Dog Days of Winter

Climate change threatens mushers’ heritage

More information:
Wilderness Adventures Dog Sled Tours

International Sled Dog Racing Association

Sierra Nevada Dog Drivers

Jack London Commemorative Sled Dog Derby

Gnashing of teeth, howls of wild, and yaps of anticipation echo against the black cliffs and white ice of Tahoe’s Squaw Valley.

A leather-skinned, blue-eyed musher releases the sled’s brake. The dogs leap forward, suddenly silenced by their own pink-tongued panting, noses piercing the crisp air. The skid scrapes through the snow as the musher peers at a fast-approaching curve. Like a puppeteer holding strings with his voice, he need only speak in a near whisper, “Haw.” The canine leaders, 30 feet away, bank left, drawing the line of beast and man behind.

“Their hearing is incredible,” said Brian Maas, musher and owner of Wilderness Adventures Sled Dog Tours. He put me in his sled and took me on that ride. We talked along the way. “This is the oldest mode of transportation that there is. They can trace it back like 3,000 years in Russia.”

Back then, it was transportation. Maas does it for business and pleasure, carrying smiling resort tourists through the scenery by eight-dog power. He hand-builds thin wood sleds and employs five drivers. The business is booked for weeks on end. Families pay up to $300 for a 45-minute ride—testament to the popularity of ancient transport-turned-sport-turned-tourism.

But now, mushing may be facing its greatest challenge yet, and our area with a century-long history of dog driving is feeling the heat. This weekend, March 2, was supposed to be a revival of our mushing heritage with the first Jack London Commemorative Sled Dog Derby in Truckee. It was cancelled. To know why, we look to the sky and beneath our feet.

“It’s kind of critical to have snow,” said Preston Springston, of the Sierra Nevada Dog Drivers association. According to the International Sled Dog Racing Association, it’s a nation-wide trend that some fear could erase our heritage as we watch.

“This country was founded on people who worked with their animals, the gold rush, the dog teams, that type of person that resides in the west coast, families that traveled across the country and grow our own food, that sustainable living and working with animals is part of our life and important to our culture,” says Kathy Miyoshi, past president of the Sierra Nevada Dog Drivers association. She didn’t want to think about the possibility of dog mushing fading into history as a result of climate change and other factors. But when she did begin to think about it, she began to cry.

The reign of the dog

Tahoe and Truckee’s dog driving roots date back more than 100 years. Author and historian Mark McLaughlin told the Gillette News Record that dog sledding and racing began during winter carnivals in the late 1890s. Soon, mushers from Montana to Alaska were going to Truckee for races. Springston dug up a little of the history. The most famous was in 1915. Bert Cassidy, editor of the Truckee Republican (Sierra Sun), wrote about it in his journal.

“Crowds of people had been arriving in Truckee on each train … all hotel accommodations had long since been taken … movie cameramen were legion … all the bigger papers had sent sports editors.”

After the race, one of the mushers told Cassidy that out on the trail, away from those crowds, a musher that was in the lead was held at gunpoint and threatened to be killed if he didn’t let another team pass. Cassidy told the Truckee Constable, and there was talk of a lynching, but since the rumors couldn’t be confirmed, word of the incident was muzzled. It could have made quite a howl since famous writer Jack London was reportedly at the race. But instead, the Truckee race went down in history as the California town where dog mushing had lifted its leg and marked its territory.

Over the next 80 years, the race grew to one of the most popular in the nation with one of the biggest purses climbing as high as $10,000. It drew all kinds of people from some unlikely places. Springston was one of them, a Southern California surfer who got into dog mushing after he adopted a husky from the pound. The hound was so hard to train and kept pulling him everywhere that he decided to do a little bit of research about this seemingly untamable animal. That’s how he found out what the rescue pup was meant to do: pull. From there he was off and running. He likes to say it was that dog pulled that him and others into the sport.

“I would go around the neighborhood picking up everyone’s dogs. We had a little beach cart, and we would run around just terrorizing the neighborhood. I was a youngster at that point, about 43. Now I am 64.”

In 1997 he sniffed out the Truckee race that was being put on by the Lions Club, and he brought his beach hounds to the mountains. Springston never left and became a permanent resident of Truckee. But the races’ years were numbered, and it was that Lions Club race that was keeping mushing alive.

