And they’re off … | AspenTimes.com

And they’re off …

Steve Benson
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Walking through a fleet of parked cars near the coke ovens in Redstone on a recent Saturday, it sounded like a pack of wild wolves were in the midst of a feeding frenzy.

In front of the coke ovens a big sign stuck in the snow read: “No Dogs Allowed.”

A yellow lab with its head poked out the window of a parked SUV seemed dreadfully confused (I swear, it looked like he was reading the sign), and for good reason ” behind the coke ovens, dogs were everywhere.

The sign should have read: “Sled Dogs Only.”

After a two-year hiatus, the Redstone Sled Dog Races made a triumphant return Feb. 7-8, attracting mushers, trainers, spectators and, of course, sled dogs, from all over the state.

The annual event, held 20 of the last 22 years, consisted of two days of sled and skijoring races, a cardboard derby, and constant entertainment.

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Run, Rover, run!

On Saturday morning, the parking lot of Chair Mountain Stables, where the races were held, looked like a circus. Barking and howling dogs ” mostly Siberian huskies ” were chained to specially designed, oversized trucks loaded down with sleds and gear.

At first glance, the dogs seemed aggressive and angry, but further inspection revealed an entirely different set of emotions.

“They’re so excited,” said Paul Sansom, a Carbondale resident and 20-year-veteran of sled-dog racing and training.

“That’s Robin,” he continued, pointing to a particularly vocal Siberian husky chained to the side of his truck. “He’s retired.”

Robin is 14 years old, and apparently unhappy that he’s no longer out in the mix, racing sleds.

Out on the course the skijoring races, which consist of one or two dogs pulling skiers, are about to begin. Aaron Natoniewski, of Redstone, is the first racer to leave in the staggered start.

As announcer Jeff Bier begins his countdown to start the race, Natoniewski’s two Siberian huskies are jumping and lurching forward with anticipation.

When the countdown ends and the crowd screams “Go!” the dogs shoot out of the start like two fur-ball rockets. They’re so fast that Natoniewski catches air off a bump around the first bend in the course.

This is serious, I think.

Over the next several minutes, a few other racers take off from the start, and while not as fast as Natoniewski, they seem to be all business.

I’m looking at my watch wondering how long it will take Natoniewski and his team to run the four-mile course, when somebody next to me blurts out, “Oh my God, look at the size of him.”

I look over my shoulder to see what at first appears to be a bear approaching the starting line. It turns out to be Sam, a 4-year-old Alaskan malamute who weighs 140 pounds. His puffy hair and massive head make him look more like 200 pounds. He’s so big that his handler, Mike Booth, of Rifle, looks like a little boy next to him.

Sam, I am

The majority of the 100-or-so spectators near the starting line are fixated on Sam, who’s grunting like a grizzly. A race official reaches out to guide Sam to the starting line, but quickly withdraws his hand when Sam echoes out a growl.

Booth laughs, “He’s really just a gentle giant.”

The race official doesn’t seem convinced, and Sam does what Sam wants to do, which is lift his leg and pee on a fence post. He finishes with a grunt and slowly meanders toward the start.

Once again the announcer begins the countdown, and Sam sniffs the air like a boxer before a fight. But when everyone yells “Go!” Sam doesn’t move.

With help from the crowd, Booth cries out encouragement and Sam finally begins to trot off ” straight toward a snow fence running parallel to the course, which apparently has a captivating odor.

Booth is skate-skiing as fast as he can, but you can only do so much when you’re pulling a 140-pound malamute.

Eventually, Sam gets on track to a round of applause and laughter from the crowd. (I swear, Sam seemed to be smiling.)

Meanwhile, Natoniewski and his team are making good time, and shortly after Sam and Booth disappear around the bend, the trio comes into sight and flies through the finish line like pros. Natoniewski would eventually win the race.

One by one, the other racers trickle through the finish line, and eventually everyone is in, except for the now famous duo ” Sam and Booth.

Five minutes turn into 10, 10 into 20, and still no sign of the tremendous two.

Spectators hang around, peering out toward the horizon, awaiting what is sure to be a fantastic finish.

Finally, someone cries out, “Here they come!”

Side by side ” Sam slowly, proudly trotting next to a visibly fatigued, frantically pulling Booth ” the pair makes its way to the finish with one final turn to navigate.

“Here they come at a glistening pace,” Bier chimes in over the loudspeaker. “Watch out as he comes through that high-speed turn.”

Laughter.

“It’s going to be close. Who will finish first?”

It’s tight, but I think Sam wins by a paw.

Following the race, Booth shares his thoughts.

“He’s an animal not designed to be a racing dog,” he says with a chuckle. “We’re definitely out for just the fun ” he’s having a great time.”

Lounging on his side in the snow and surrounded by adoring fans, Sam takes in the moment with a satisfying grunt.

I realize then, looking at this happy behemoth in the snow, that this is not about the mushers, really not even about the racing.

It’s about the dogs.

“The dogs are family,” Natoniewski says. “We do it because we love the dogs, and they love to run.”

Puppy love

The Chukchi’s, a nomadic Siberian tribe, began breeding Siberian huskies ” which comprise the majority of sled dogs ” thousands of years ago. Known for their strength, agility and endurance, the dogs were initially used to provide transportation in a vast and frigid land.

Over the years, however, their personality became just as important as their instinctive nature to follow trails and pull sleds.

Siberescue.com., a site devoted to Siberian huskies states: “Known for their gentle nature … together the Chukchi people and the Siberian Husky dog developed a special relationship born of mutual need and nurtured by mutual respect.”

Natoniewski said it’s the dogs’ demeanor that makes them so special.

“They’re so friendly,” he said while one of his huskies licked my leg.

Natoniewski’s fiance, Jennifer Garringer, who competed in the four-dog sled races, said the dogs’ relationships with each other and human beings became an integral component.

“They had to live with the [Chukchi] families,” she said, “so they had to be well-behaved.”

Most participants in the Redstone races were using their own dogs. Some have bred their own litters, while others have purchased pups through outside breeders.

Sansom, who is one of the most experienced mushers in the lower 48, has been retired from serious competing and breeding for two years. The owner of a large plot of land up Cattle Creek, Sansom and his wife at one point owned and cared for 48 dogs.

While he’s never competed in the legendary Iditarod race in Alaska, Sansom has trained dogs used in some of the races over the years.

The training, he said, while massively time-consuming, is not all that complex.

“You just need to get down on their level,” he said. “You need to treat them well, and play with them.

“If they’re running happy, they run well.”

Steve Benson’s e-mail address is sbenson@aspentimes.com

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