Explore Tahoe: Appreciate the Sierra with a family friendly dog sled tour | SierraSun.com

Explore Tahoe: Appreciate the Sierra with a family friendly dog sled tour

OLYMPIC VALLEY, Calif. — Picture your dog's excitement when you grab the leash, or say the "w-a-l-k" word. They're stoked, they always want to go; yes it's a great day for a walk, why are we still in the kitchen?

Now picture almost 30 dogs yipping, jumping, howling and barking at once — that's the energy running through Wilderness Adventures Dog Sled Tours' pack of beautiful Alaskan huskies before every single tour.

Brian Maas owns the company, running the business with his family.

"I love it," he said after a sledding excursion on Wednesday. "I fell in love with the dogs when I had a couple as pets, and it's grown just being such a peaceful activity getting to be outdoors with these dogs who are amazing athletes."

Maas is an animal lover who used to play around with his two pet huskies, having them pull him on a snowboard. He wanted to be able to go farther distances and bring more things with him, so he got four more dogs, invested in a sled and was hooked.

The rest, as they say, is history. Now he, his wife and two kids care for the dogs as their pets (that also have jobs). They are able to make the amazing scenic tour opportunities available to anyone as a safe, fun alternative to skiing when you still want to be outside.

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"They live to eat and run. They love this," said Matt Byers, a musher for the Olympic Valley-based company who loves working with animals and being outside.

He also operates Alpine Meadows Stables — which will celebrate its 50th anniversary this year — during the summer.

'THE HAPPIEST DOGS IN THE WORLD'

"We'd be out here five days a week if we could. This is their treat," he said about the dogs. "They get so excited to be out here working — the happiest dogs in the world doing what they love."

Training all depends on the dog, as they're of a very independent working breed.

"They want to work," Byers said. "Just like pet dogs want to please their owners, these dogs want to work. I'm an animal lover and I love seeing them have a job to do."

Byers said a lot of people get these types of high-performance dogs for their looks and ultimately realize how much effort it takes to properly care for them.

"You have to be a responsible owner to take care of these dogs," he said.

Maas certainly is a responsible owner, as he allows the dogs the freedom to be in their natural element — and he even adds salmon oil to their water.

"We are all so passionate about this," Maas said. "We always make sure the dogs are happy and healthy or they just won't do it. It's a respectful working relationship between me and the guides and the dogs."

Throughout the tour, guests get to enjoy the gorgeous scenery with plenty of photo-stops along the way. Gliding through Olympic Valley's meadow near the famed Squaw Valley ski resort is surprisingly quiet, with the dog sled team riding along a path previously tracked out by the guides' snowmobiles to help things go along smoothly.

The dogs are strategically positioned (some of them are buddies and play too much while on the mission). During our tour this week, three sisters were staged in a line led by "Necklace" and "Rascal."

The dogs' tails were wagging as they all intermittently dipped down to chomp a bite of snow.

"Necklace is the pack's tour leader," Byers said. "She is an amazing dog; at 6 years old, she keeps everyone in line."

Throughout the tour, Necklace listened to commands flawlessly. You can tell she takes her job seriously as she trotted, head-down, leading the troop on a safe and steady ride.

WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO LEAD A TOUR?

Wilderness Adventures can do four to five tours a day, depending on weather. If it's too hot outside or the snow is too soft, the dogs will take the day off.

Twelve of the company's Alaskan huskies can handle up to 2,000 pounds, and the guides pace the dogs at a steady 6-8 miles per hour, which is a comfortable speed for the dogs to travel up to six hours.

Fun fact: Guides are called "mushers," but they only say "mush!" in the movies.

Byers yells "all right," and the dogs know it's time to get a move-on.

Byers walked the line of dogs, petting each of them and explaining the sled's mechanics. Each dog wears a net-like harness with crisscross straps down the length of their backs.

Attached to each dog's harness are two clips that run to the team's main gangline, allowing two dogs to run side-by-side. The clip at the front of the harness is the neckline, and the clip in the back is the tugline. Each helps stage the dogs in the right spacing and placement, with the neckline able to be undone in case the dogs need to hop over obstacles on-trail.

At the end of the gangline is a bridle, shock-absorption bungee that on its own is incredibly difficult to move. Once the dogs get running however, the bungee cord stretches with ease.

Behind the bungee, the gangline attaches to the sled, which Wilderness Adventures' experts custom-make and rebuild throughout the season. It's a comfortable, smooth ride with a plush cushion underneath you that easily seats two people: one in front, legs stretched out and the other seated behind, slinging their legs on either side.

The musher stands on the back of the sled, helping to steer the dogs and make challenging areas of the trail more manageable for the pups.

All in all, this was a wonderful, safe adventure that would be exciting for visitors and locals alike. Anyone is welcome to join in on the fun — the team has hosted everyone from parents with an infant to elderly and physically disabled guests — and it is a sight to behold for any outdoor enthusiast.

Cassandra Walker is a features and entertainment reporter for the Sierra Sun. She can be reached at cwalker@sierrasun.com, 530-550-2654 or @snow1cass.

Learn more

Wilderness Adventures Dog Sled Tours invites everyone to experience the thrill and excitement of touring in complete safety behind a team of eager Huskies. Tours are available at the Resort at Squaw Creek: 400 Squaw Creek Road. Visit http://www.tahoedogsledtours.com to learn more.