They are plumbers and electricians, contractors and merchants, lawyers and doctors. Just everyday people, they’ll tell you. Not a particular bunch at all.
But not often do you see someone plant both feet on the legs of a sled, taking firm hold as the countdown begins. … 5 … 4 … 3 … 2 …
… And then Mark Hatch releases the brakes and yells, “Let’s go!” And his eight Siberian huskies take off, pulling him out to the snowy expanse.
Hatch is president of the Colorado Mountain Mushers, which for a third year is using Mount Massive Golf Course’s groomed trails to showcase a historic tradition, a side of winter recreation in the West not only reserved for tourists and outfitters, but also for these widely unseen practitioners. The first Mount Massive Mush was held earlier this month, and the second will take place this Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 23 and 24.
Cross-country skiers reign over this scenic property throughout the season. But on these weekends, they make way for an attraction viewed by families day-tripping here to the base of the state’s highest peaks.
Like the Nordic regulars, the mushers come for a commune with nature. Competition isn’t valued as much as the simple time on the trail.
That’s the goal. “Just to be on the trail,” says one of the Colorado Mountain Mushers’ directors, Kirk Cushing.
“A lot of the time, I can be the only one out there,” Hatch said before his run, reflecting on miles through the forest near his home in Glenwood Springs. It’s just the carving of the sled, the panting of the dogs, “the crunch of their feet on the snow,” he says. “It’s just, I don’t know. It’s good for the psyche.”
But peaceful doesn’t describe the scene outside the clubhouse. Trucks and trailers fill the parking lot, a cacophony of barks and howls. The restrained dogs are on their hind legs, ready to roll, it seems. Eager like their owners.
First, a quick meeting in the clubhouse, where a pot of chili simmers and a Bloody Mary mix is made. Discussing the course up front is Bill Bockstiegel, red-faced with gray hairs on his chin, clad in a bulky snowsuit stained from weeks of rugged work. The “TRAIL BOSS,” as his vest identifies him, has been busy grooming. That’s because he’s a dutiful member of the Colorado Mountain Mushers, and he conveniently lives close by. But most of all, he wants the dogs to have a high-quality surface.
“It’s all about the dogs,” he says. “Somebody else came up with that phrase, and I love it. And it’s true. It’s all about the dogs.”
He grew up on a farm with dogs and has considered them family his whole life, but it wasn’t until later that he joined the sled dog ranks. They are a misunderstood bunch, Bockstiegel says. Misunderstood in light of Iditarod revelations, reports of a cruel, abusive culture.
But it’s all about the dogs, the bunch here insists. They like to think the love at home — feeding, watering, kennel cleaning, playing — can be observed here at the Mount Massive Mush, where Bockstiegel is happy to take anyone out on a snowmobile, because it’s also about welcoming strangers. It’s also about visiting old friends. “HEEYY,” Bockstiegel booms at the sight of one. “There’s a good guy.”
They are a social bunch, greeting each other in the time between races. “It’s the old lady brigade!” Debra Su Stephens says to Leslie Fields as the two prepare their sleds. They are among the longest-going members of the club, which traces its history to 1960.
“In the ‘90s and early 2000s, the four-dog class would be 50, 70 teams,” Stephens says. On this day, teams in all classes can be counted with one or two hands.
So they are a dwindling bunch. Most blame it on the cities, ever expanding and alluring. You can make a living there, have your 9-to-5, but you can’t raise a dog sled team there. You need the money, yes, but you also need space and time, lots of time, and the city won’t give you that.
Back in her 20s, Stephens was raising huskies in Denver. “I don’t want to live in the city,” she recalls telling her boyfriend. “If you do, I don’t want to be with you.”
It worked out, because now he’s her husband and they’re living on Hartsel’s open land, running dogs together. Along with them here are two young ladies they’re mentoring — perhaps the next generation alongside Meagan Garbarino. She’s Fields’ daughter, who read Jack London as a child and wanted a sled dog team ever since. Now she’s mending a broken arm since slipping on ice in the kennel the other day.
So Garbarino is here to help, tending to the dogs as she has since childhood. She has her own life in Fort Collins now, but she relishes chances like this to be around mushers.
“It’s its own entire thing. It’s really hard to put into words,” she says. “I don’t think there are words to describe it.”
Nor can words describe the time on the sled. On the final stretch of her 6-mile race, in one rousing moment, Garbarino passes the sled in front of her to cross the finish line first. But there are no hard feelings — just joy before the shared disappointment of being done.
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