“That is very true,” said Miyoshi. “We went to the race, got fascinated by it and began doing it because of that race. Over the last two or three years, the snow conditions got worse and worse. It was held at the Truckee airport. They started not having enough snow, and they had to put straw in some of the corners and some spots. People don’t want to drive all the way here just to run on dirt. If the snow was good, the entries would have stayed up, and the whole cycle wouldn’t have happened the way it did.”

It was a good 100-year run for dog sledding in Truckee that just melted away into the thin mountain air.

“It seemed to me that it was a huge loss to the area because it was part of the history and tradition,” Springston said. “There are old pictures showing a couple of hundreds if not thousands of people.”

This year he tried to revive that glory with the first Jack London Commemorative Sled Dog Derby. His dream was to have multiple distance races with 200 dogs over two days. The community was behind it with sponsorships from North Lake Tahoe Resort Association, Well Pet dog food, Mark Tanner Construction, Sierra Pet Clinic, Branded Screen Printing and the whole shebang was even moved to higher elevation to Royal Gorge in Soda Springs near Sugar Bowl resort. He built a website, wrote a basic brochure describing the legend of the race in 1915 with black and white pictures to go with it. He has done some interviews about it and lots of articles have been written about it nationwide. He gets excited just thinking about races: “It is fun to watch. The dogs are really excited at the beginning. The fastest teams are doing 20 miles-an-hour and that is doing three-minute miles. That is uphill, downhill, everything.”

But at the very moment he was telling me those words, he was in a race against time and Mother Nature. The very next day, he would have a meeting with organizers about the weather and the race.

“We are in a dry pattern,” he said somberly. “Basically where the ridge is in the eastern Pacific, and any storms we get are going to be small and dry.”

The next day I called to get an update. He sent me back a terse e-mail:


The race has been cancelled.

With that, his dream fell through thin ice and sunk like a rock.

Hot dogs

Most of us know the weather is changing, but to understand how quickly it has happened, let’s take a walk through the snowpack data from 100 years ago to the present day. The figures are as clear as snow-capped peaks: The white stuff is getting thinner and thinner. National Weather Service Meteorologist in Reno, Jim Wallmann looked specifically at the first 10 days of March. Data for Truckee was not consistent, but 200 feet higher in Tahoe City is consistent, and he saw a trend.

“The bigger thing it seems that in the last 10 years, it seemed to be anomalously low compared to the ’80s and ’90s,” he said. “The last 10 years only averaged 24 inches on the ground.”

That is nearly half of the average in the area compared to 100 years ago.

Not only that, the data shows some years with 110 inches of snow and then others with just one inch. Inconsistencies like that happened 100 years ago as well according to the data, but it wasn’t happening as frequently.

“It was much more variable in the ’90s,” Wallmann said.

Truckee isn’t the only place being affected.

“What do you think?” said David Steele, executive director of the International Sled Dog Racing Association. “It has had a terrible effect on us.”

He says of the 52 events that were planned this year nationwide, 25 percent have already cancelled. It’s not normal.

“No, no,” Steele said. “A normal cancellation rate would be about 10 percent, but we have seen as high as 40 percent in the last 10 years.”

Even the world championship in New Hampshire was cancelled last year.

“When I took this position in 1997, we weren’t even thinking about climate change and global warming, and it has been a real difficult thing for us,” he said. “The Truckee race is a good example for your area.”

There is a bright spot he, says: “Dry land mushing.” That is a less romantic version of the chariot, where dogs pull a wheel cart in the dirt. But even that effort to adapt the sport is facing challenges. The distances are shorter, the weather —not just heat and humidity—can be a problem.

“In New England they had a dry land event, and then they got snowed on and so they couldn’t do a dry land race. So it works both ways.”

All the mushers I spoke to had characters similar to Steele’s—unyielding determination in the face of climate change that is threatening to forever alter their sport.

“It may not be mushing as we know it, but at least we got to get together and have some fun,” he said. But it’s clear they need more than optimism. The pack of mushers is aging fast.

Steele conducted a study of mushers for the international association in 2007. He surveyed their consumption habits and age and then compared the results with a similar study in 2003. In just a four-year period Mushers had aged an average of a decade from 39 to 49 years old.

