The cry of "Hite! Hite!" rings out over the snow-carpeted valley and echoes off the mountain peaks. Thirteen huskies, lying obediently on their bellies, spring to their feet and make a mad dash up the winding path into a forest of gray-white aspens. Behind them the sled shoots forward. Over the excited howling of the dogs and the hiss of runners on snow and the festive jingling of the harness bells, the driver calls out his commands. High, trilling, birdlike sounds spur the dogs to sprint furiously down a hill. Low, throaty moans slow them.
I might be traveling in the Yukon Territory, circa 1890, but I am not. The scene is Snowmass Village, Colo.—just 13 miles outside of Aspen—where I have come to take an authentic dogsled ride. The sled driver is 31-year-old Dan MacEachen, owner of Krabloonik Kennels. According to MacEachen, Krabloonik (named after the first lead dog he trained, the word meaning "Big Eyebrows" in one of the Eskimo dialects) is the largest freight-carrying dogsled operation in the continental United States. Krabloonik has some 80 dogs, hybrids of all three types of sled dog—Malamutes from Alaska, Siberians from northeastern Asia and Eskimos from Greenland and Labrador—which are trained to pull heavy loads (a half ton is no trouble for a 13-dog team) exactly as their forebears did centuries ago on the frozen Arctic tundra. The dogs are massive—some weigh upward of 100 pounds—and stand more than 25 inches tall. Bred for endurance, not speed, they have thick coats for the subfreezing temperatures; long, muscular legs to negotiate Colorado's deep powder snow (stubbier legs suffice in the hard-packed Arctic); and huge lungs and chests, the better to work in the thin 9,000-foot atmosphere. From mid-December through mid-April, MacEachen offers sled rides to tenderfeet like me ($30 per person for 2½ hours) as he drives through a spectacular landscape of hills, valleys and forests that sits just under the 14,000-foot peaks of the Elk Mountains in the Colorado Rockies.
MacEachen's dogs are four-legged living history. During World War II the Allies decided to invade Norway and set about fashioning frontline supply and medical-evacuation systems to combat the bitter Norwegian winter. All motorized vehicles failed. As a last resort, they decided to try old-fashioned dogsleds, and turned to a man named Stuart Mace. A graduate student of high-altitude plant genetics at the University of Colorado, Mace had already been commissioned by the Army to teach rock climbing to mountain engineers. Although his previous experience with sled dogs amounted to "hearing stories from my uncle," the Army, nevertheless, appointed Mace commander of the dog detachment of the 10th Mountain Division, and stationed him near Leadville, Colo. From here the Army sent him off to Northern Canada and Alaska, where he proceeded to buy more than $3 million worth of huskies. (While the term husky is used loosely to refer to working dogs of mixed breeds used to pull sleds, no pure breed of Arctic dog is rightfully called husky except for the Siberian Husky.) Now 60 and retired from dogsledding. Mace explains the virtue of the plan: "Dogs were superior to snow vehicles. They could go anywhere and come back. They didn't break down or run out of gas, and they could draw for seven days without food."
The invasion of Norway never came off ("Stalin didn't want us to get anywhere near Norway," says Mace), so the "K-9" Division was reassigned as a rescue operation for pilots who had been downed in the Arctic. The dogs also made it possible to break up secret German weather stations in Greenland and aided medics during the Battle of the Bulge. After the war, Mace gave up his academic career and, along with 14 of the army dogs, eventually made his way to Ashcroft, an abandoned silver-mining town some 12 miles from Aspen, where in 1949 he set up a dogsled touring operation named Toklat. His dogs were used in the Sergeant Preston television series that ran for three years. Working with the dogs was a labor of love. "There was a lot to learn in developing empathy with other living things," he says. It was also backbreaking. By the age of 55, Mace had developed traumatic arthritis from overworking his joints and could no longer drive his teams. "I'd reached the end of a category," he says sadly. "I was no longer a young man."
