Snow dogs: sledding makes comeback | SierraSun.com

Snow dogs: sledding makes comeback

Erich Sommer, Sierra Sun
Erich Sommer/Sierra SunBrian Maas gives his 10 Alaskan and Siberian Huskies a breather on the way towards mid mountain at Sugar Bowl. Maas and Wilderness Adventures offer tours at Sugar Bowl in the late afternoon and in the evening.
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Wilderness Adventures offers something refreshingly different.

While most resort and recreational activities these days try to eliminate every possible inconvenience and offer visitors delightful distractions like gourmet food, satellite television, foot warmers, championship golf and private spas, the Truckee-based dogsledding company simply offers customers a unique way to sit back and take in the Sierra.

After giving the command that sets 10 eager-to-run Alaskan and Siberian huskies in motion, owner Brian Maas, 28, explained what drove him and his wife, Deanne, to start their own sledding business.

“To be out here at a time like this, this is why I do it. This is why I put in the hours, so I can come out at a time like this and see these dogs working together,” Maas said as we glided over the snow on a cold afternoon, towards the alpenglow on the upper reaches of Mount Judah and Lincoln.

“I’ll get out there, and all you hear is the runners [of the sled] for 20 or 30 miles. You almost get in a trance because it’s just so peaceful and so nice. And you’re just surrounded by the beauty of nature with the mountains and the peaks.”

And that is what the company offers customers, a trip out in the mountains and the peaks with the dogs.

“Nothing against snowmobiles – that is a way to get out as well – but I guess I’m more of a purist, and am into seeing the dogs work together … and I love to see them work in an element that they love,” Maas went on. “And I can go into the backcountry and the dogs will never break down … even if we do 50 to 80 miles a day.”

Wilderness Adventures’ dog sled rides are not, however, devoid of amenities. In addition to panoramic views and the fresh air on your face, Maas and employees do provide a warm blanket. And the blanket, along with other friends and family in the sled – sleds can comfortably hold up to two adults and two children – keeps everyone toasty as they are pulled along by the team of huskies that want nothing more than to run.

“The colder it is, the better they run,” Maas said. “They want to do this more than anything in the world.”

Like a sailor or a glider pilot that relies solely on the wind, Maas feels dog sledding is a purer mode of transport.

“I look at the business and at dogsledding and like to think of myself as kind of a conservationist who is keeping this age-old tradition alive,” said the Santa Cruz native.

But keeping old traditions alive doesn’t come easy.

“The easy part is running the sled,” said employee Jon Bullock.

The hard part, Bullock added, is the 18-hour days that training and properly caring for 50 dogs and five puppies requires.

“Training and knowing what do to if a dog is not doing well, that’s the hard part,” Bullock said.

Maas figures he spends several hours each day just preparing food and broth water for the dogs.

But running the business, and doing up to 12 rides a day, requires that many dogs.

“If I was just doing this for fun, I would probably have about 10 dogs. But now that it’s a business and I have to rotate them out every day, I need around 50.”

And out of his dozens of dogs, Maas is always looking for the special qualities that allow a dog to lead the pack.

“The dogs in front are a little smarter, and they pick up the commands. The other dogs just follow them, and the [dogs in front], they don’t even have to pull, they just have to pick up my command.”

At every intersection, the ears of the two lead dogs, Lana and Sierra, perk up and listen for Maas’s command.

“Gee” is right, “haw” is left and “On by” is forward.

The qualities of a good lead dog are often apparent when they’re still puppies, Maas said.

“It’s not necessarily the most aggressive dog, but the dog that is most eager to please,” he said. “But all our dogs are real friendly, they are good with people, they love attention and they love to be petted.”

Maas first got into dog sledding by reading about it in books and magazines about the Arctic. He got his first three dogs and began what would become a three-year trial and error training period.

“Training for me was learning everything that can possibly go wrong, because if it can, it probably will at some point,” he said.

But after getting some experience under his belt, his pack grew quickly.

“I went up to Alaska to watch the Iditarod … but everyone up there was telling me ‘Don’t get into this, it’s worse than drugs,’ And here I am, with 50 dogs,” he said with a laugh. “Some people I know just run teams of three or four dogs, but I just don’t see the excitement in that. I like to run bigger teams of 10 or 12 dogs.”

Not only is it their livelihood, but Maas, his wife and two children use dogsledding in a practical sense as well.

“We used to get in and out of our home in Russel Valley using the sled. It was a way of life for us, but it’s also my passion,” he said. “And I was into mountaineering and was doing a lot of snow camping, and this was a way for me to go farther and carry more gear … and climb more peaks.”

While that may sound spartan by today’s standards, remember that it was the mountains themselves that drew John Muir, Jack London and Ansel Adams, not the bed and breakfast inns.

Wilderness Adventures offers one-hour rides in the husky-drawn sled rides through the Martis Valley seven days a week at Northstar. They also do evening runs at Sugar Bowl by arrangement.

Wilderness Adventures can accommodate anyone from infants to senior citizens. Cost is $45 for children under 60 pounds, $90 for adults and children over 60.

Call 550-8133 for more information.