From the weather to age, the only constant in this 3,000-year-old sport seems to be change, and it’s beginning to wear thin on the optimistic character of the mushers.

“I hate to say that I can see it disappearing, but I can,” said Miyoshi. “It used to be that you saw kids at the races and parents bringing their kids. Now days, you go to a race, and I am one of the old timers. There aren’t any people like me, young adults.”

Shedding for a new coat

Miyoshi is deeply aware of what is at stake if mushing doesn’t adapt and bring in new blood: “It’s wonderful. It is my zen. It doesn’t cost anything. It’s quiet. You go out on the trail, and all you can possibly think about is that moment. You aren’t thinking about bills or work. You are working these animals, and you are out in nature, and your mind goes blank, and it is a wonderful way to get out in nature without having to go too far. It is like an instant vacation. That is why I try to run some of the longer courses, 12 or 13 miles. You are taking in fresh oxygen and beautiful scenery and the comfort of working with animals. Like I said, it is my zen.”

She tries not to think about where the sport has been going, and it is not just weather and age that is wearing her thin. It’s regulation and a new breed of people.

“If you can’t have a mini ranch then you can’t have the sport either. The county ordinances and the dog limits and restrictions, licenses and certifications. It is so difficult to own multiple animals. I go through a lot of effort to own my animals, and it is really sad to see it disappearing.”

And just like it wasn’t that long ago that there was more snow, it wasn’t that long ago that Truckee residents were a different breed, too.

“There was more property, space, less regulations,” Miyoshi said. “There was a different type of person living in the mountains. People had more animals. Now the world is kind of moving away from there. I call it a double whammy. We have both those things working against us.”

It seems the sport’s popularity rose just as it began to face serious challenges. All the factors combined, you might think the musher is the endangered breed. But it does have one thing going for it, ‘man’s best friend’ is very popular.

“People are much more aware of the sport than they were 30 years ago,” Steele says. “People were amazed back then that someone hooks up to a dog. People are not flabbergasted as much anymore. The sport has adapted. It is much more diverse than it used to be. One of the bright spots is the ‘dry land’ events that I mentioned.”

In fact, many urbanites may be incarnations of the musher and not even know it.

“Your dog does not have to be a northern breed. You can get into ‘urban mushing.’ You tie a rope to your belt, tie the rope to the dog and let to dog pull you as you run behind,” Steele says.

Yes, running with your dog even has a name now: “cani-cross.” It’s serious, too. YouTube has dozens of videos of cani-cross competitions around the world. So, mushing has emerged from the den of ancient transportation across the frozen ground and growled back to life on our city streets as a modern, urban, dry-land pastime.

But the traditional sport also has a bright spot that is as clear as yellow snow. It is tourist attractions like Brian Maas runs up at Squaw Valley. “The dog sled touring industry as a whole has grown tremendously over the past 20-30 years,” Steele says. “That is one area in the sled dog world where people can make a living at it. Those guys are always busy and it is always nice to run into people who have had that experience. So they do a great PR (public relations) job for the sport in general. Kind of the ‘eco-tourism’ thing.”

The tourism aspect is throwing a bone to mushing by bringing in some fresh meat. You can see it at Brian Maas’ operation at Squaw Valley as the cozy families with kids come sliding into camp and then declaring “amazing” and saying they want to drive dogs. Not far away from the scene is Maas’ own son. He likes to play with a Tonka Truck in the snow like a sandbox. He’s just 11, and three years ago Brian took him to a race. There were no other children.

“So I raced against the adults,” said Elias Maas. “I beat them all.” He pauses. “By like 30 minutes.”

He has his dad’s eyes, stoic face and optimism about the future of mushing. He says he will always be a musher. This young pup has a lot of dog years left to live. With his help, man’s best friend might also retain a little of its once wild heritage. If our hearing is keen enough, we may hear that ancestral cry like Jack London did.

“And when on the still cold nights, he pointed his nose at a star and howled long and wolflike, it was his ancestors, dead and dust, pointing nose at star and howling down through the centuries and through him,” Jack London wrote in Call of the Wild.

The nights just might not be as cold, and our instincts may be a little less wild.