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Snow dogs

By anyone's estimation, 10-year-olds Bert, Ernie, Elmo and Grover are over the hill. Their elder compatriots, Tika and Pebbles, should have long since retired.

But because they still love to run, Mike and Stacy Motschenbacher will keep hauling the dogs into nearby mountains to train two days per week until they no longer bolt for the sled. The Alaskan huskies don't care that they finished dead last at a Mount Hood race earlier this month. This weekend's event at Chemult is another chance to chase the competition.

"Right now, it's a hobby," says Stacy Motschenbacher, 41.

"If we didn't hook 'em to a sled they'd just take off running on their own," says Mike Motschenbacher, 55.

For that reason, the 14 dogs must wait — chained to a cable on the Motschenbachers' pickup — before being escorted one at a time to their position on the gang line. Elmo, a reliable lead dog, trembles with excitement. Too shy to meet strangers, 9-year-old Zoom hides under the pickup until it's his turn.

When the Motschenbachers leave the parking lot together to inspect the trail, the pack howls inconsolably until the couple return. But once the teams are off, the only sounds are rhythmic panting and the swish of runners on snow until Mike Motschenbacher's sled tips over on the first curve.

Dragged on his side for several feet, Motschenbacher struggles to hang on and right the sled before the dogs can take off without him. Heedless of verbal cues, the team keeps pulling, fueled by sheer instinct and canine delight.

The Motschenbachers laid the foundation for their two dog teams more than a decade ago with the purchase of Tika, now 11, in Alaska. A trip to watch dog-sledding at Diamond Lake sparked the couple's interest in the sport.

"It looked pretty fun, and one of the mushers gave Stacy a ride," says Mike Moteschenbacher, a veterinarian.

"We thought we could stop with one puppy," Stacy jokes.

The addition of another female, Pebbles, allowed the Rogue River residents to breed six of their own sled dogs. More recently, the couple succumbed to the current trend in the racing world, composing a sprint team of pointer- or hound-like dogs, with the purchase of Gemi and Fiji.

"The people who are winning now have those types of dogs," says Sunriver musher Polly Riley.

In their heyday, the Motschenbachers won almost every race they entered, about six events per year around the Pacific Northwest, including a 300-mile stage race near Bend in 2002 and 2003. Debuting at the Chemult Dog Sled Races about 11 years ago, the couple has competed in 43 events.

"Mike and Stacy were top of the heap for several years," Riley says.

Now that the Motschenbachers' dogs are older, the couple confines most of their racing to four- or six-mile sprints. Mike Motschenbacher is entered with a team of six dogs in this weekend's six-mile event, while his wife will take four dogs on the four-mile sprint.

Racing classes, which also include skijoring, or cross-country skiing behind one or two dogs, offer purses between $250 and $800. As of Monday, 44 teams had entered the 14th annual event, says organizer John Bambe.

"I'm hoping we'll finish in the middle of the pack," Motschenbacher says.

They stand a better chance if the trail firms up. Similar to conditions at Mount Hood, the day's training run at Thousand Springs Sno-Park is in sloppy, slushy, knee-deep snow. The Motschenbachers decide against encouraging the dogs too much for fear they'll injure their shoulders making tracks in the mire. The dogs can run 20 mph for short bursts, the couple says.

"At Chemult, usually it's a hard and fast trail, and we'll show better," Mike Motschenbacher says.

After this weekend, one more race near California's Sierra Nevadas is one the agenda. The year's highlight, however, is a February trip to Prineville to help Forest Service officials document wild Mustangs' winter range. The Motschenbachers say they were tapped because dog sleds won't scare off the horses like snowmobiles would.

The couple is still on the fence about breeding another team but figures they'll always want about five dogs so they can take a sled out and "fool around." Before acquiring their dogs, the couple used to dread the cold season, Stacy Motschenbacher says. But the past 10 years, she adds, have given them 14 reasons — to be exact — for favoring snow.

"It got to the point where we couldn't wait for winter."

Mike Motschenbacher and his sled dogs whiz around a corner at Thousand Springs Sno-Park while training for the Chemult Sled Dog Races that take place this weekend. - Jim Craven