Mushing is not a sport of glamor, money or recognition. Mushing is a sport of love, dedication, heart break and pride. People that follow the sport see the races. They see our best dogs at their best condition and for only a few days. People see a smiling musher with their best gear ready to hit the trail and do what they have been conditioning for. What they don’t see is what it takes to get them to that point in the year.
What you don’t see is the emotional state of the musher as the weather is watched, determining when training runs will take place. Pleading with Mother Nature to send cooler weather or snow depending on what time of the year it is. Pleading to Mother Nature to stop the rain and bring the snow so that training can transition from strength training to endurance training.
If the mushers are lucky they have a seasonal or semi-seasonal job that allows them to have a flexible schedule in the fall and winter when the majority of training takes place. It allows training to take place at whatever hour is best for the dogs. It doesn’t matter if it’s good for the musher – it has to be the best for the dogs. Most mushers do have full time jobs and families that they have to work with and around, complicating not only training but relationships with humans. Those relationships I’ve noticed mushers have a hard time with. Missing concerts, parties, family events because the dogs have to get out, they have to be fed. Expectations from people that we may or may not want to meet, people have hidden agendas and honesty is not always first priority in human relationships. Dogs are honest and don’t have hidden agendas, they just want to run and eat. Running is their first priority, eating is second, we can handle that.
What people don’t see is the training, the literally thousands of miles that mushers sit behind their dogs in all kinds of weather. Rain, sleet, snow, wind – it doesn’t matter. What they don’t see is the frozen snaps, the stiff ganglines, the frozen harnesses, the dogs that get harness rub because of the sand, the sore feet from running on frozen gravel and sand, the frozen water stuck to the fur of the dogs because it’s not cold enough to freeze solid but when the dogs run through the water it sticks and accumulates as ice. Breaking trail through feet of snow, pushing and pulling the sled putting in a trail, teaching the dogs (and the musher!) that it’s not always easy! Hours and hours in snow storms, winds, below zero temperatures, bending over putting booties on, taking booties off, changing booties, always booties!
What you don’t see is the tired musher stuffing houses with straw so that the tired (or in some cases NOT tired!) dogs can climb into a nice warm house and dry off and rest until the next run. You don’t see the buckets of meat, kibble and supplements soaking in water being fed to the athletes by the scoop full, all while being carefully monitored by the musher to make sure that everyone eats and drinks so that they can maintain their energy levels and their hydration. Those dogs that don’t eat can be a cause for worry – why aren’t they eating? Is there something wrong or are they just tired? Something only a musher will know from the hours having spent with that particular dog. What you don’t see is ointments and liniments being applied to those athletes that are feeling a bit sore or tender so that they heal and are ready to go for the next run.
Hanging wet gear, thawing frozen gear, changing gear on a daily basis depending on weather conditions, repairing gear because new gear isn’t in the budget and getting things ready to run a race that we hope we are prepared for.
What you don’t see is the concern that the musher has when the team is sick or a bug is going through them. The lists that mushers keep monitoring miles and hours on the trail conditioning, which dogs are doing well, which dogs need more time, which dogs are not making the team, which main leader is slowing down and needs to be retired because they just aren’t keeping up with the younger dogs.
What people don’t see are those perfect runs at -20F, with a team that is pumping on all 14 cylinders, not wanting to stop, with the sun out and the trail good and fast. The runs that happen on a clear night with a full moon and a sky full of stars, cold and refreshing, under Northern Lights. The happiness of the wagging tails as they wipe their faces in the snow on the side of the trail and the grins that are given when they turn around to wait for that command that lets them move forward again. The curled up husky balls as they rest between runs with eyes watching your every move. Waiting, always waiting for your command to get going again.
Being a musher is not something that is a phase or a temporary thing. I didn’t just jump into this dedication without a very lengthy consideration of what it means to be a musher. I am fairly new to the mushing aspect of the sport but I have been directly involved with sled dogs for 13 years. Living breathing and doing everything I possibly could to try and satisfy this empty space I had in my life that was only full when I was at a race or other event having to do with sled dogs. It’s a passion and a way of life for some people but it’s not for everyone. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to live this life for several years now and I am enjoying every second of it.