough goal to make," says NWSDA president Lance Christensen, a lifelong dog musher whose parents put on our first area race in 1960. "You pretty much have to change your lifestyle and move to Alaska, and it takes years to build a team, immerse yourself in dog sled racing—it's hard on a family and career."
As a result, most local mushers compete in middle-distance or sprint races here in the Northwest. Still, training a sled dog team three or four hours a day is a major commitment on top of a full-time job—and not everyone can sled out their back door.
Top local racer Dave Ford packs his dogs onto a truck and drives over an hour from his home in Ravensdale to train on muddy logging roads four days a week. "They have it easy in Alaska," he says.
Back in the Snoqualmie Valley with the Bahreys, our smooth early season run covers about five miles in 40 minutes. Out on the road, the dogs are entirely focused on pulling and they barely let out a peep—except at the water ditch rest stop, where a few members of the team whine their unhappiness at standing still for even a few minutes. (A couple others, veterans presumably, lie in the trickling water for a cool-down.)
The dogs remember the important commands: Heidi's "On by, on by!" gets the team past a wayward pair of peacocks without a hitch, the only distraction along the quiet road. Dylan, the lead dog, balks at the last "Gee" (right turn) command and almost upsets the team. He recognizes the final turn means the end of the run, which comes all too soon as Heidi boosts the ATV throttle to help her tired dogs up the final hill toward home.
"We don't train to win," Heidi explains afterward while giving each husky a wet-towel face wash. "The happier the dogs are, the more fun we have. It's not just a hobby—it's a lifestyle."