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Wild About Utah: Sled dogs

A team of dogs pull a sled through snow toward a mountain.
Mary Heers

This Wild About Utah segment is a rebroadcast from March 2023

As the snow continued to pile up this winter, I started to ask around about sled dogs.

I soon bumped into a friend who had a friend in Preston who trained and occasionally raced his team of 14 Alaskan Huskies.

This musher graciously offered to give me a ride on one of his training runs. I showed up all smiles as he was harnessing his team. The dogs were excited to go and actually howling with happiness. The musher asked if I wanted to get in or ride up the trail a bit on a snowmobile with his teenage son to a more level spot. In a rare moment of sanity, I opted for the snowmobile.

The machine had just pulled out of the yard when I heard his son say, “Oh, no!”

I looked back in time to see the sled tip over, sending the musher sliding across the driveway and under my car parked at the end of it. I jumped off the snowmobile as the dogs shot past us with the empty sled. The dogs were gaining on a truck up ahead, then shot past it with the snowmobile in hot pursuit.

I was left standing in a snowbank wondering if I’d wandered into a James Bond movie.

My first encounter with sled dogs had gone a lot smoother. I was visiting Denali National Park in Alaska and the rangers were introducing us to one of the dog teams that they still use to patrol the park.

But the most famous sled dogs are the freight teams that carried anti-toxin from Anchorage to Nome during an outbreak of diphtheria in 1925. The dog teams ran a thousand miles and are credited with saving hundreds of lives.

For the last 50 years, modern mushers have retraced this journey in the ultimate sled dog race, the Ididarod. The best account I’ve read about the world of training sled dogs and running the Ididarod is Gary Paulsen’s book "Winterdance." Just before going on a training ride, he discovered, “the gangline was trembling, quivering like a string on a guitar. It fairly hummed and I felt there was great power there. The trees in the yard went by in a mad blur and we left the yard at warp speed.”

Paulsen also lets us in on the deep relationship mushers form with their dogs: “As they understand you will give them meat when they run, and love when they run, and your soul when they run — as they learn to feel that, understand that, know that — they are no longer sled dogs — they become distance dogs, dogs that cannot, will not be stopped.” Paulson ran the Iditarod in 1983. It was a wild ride that took 17 days. But he finished.

Meanwhile, back in Preston, our teenage hero had caught up with the runaway team, made a flying leap from the snowmobile onto the empty sled, and somehow managed to stop the team. Pretty soon the musher and I caught up.

“Do you still want to get in?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said.

And we were off. The dogs settled into a steady trot. From then on it was all sun and snow and the sheer Joy of sliding quietly through the magnificent winter scenery.

Mary got hooked on oral histories while visiting Ellis Island and hearing the recorded voices of immigrants that had passed through. StoryCorps drew her to UPR. After she retired from teaching at Preston High, she walked into the station and said she wanted to help. Kerry put her to work taking the best 3 minutes out of the 30 minute interviews recorded in Vernal. Passion kicked in. Mary went on to collect more and more stories and return them to the community on UPR's radio waves. Major credits to date: Utah Works, One Small Step, and the award winning documentary Ride the Rails.