Exploring the backcountry by dog sled
The Huskies were restless when I arrived.
To them, the 30-degree temperature at 10 a.m. on this overcast Tuesday morning represented a balmy, comfortable winter day – a perfect day to trudge through the snow.
Through custom-made cages in the back of Brian Maas’s 2004 Ford F-350, 60 eager Husky eyes peered out at me, desperate to feel the fresh powder off Cabin Creek Road (off Highway 89 South outside Truckee) on their paws.
This area represents the terrain encompassing the new backcountry trails acquired by Wilderness Adventures, owned by Maas and his wife Deanne. The company recently required a permit to use the area for its dog sled tour business. Maas, his wife, and a crew of six make up the human element of Wilderness Adventures.
On this day, the dogs, a mix of Alaskan and Siberian Huskies, are preparing to take four unsuspecting people on an adventure through the mountains west of Martis Valley. Including me, Kimberly Quirk, Jennifer Carrier and Sierra Sun photographer Josh Miller are the lucky customers.
Singularly, or in pairs, the dogs are led out of the truck by Maas and three assistants, Lisa Young, Jim Bender and JohnLars Lindberg, to three sleds lined up facing wide-open nature and snow-covered pines.
Like football players in a locker room before a battle on the gridiron, the dogs bark at each other and aggressively tangle as they are anxious to pull the sleds. Some jump in place in their harnesses. Their yelping and howling eventually tower over the sound of a human voice.
Finally, the last dog is harnessed.
My sled will go first, with Maas as the musher, and the other two will trail, led by Lindberg and Bender. Young, in training at the moment, rides in my sled in order to study Maas’s techniques.
“Hike!” yells Mass, and the dogs answer their favorite command, which means “Go!” The football analogy still fits.
The dogs immediately get quiet and pull with all their might, moving the sled easily. The snow is extra soft due to heavy snowfall during the last week, so the dogs will have to work hard to get up steep terrain.
Today is a trial run in the area, but eventually the tour will incorporate a 10-mile loop ending at Cabin Creek Road, instead of beginning at that point.
The first half of this trek is mostly up hill, and eventually the riders have to get out of their sleds and help push. Each time we stop, Smoky, a two-year-old Alaskan full of energy, is the first one to whine about being stationary. The other dogs soon chime in.
The mushers make a decision to turn around a few miles in, which makes for a speedy downhill return back to our vehicles. After completing today’s journey, the dogs are given bowls of water baited with tuna fish.
This winter, the 29-year-old Maas has added the backcountry feature to the business he started six years ago.
“I really wanted to get into it, and Deanne really supported me,” Maas said. “It’s taken a lot of work, but it’s been worth it.”
Along with the excitement of watching the dogs work together, Wilderness Adventures uses the boundless beauty of the Sierra as the main attraction of the business. It also poses no threat to the breadth of that beauty, unlike a lot of modern businesses.
“We’re no impact, extremely environmental-friendly, and I’m preserving an age-old tradition that is dying,” Maas said. “I’m also serving a public interest.”
Wilderness Adventures also leads tours through area ski resorts like Sugar Bowl, Squaw Creek and Northstar-at-Tahoe. The backcountry run will add another exciting feature.
Maas, a musher for almost nine years, is completely self-taught and learned through reading books and trial-and-error experience. His dream is to one day compete in the Iditarod, a 1,049-mile sled dog race over the rugged terrain of Alaska.
“That’s my life goal, but I have to get a lot of sponsorship to do it,” he said.
For now, the serenity of the Sierras has been a perfect place for his business to grow.
“I moved out to a spot in the woods that was hidden, so we ended up doing this,” he said.
With a small sled and only four dogs originally, Maas began experimenting with the sport in his early 20s.
Lana, one of the original four and a natural leader, has a special connection to Maas because she was born six days apart from his six-year-old daughter, Ravyn. Maas also has a two-year-old son Elias.
Tekoa, Maas’s first dog that inspired him to fall in love with the Husky breed, does not pull anymore, but Maas describes her as the mascot of his business. Blew and Xena, who Maas found on his honeymoon in Washington, round out the original cast of characters that turned a pastime into a lifetime for Maas.
In nine years, Maas has increased his dog lot to 65, which he keeps in a kennel at his house. Maas always has fresh dogs to pull his sleds, an advantage during the busy tourist weeks like Christmas and New Year’s.
How does he tell his 65 children apart?
“I know them all by their personalities,” he said.
Now Maas exclusively breeds his own dogs, and he takes pride in choosing characteristics he likes in certain dogs to instill in his breeds.
“These dogs have been bred for 5,000 years to do this, and as you can see all they want to do is pull,” Maas said. “They’re also bred for negative 60-degree weather. This is nothing, they’re warm right now.”
The two different breeds work well together because their builds contrast to create a perfect blend of pulling power. The Siberians are stronger and tougher, and their thick coats allow them to withstand normally unbearably cold temperatures. The Alaskans are bred almost specifically for the sport. They are thinner, leaner and more athletic.
And these children need their fuel to work. The dogs’ daily food bill runs from $60 to $75.
“I actually met Brian in CostCo buying about 70 bags of dog food,” said Young, who is also a white water rafting guide in the summer. “So I said, ‘Hey, do you have a few dogs, or what?'”
And Huskies won’t give up unless they’re told to.
“You think they’d be tired, but they just keep going,” Maas said. “They don’t even care.”
Just like Maas knows what he likes in his dogs, Maas began building his own sleds a few years ago using his background in carpentry. He grew tired of buying new sleds for $1,500, so he learned how to build an equal-quality product for a lot cheaper.
“I bought a few from Montana and a few from Canada,” Maas said. “The shipping alone can cost $200. I started looking at the features of the sleds I was buying, and I didn’t like all of them. I figured out what I liked about certain ones and created my own style. I don’t think I’d be able to run this business without my carpentry skills.”
For customers who ride in Maas’s custom sleds, Wilderness Adventures provides a unique way to enjoy the winter wonderland around Truckee.
Quirk, 25, and her friend Carrier, 27, were vacationing and skiing in the Truckee area resorts when they were invited to come along through Lindberg.
Quirk, from San Francisco, was in disagreement with the dogs about the temperature, but she said she had a good time.
“My feet were getting cold just sitting in the sled, so I had to get out and help push to warm up,” she said. “It was awesome.”
Carrier, visiting Quirk and her family all the way from New York, compared the scenery of the tour to a dream.
“It was like a Norwegian fairytale,” she said.
Wilderness Adventures has not yet decided what to charge for a backcountry tour. Maas said he also wants to eventually guide catered night tours where guests can camp overnight in a large tent.
Tours are available seven days a week, weather permitting. For more information, visit the Wilderness Adventures Web site at http://www.dogsledadventure.com, or call 550-8133. Past articles from the Tahoe World and Sierra Sun can be accessed from our Web site at http://www.sierrasun.com.