For many kids who grew up in the 1990s, the animated film “Balto” made an impact.
The film follows a half-wolf, half-husky on his journey of leading a sled team pulling a treatment for diphtheria across Alaska.
While most kids who watched the film had dreams about owning a brave mutt that would pull them across a snowy landscape, Alyssa Martin made that dream a reality.
Martin, who grew up in Truckee, used to watch shows on PBS about Alaskan sled dogs.
“I think I was about three years old when I told my mom I was going to miss her when I moved to Alaska with my dog,” Martin said. “I didn’t realize you could just do that in California.”
Shortly after watching “Balto,” Martin started her first “team,” which consisted of her little brother and their Labrador being attached with jump ropes and leading her.
She bought an actual harness from a local dog store and started doing research on training. When she was 10, her grandparents bought her a sled, and by 12 she was running dogs.
Martin’s partner, Rohn Buser, grew up with sled dogs in Alaska. Now, they own 13 dogs and run the company Sierra Husky Tours.
They describe Sierra Husky Tours as “a group of happy huskies who love sharing their adventure.”
Each winter, Martin, Buser and the 13 dogs lead two hours tours around Lake Davis near Portola.
“It’s just so quiet and beautiful,” Martin said about why she likes leading the tours. “You can go out on a snowmobile, but it’s loud and you’re moving too fast to really see anything and that’s why I love dog mushing.”
“I don’t think there is anything better than going out in the snow behind a team of dogs,” Martin added. “It’s so peaceful and it’s so much fun to watch them do what they love to do.”
According to Outdoor Dog World, people have been dog sledding since about 2000 B.C. Mainly, Inuit and native peoples from northern regions such as current day Canada, Greenland and Siberia have been using sled dogs to transport food and supplies.
The first dog sled race was in 1850 from Winnipeg, Manitoba, to St. Paul, Minnesota. One of the most famous dog sled races, the Iditarod, travels 975 miles from Anchorage to Nome. The Iditarod trail was frequently used for transport during World War I and II, but is most famous for being the route lead dog Balto and lead dog Togo took to bring the diphtheria serum to Nome.
A team consists of a lead dog or dogs (there can be two lead dogs at a time) which are in front, team dogs in the middle and wheel dogs that are directly in front of the sled which help pull the sled out from and around corners or trees.
Martin and Buser’s dogs consist of lead dogs Porsche, Fiddler, Inca, and Ruger; team dogs Strider, Punzel, Zelda, Kybur, Lobo, Bolt and Aleu; and wheel dogs Finnick and Diesel.
Malamute and huskies are the traditional sled dogs. Malamutes are bigger and stronger, so they are usually used to pull heavier loads over long distances.
Siberian huskies are long distance runners, but Martin describes them as “free-thinkers,” while Alaskan huskies are a little smaller and more willing to please their owners. Both breeds have a thick, double coat which keeps them warm in the snow.
Martin and Buser have a combination of Siberian and Alaskan huskies.
Martin said they don’t always run all of the dogs at once. It depends on the weather and snow conditions.
“You know how we get the Sierra cement, so if the snow is really sticky, we will take out 12,” Martin. “If it’s more icy, if the snow is firmer, the sled glides over it easier.”
She also said it depends on the weight of the load on the sled. She’s smaller than Buser, so if it’s just her and one other person, they don’t need as many dogs. The sleds can accommodate a total family weight limit of 400 pounds.
Martin and Buser have a doubler driver sled, which allows one of the guests to stand at the handlebars to give them a more authentic experience. In front of the drivers is the basket, which holds the other adult and two kids.
The tours run for two hours. It starts with the guests getting to meet and pet the dogs while Martin and Buser explain the sled. They have several different trails around the lake they can take and if they are really lucky, they can go over the lake.
They also only run one tour a day so as to not tire out the dogs.
Even when there isn’t snow on the ground, the dogs are getting plenty of exercise. Martin and Buser regularly take the dogs out paddle boarding and running. They will practice making turns and listening to commands while attached to the harness even when there isn’t snow.
While Sierra Husky Tours is fun for Martin to run, she said these dogs are first and foremost their pets.
“They are all family dogs.”
To sign up for a tour, visit www.sierrahuskytours.com.
This article appears in the winter 2020 edition of Tahoe Magazine.