Unleashed Potential

Customer satisfaction is the name of the game in the guiding industry. Success should be judged by everyone having a safe, fun outing regardless of the activity. If the clients don't go home with big smiles and fond memories, the guide has failed—even if fish were caught, elk were killed, or big rapids were run. The guiding life is just as much about entertainment as it is about sharing the wonders of nature.

Over the past decade I’ve had the honor of working with some incredibly hilarious people—folks that would put forth amazing efforts to make sure their clients had a wonderful time. However, none of my comical cohorts can compare to my favorite coworkers of all time—the sled dogs that perform daily tours near Chico Hot Springs. The crazy antics of my canine companions never fail to delight even the most melancholy tourists. These furry spazzes make Jeff Foxworthy and his redneck friends seem lame and predictable in comparison.

Working sled dogs are like no other type of dog. They are the happiest, most joyous canines imaginable. It is probably due to their lifestyle: they get tons of exercise, lots of raw meat, and don't get in trouble for rolling in smelly stuff. Basically, they lead the life all dogs dream about.

The kennel I did tours for had over 60 dogs. Every one of them had a unique personality. However, the common thread among them was boundless energy and a playful spirit. But these traits, as positive as they are, frequently got my four-legged friends in trouble.

Polson was my favorite dog buddy. He was a big, powerful Husky/Malamute mix. He could have easily been the most handsome sled dog of all time. If a casting director from Walt Disney ever went on one of our tours, ol' Polson would have become a movie star. He was just as charismatic as he was beautiful.

Polson came to the kennel through the Humane Society. He was a three-time convicted felon—he was just too much dog for a suburban backyard. The shelter knew he would never fit into a regular family situation—he needed a place that he could burn off some of his energy in a positive way. So, they figured they'd try to place him in a working environment. Polson took to his new life and job like Luke Skywalker took to flying—he was born to do it. However, running 10 miles a day often wasn't enough for our doggie hero. He still had excess energy to unleash.

If Houdini was reincarnated, he came back to earth as Polson the sled dog. Polson never met a chain, fence, or person he could not get away from—he was an incredible escape artist. And when he got away, see ya' sucker.... he was gone! I was warned about Polson time and time again. My coworkers stressed to me the importance of having a firm grip on Polson's collar before moving him from truck to kennel or gang line. For a while, I listened. But, as time wore on I came to know Polson better and I began to trust the gentle giant. Those big brown eyes wouldn't mislead me—we had a bond that the other mushers didn't understand. So I thought.

One day after a short tour the clients were enamored with the beauty of the dogs. They were going on and on about how great the dogs where. I figured they hadn't seen anything yet, because they had not met Polson, who was waiting in the back of the truck to perform for the next tour group. So, against my better judgment I went and got him to show him off. The tourists were totally in awe as I walked the strutting kennel king toward them. Those smoldering stares soon changed to hysterical, knee-slapping theatrics as Polson went from acting like a calm, cool, and collected canine to a Red Bull-fueled professional wrestler, knocking me down, then stomping on me and taking off like a doggie cannonball.

For two solid hours, I chased that dog in circles. Polson and I probably set a new world record for the longest game of keep away. The first group of laughing clients was replaced by the second group, and the hoo-hawing never ceased. All eyes joyfully watched as I flailed, floundered, and fell in the fresh snow but never caught the beloved beast. It was a lesson in humility that I will never forget. The best part about it, though, was the entertainment value. Our clients loved it! The tips and comments rolled in at the end of the day, like we had just harvested a Boone and Crockett elk. We may not have seen too many horizons that day, but we showed our guests one helluva time that they will always look back on with a smile. And that, after all, is the goal.

Race to the Sky
This February marks the 22nd annual Race to the Sky sled-dog race. The Iditarod qualifier starts February 9 at Camp Rimini, goes through Deer Lodge, then on to Lincoln, Cane Ridge, Ovando, Seeley Lake, a wilderness checkpoint, and back to Seeley Lake and Lincoln for the big awards ceremony on February 15. Back in the day, the race used to be two races—an incredible 500-miler and a 250-miler. Then it became a 500-miler and a 300-miler before settling into the 350-mile race we know today.

Only recently did the race start from historic Camp Rimini; weather had always been a problem. The camp is near and dear to mushers' hearts because it is the former site of a WWII War Dog Training and Reception Center that prepared over 800 sled dogs, 100 pack dogs, and 125 mushers for the invasion of Norway. When the invasion never happened, the center closed after only a year and a half and the dogs moved on to search and rescue jobs all over the world. In some cases, the teams traveled to mountainous plane-crash sites. Some of those former military mushers are still around today.

The Race to the Sky takes a ton of work, and volunteers are always welcome. All events are free. Come to the big start on the 9th and bid for a ride with one of the mushers—the winner gets to ride the first five miles of trail with an official entrant on February 11! Visit racetothesky.org or call 406-881-DOGS for more info.

-Tina Orem