Truckee dog owners love their pets. They’re devoted to providing long walks in the snow, warm beds for sleep and even some occasional pampering.
But for Brain Maas and his crew at Wilderness Adventures Dog Sled Tours, the ideas of love and devotion take on a whole new meaning.
Maas, a 32-year-old Truckee resident, bought his first two sled dogs about nine years ago as a way to pull his snowboard and mountain bike farther into the backcountry.
He didn’t know that his thirst for adventure would land him with a successful dog sled touring company, a massive kennel and vet bills that rival college tuition.
But now that he has all those things, plus 80 high-energy huskies and a shot at the Iditarod, Maas says he would never give them up.
Three sleds pulled by 30 Alaskan and Siberian huskies come to an abrupt halt in front of the Inn at Sugar Bowl. Families exit the toboggans with smiles and chatter. Maas and his two-woman crew, 22-year-old Wisconsin twins Kristy and Anna Berington, give individual pats and praise to each dog, all of which have either lay down in the snow or have begun to eat it.
The dogs are small and lean, much smaller than you might expect, but Kristy Berington says it’s because Hollywood paints a different picture of the animals by using purebred pooches in movies that have anything to do with sled dogs.
The Berington girls, both tall, blond and athletic, moved to California in October specifically to work with Maas and his dogs. They grew up sprint racing sled dogs in their hometown of Port Wing, Wisc., pop. 250. The women say they can’t imagine doing anything different, and if all goes according to plan, they too will someday mush in the Iditarod.
Mushing, as driving a dog sled is called, was derived from the French word “marche,” which means “to walk.” And walk they do, both animals and mushers, for tens, then hundreds of miles through the snow, the cold and the dark.
Maas’s dogs, like many high-performance sled dogs, are trained to run more than 100 miles a day for more than 10 days straight. The animals will learn to pace themselves so that uphill or down they will move at a constant rate between 10 to 25 miles and hour. Mushers help with this too by calling commands and applying the brakes.
“You never want to be dead weight,” Maas says.
He and the twins move constantly, frequently running well over 10 miles a day. But none of them have a problem with it because to succeed in the Iditarod, mushers must be able to run daily marathons in the snow for up to 17 days straight.
But the work doesn’t stop when the sled does. Maas and the Beringtons are perpetually sleep deprived, managing only about four or five hours a night, every night.
“It’s got to be a passion,” Maas says. “It takes a real drive and real motivation.”
The girls, who are living in a 9×9 dorm-like room at the kennel, are often up first for a moon-lit morning run. Then there are 65 grown dogs and 15 puppies to feed and clean up after. If it snowed, 80 dog houses have to be shoveled. Mass, a carpenter by trade, built all those houses by hand.
The upkeep is never-ending. If a dog chewed apart its harness, that has to be replaced. Worn feet need to be treated. Sore muscles need rub-downs. The sled track needs to be groomed.
Oh yea, and Maas has a wife and two young children.
“They’re athletes,” Maas says of his canine crew. “They’re treated like marathon runners or Lance Armstrong. I spend more time cooking for them than myself.”
But even as Maas talks about the effort, the cost ” $13,000 per year for each dog ” and the exhaustion, he is smiling. The dogs and the sport have become his passion.
He knows every dog by name. He knows their personalities, their feet, the way they run.
And they know him just as well.
“I had to learn everything by myself, and I fell in love with it,” Maas says of mushing. “You’re going to get out what you put in, and it’s so worth it.”
The Berington girls feel the same way. It’s 8 p.m. and they’ve been mushing customers all day, and they still have at least four hours of work ahead of them. But their eyes are wide and they’re smiling.
“It’s totally different than what anybody else does,” Kristy Berington says.
She doesn’t seem to have a problem with the fact that her social life is minimal or that she sleeps with 80 dogs. In fact, she says she’s been saving her pennies to get her own.
“You spend so much time with the dogs they become your best friends,” Anna Berington says. “You get attached, and I don’t want to leave them.”
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