North Shore musher gives insider's look at her athletes on the gangline
Jan 05, 2018 04:19AM ● Published by Editor
TWO HARBORS, MINN. – Selecting the sled dogs who will run the trail or ride the bench on race day is mostly about strength, speed, appetite and experience. According to veteran Minnesota musher Colleen Wallin, sometimes it’s meticulous observation. Other times, it’s a crapshoot.
“It’s kind of like a Rubik’s Cube. You keep shuffling it around, but never really solve it,” she said.
Wallin, 55, and her husband, Ward, own Silver Creek Sled Dogs in Two Harbors. Both are seasoned mushers and have run the acclaimed John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon along the North Shore many times. She finished third in 2015 and has placed no lower than sixth since 2009. Over time, she has developed — and continually shuffles — her depth chart of Alaskan huskies, those with choice on-trail abilities.
“I’m always watching tug lines. If it’s tight, that’s awesome. That means the dog is working hard,” Wallin said. “Then [we] get back to the yard after a training run and if they eat, that’s even better.”
Wallin emphasized the importance of calories and hydration for dogs during a race. She stops the team every hour on-trail to give each member a chunk of meat or fish. “They’ve got to take their snacks just to feed that furnace,” Wallin said.
Her front-line criterion includes healthy feet. If she notices that a naturally hard puller is backing off during a run, she immediately stops and checks the huskie’s feet. “When you spend so much time behind the team, you’re really in tune to how they move,” she said.
John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon
What: The longest sled dog race (at nearly 400 miles) in the Lower 48 states. This is its 34th year.
When: Jan. 28-31
Where: Starts north of Two Harbors, turns around in Grand Portage, finishes in Duluth.
Details: As many as 60 mushers in the field.
Beyond determining who goes on-trail, Wallin strategizes about where to position those dogs on the gangline, the main cable from the sled to the lead dogs. Each dog has a harness that connects to the gangline, with a tug line at the rear and often a neck line at the front.
“I’ll use really experienced leaders at the start of a race,” she said. “They all know it’s race time, but the older dogs really know what’s going on.”
She pointed out that potential lead dogs seem to show their stuff early in life. She trains 2-year-olds with experienced leaders.
“If [the younger dogs] don’t look back, they kind of tell the story,” she said. “If they look around, or don’t pull, or goof [and] sniff around, then maybe that dog isn’t going to be a leader.”
Point dogs are directly behind the leaders. For Wallin, point dogs are also in training to perhaps lead someday. “They’re [hearing] the commands. They kind of learn them without having to teach too hard,” she said.
“Wheel dogs” — those directly in front of the sled — are at the other end of the gangline. They tend to be the largest and strongest dogs, especially for the start of a race. “If there’s a certain amount of pounding or movement on the sled, I think the wheel dogs feel it most,” Wallin said.
“Team dogs” include everybody between point and wheel. Wallin said she positions smaller dogs closer to the front because it’s easier on their bodies.
Lots of factors
For Wallin, swapping dog positions during a race is like rotating tires on a car. It offers the dogs a chance to rest. She also prefers to run them equally on both sides of the gangline.
She said she will finalize her Beargrease roster the night before race weekend. Sometimes she’ll exchange a go-to dog for a “bubble” dog, or backup, in circumstances such as an experienced primary female coming into heat.
Physical qualities aside, Wallin said dog personalities can sometimes factor into where they start on the gangline. From wily veteran Endor to the always reliable Jazz, here are Wallin’s descriptions of 14 huskies that she is considering for this year’s Beargrease. Meet her athletes up close:
When Shypoke was a puppy, he’d run into the house and peek out at us playing with the other puppies. Now he’s 3, has fast foot speed, and I’ll also look to him at the end of a race to have in lead.
Jazz, 4, is leggy and another leader. All of the dogs will run through snowstorms, but she’s one I’ll count on a little later in the race because she’s persistent and determined.
Huey, 3, has long legs and likes to lead. He’s coming into his own maturity and buttoning down. He doesn’t play around anymore when I stop. When we go by a tree, he doesn’t grab branches.
As an experienced 6-year-old, Mittens has finished every race and has never been hurt. She might be half a step behind the team, but she’s resilient and knows how to pace herself.
Marlin, 3, is a picky eater sometimes, which drives me somewhat insane. But she devours the trail. She’s got a great personality and can be a goofball with the other dogs. She’d be in the corner at school for talking too much.
Endor, 9, is like a wise old man. He’s a slight dog and eats when he has to. When we hook up, he watches every move I make. He’s so smart with so much experience, he’ll even lead in a pinch. If I need cruise control, he’s it.
Rut, 3, will eat anything that won’t eat him first. Last year, I raced him in Maine and he was a train wreck, stepping in every moose hole. But one sunset, he suddenly turned into a sled dog, dancing around holes, head down, tail straight and pulling hard.
Tuuk, 3, is Rut’s sister. She pulls really hard and she’s on her dish, a good eater. She’s also happy and playful. Just touch her and she rolls on her back and wants belly rubs.
Texas’ black pitch and blue eyes intimidated me for two days. She’s 5, and I run her close to lead because she’s learning to become a leader. She also runs “wheel,” and is our loudest dog during feeding and hookup.
Miss Kay, 4, is low to the ground and kind of stocky, so she pulls hard. She’s a leader, but not a real go-to leader. She’s slow to warm up to other people, keeps to herself, but is inside-out happy with me.
Uncle Si, 5, is a big male who will eat anything. While eating his bowl he’ll reach his paw for somebody else’s. He’s got a mind of his own and always had good feet. I don’t think we’ve ever had to booty that dog.
Pinto, 3, is quiet but coming out of his shell. He’s run anywhere on the team except lead. However, I’ll put him in lead coming home from practice runs because he knows where he’s going. It’s like a horse back to a barn.
Happy, 4, is diminutive and a little shy, but willing to lead at any time. She’s never balked or looked around like, “Oh, I’m not sure about this.”
At 9, Freeze is an experienced leader with good footspeed. During feeding she wants belly rubs. But the minute she’s hooked up, she shows her nerve. She’s ice cold when it comes to running or training and racing, a tough little girl.
Scott Stowell is a freelance writer and photographer from Ely. He can be reached through writingoutfitter.com.