ASHTON — On a frozen Saturday, hoar frost clings to aspen trees, snow settles on the sagebrush, and dogs howl. Twenty-five sled dogs to be exact — singing, howling and running in dizzying circles.
“They each have their own personality,” Linda Janssen said. “You get to where you can tell their voices when they do a group singalong. You can tell who’s harmony, alto, we even have some sopranos.”
But Janssen doesn’t own these dogs for their musical abilities. They’re here to run.
On the high desert northwest of Ashton with views of the Tetons to the east, Henry’s Fork to the south and the Lost River Range to the west, Silver Sage Mushing offers dog sled tours to visitors from around the world. Janssen’s camp sits on 160 acres of pristine land in the same town that hosts America’s oldest dog sled race, the American Dog Derby started in 1917, 56 years before the first Iditarod. This year’s event runs from Feb. 14 to 16.
It’s also a perfect place to train.
The camp has several groomed loops that are 4 and 6 miles. Leaving from Janssen’s camp, the dogs bound and howl until they hit their pace. The sled’s runners sing a constant shhhh against the snow and the dogs become focused. Mushers tend to stay quiet when running dogs.
“If you talk all of the time they’ll just tune you out,” said Matt Reymann, a musher that runs tours with Janssen.
These 45- to 60-pound dogs are powerful. Reymann has seen racers pulled to the ground and dragged by dogs when trying to hook them to the sled lines. A 4-mile run for a team of 10 dogs, mostly Alaskan huskies — and a few Siberian huskies, with nearly 400 pounds on a sled is a warm-up.
They live to run and run for a living.
Janssen, 70, uses the proceeds from tours to pay for their enormous diet — each dog gets a pound of raw beef along with kibble every day.
The dogs are skinny but so are most athletes. When people comment about their weight Reymann relays what he says is the best response he’s heard: “You ever go to a marathon? You don’t see many fat marathon runners. These are athletes. They run 20, 30 miles every day.”
The mushers are responsible for the dogs’ care and Reymann says their safety is always on their mind.
“When you get back from a run, the dogs get watered and fed before you,” Reymann says. “Even if you’re hungry and tired, you still take care of the dogs first.”
But the sport of sled-dog racing is not without its critics, many of whom feel the dogs are mistreated. Reymann and Janssen do their best to fight that perception.
“I’m pretty careful that people get to meet the dogs in their kennel situation,” Janssen said. “Some people think that if you have 25 dogs, you should have 25 dogs in your house. These are not those kinds of dogs.”
Dawson-A, a Siberian husky, was a rescue that lived in an apartment and destroyed it before being adopted.
“They get bored, they eat furniture … people don’t realize these dogs are not cute little pets. They’re working dogs,” Janssen said.
Janssen and David “Rosie” Harman started Silver Sage Mushing in 2006 with rescued sled dogs. Rosie, a staple of the Ashton racing community, died in 2017, but Janssen still runs rescued dogs.
In 2012, Janssen had the chance to breed Lance Mackey’s Queeny and Doug Swingley’s Sultan — both Mackey and Swingley are four-time Iditarod race winners. The result was Sabra and the Blondies, as they’re affectionately named. The litter led to seven pups. Four have become lead dogs, which Janssen says is rare.
Having the extra lead dogs has helped. Silver Sage Mushing is seeing more clients and the extra paws are needed.
“We had so much tourist activity last year,” Reymann said “but we only had two teams. We were turning people away because we didn’t have enough dog power to do two, three, four tours a day.”
Using dogs for work and survival is nothing new.
Researchers have found evidence of indigenous groups using dogs 4,000 years ago for transportation. In the 1700s, Russian mushers began forming teams in the modern sense we see today — straight lines of dogs with leaders, swing dogs, team dogs and wheel dogs.
Leaders aren’t necessarily the fastest dogs but they have the illusion of being the fastest dogs and can handle the pressure of a pack of dogs on their tail according to Reymann.
“They can think fast,” said Reymann. “When they come to a turn they have to be sharp enough and confident enough that if I tell them we’re turning right they know it, they’ll pick it and go.”
Next are the swing dogs or point dogs — these are seasoned dogs that often were leaders in their youth but are now a little older. These dogs help teach younger, lead dogs how to lead and can help with picking lines, where the musher wants the sled to go, if the leaders miss.
The number of team dogs can vary between two to six. Team dogs keep the sled moving and bear the brunt of the workload.
In the back are the wheel dogs — think low gear. They may not be the brightest or the most obedient but they’re strong.
This hierarchy allows mushers to put dogs where they can perform best.
Janssen says that despite the work it’s all worth it.
“I do it for the love of the sport, of the dogs,” Janssen said.“Even as old as I am, you never get over the rush of getting over the runners. It’s a rush.”