Enter Dan MacEachen. MacEachen, an introvert who admits to getting along better with dogs than he does with people, emigrated to Colorado from New Jersey in 1969 and found work as a dishwasher. Later he hired on as a kennel boy at Toklat and worked his way up to a team driver. When it became obvious that Mace would have to bow out, MacEachen offered to run the operation. At first Mace refused. "I tried everything I knew to discourage Dan because the dogs are a cross; they demand total devotion. I wanted to make sure that whoever took over was as committed to them as I am," he says. Finally in 1974, after serving a 4½-year apprenticeship, MacEachen persuaded Mace to let him take over and he moved the dogs to their present location, about a mile from the Snowmass ski resort. "I did it to preserve a dying art," MacEachen says. Even now the kennel doesn't pay for itself, and he must find part-time work wherever he can as a carpenter and cook to support it.
Taking a ride in one of Krabloonik's two-passenger sleds is a serene experience. I sit back on a varnished pecan-and-hickory sled, which looks like a combination elongated rocking chair and chaise longue, and let the dogs and driver do the work. It's roughly the position I assume when propped up in bed watching Johnny Carson. Between me and the sled's wooden slats is a slab of foam rubber; thick woolen blankets cover me. The 200-pound sled is 110 inches from stem to stern and glides on two steel-shod runners. All joints are secured with rawhide; screws would make the sleds brittle, and brittle sleds break. Designed and built by Mace, MacEachen's sleds are creations of the white man. The Eskimo had scarcely any wood but found other ways to make the environment work for him. He fashioned sleds from frozen meat, skins and sinew; the runners usually were made of whalebone covered with mud and a thin layer of ice. In an emergency he could eat the sled.
MacEachen's dogs lope along at a leisurely eight to 10 miles per hour on the flat and may go as fast as 25 miles per hour downhill. When they do, it feels like 50. At those times, I bounce up and down like a passenger in a speedboat. The real thrill, however, is not the sled ride itself but observing the fascinating interactions between dog and dog, and dog and driver.
At the start of each day MacEachen sets out from one to three sleds in the snow just in front of the kennel. Instantly the dogs let out a chorus of yelps and frantically strain at their chains (they are chained to prevent fights). The dogs want to work and, in some way, see it as a reward. "They pull because they love to," MacEachen says. "They have been bred for centuries to work. If I left a dog in the kennel and never allowed him to join the team, he would feel useless and die of a broken heart." The desire to work is so strong that once a week MacEachen even harnesses Suet, who is 13 and retired. Suet shows his appreciation by pulling harder than any other dog. When the dogs are selected for a team, they rush to the sled and sit contentedly in the snow. The day's rejects let out miserable howls. The dogs are attached from the front and back of their harnesses to a main gang line, a quarter-inch-thick steel cable that runs some 35 feet from the sled to the lead dog. Except for the leader, who works alone, dogs usually pull in male-female pairs because dogs of the same sex often fight viciously. The pair closest to the sled are called wheel dogs; they are the biggest and strongest. Up front the dogs are usually smaller and faster.
Once the team is ready, MacEachen yells "Hite!" (mush is strictly a Hollywood term never used by professionals) and they are off. A freight-team driver uses neither whip nor reins. He communicates verbally, with the old ox-team commands. Gee means go right, haw left, and whoa is stop. While I relax inside the sled, MacEachen guides it by standing on the back runners and constantly shifting his weight from side to side. Without these operations, the sled would careen wildly and soon smash into one of the aspens that line the trail. At times MacEachen will lean out from the sled at a 45-degree angle, like someone hiking in a sailboat, or he may even jump off altogether and run alongside, pointing it in the right direction. This is a risky maneuver. Should MacEachen fall, the dogs, who are petrified of being run over by the sled, will take off, leaving me a prisoner in a runaway sled.
MacEachen keeps the gang line taut by frequently pushing the brake, a giant metal claw, into the snow. This is an important maneuver for if the line goes slack, the sled may hit the wheel dogs or swing dangerously, resembling a Winnebago in a heavy gale. In addition, MacEachen constantly calls the dogs by name. "Faster, Kaweasuk [Little Clown Face], you're not pulling. Good, Kyloo [Pretty Little Girl]." The idea is to make the dogs work out of a personal commitment to him. But respect has to be earned daily, and there is the ever-present danger of anarchy. Once MacEachen was driving his team past a house where a little girl stood in front with her dog. "The lead dog wanted her dog, but I talked him out of it," he says. "But the second two bolted, and suddenly the whole team took off after the girl—over a fence and across a frozen pond. She just made it into the house, and we ended up on her porch." Extreme hunger can also cause distractions. While they can survive for days without food, the dogs do love to eat.