Running with the dogs
DIAMOND LAKE — The team of four huskies pulls Laura Crocker and her sled down a groomed trail, heading toward dog mushers’ nirvana.
Left behind is the howling of hyped-up huskies tethered to Crocker’s pickup, which builds to a crescendo as one by one she hooks the harnessed dogs to the cable just before takeoff.
They’re muscling down the trail now, and as the rumblings of nearby snowmobiles disappear into the trees around Diamond Lake, the 16-pawed orchestra begins to play.
“If it’s really quiet, you can hear the pitter-patter of their feet going on the snow and nothing else, not another sound,” Crocker says. “It’s just so magical.”
Crocker has been chasing this mushers’ magic in one form or another since childhood, and for the past two decades this 80-year-old is living proof that the view really does change even if you’re not the lead dog.
Crocker will run this weekend in sled-dog races at Diamond Lake sponsored by the Cascade Sled Dog Club and Pacific Sled Dog and Skijor Association. It’s one of the main events for a cadre of Rogue Valley mushers who train year-round — pulling ATVs in dry weather — for the chance to mush through groomed snow around Diamond Lake in regular training runs as well as races.
Crocker regularly trains in the snow with fellow Trail resident and musher Jan Purkeypile, a 15-year veteran who along with Crocker runs Siberian huskies bred from dogs owned by Cari Hinesly of Rogue Valley mushing fame.
Hinesly’s late husband, Terry Hinesly, completed the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in 1992, and though she no longer races dogs, Hinesly is still steeped in what is less of a sport and more of a lifestyle.
“It’s terribly addicting,” she says. “It becomes your life, if you let it.”
Crocker happened upon mushing as a young girl, watching her father — who was a U.S. Olympics hockey player who saw dog mushing during the 1932 Olympics at Lake Placid, New York — once hooked five mutts to a heavy sled to run in the rural Boston snow.
“I thought that really was something I wanted to do when I was older,” Crocker says.
But the time and place for huskies and sleds didn’t coalesce for Crocker until age 60, when she attended a Minnesota mushing school to learn the ins and outs of the sport.
Crocker and Purkeypile mostly train on dirt, having their teams pull ATVs on Southern Oregon logging roads and teaching mainly the lead dog the commands needed to guide the entire team.
“They get in pretty good shape before you get them on the snow,” Crocker says. “When I ran longer races, I’d get in 1,000 miles of training on your dogs before a race.”
They are trained to run always on the right side of the road to avoid snowmobiles on mix-use trails like the ones at Diamond Lake.
“Gee” means veer right. “Haw” means left. “Come Haw” is a left U-turn during their out-and-back mushing sessions.
The stop command is “Whoa, just like in the movies,” Purkeypile says. “We do say whoa, but we don’t say mush.”
That’s because they don’t need to be told to go.
“As soon as they can, they’re gone,” Purkeypile says.
Purkeypile’s lead dog is Scarlett, a smaller Alaskan husky that is so excited to run Purkeypile keeps her in the dog box as long as possible.
“She’s a squealer,” Purkeypile says. “They all get so excited you’ll need earplugs. They love to run.”
When Purkeypile pulls her sled onto the trail at the Diamond Lake Resort, the dogs know they’re close.
On her team this day are four dogs, but only three will be in this weekend’s races.
“I bring the 13-year-old because she likes to come,” Purkeypile says. “She does great on the way up, but on the way back she’s a little slow.”
Purkeypile and Crocker each lift the metal spikes anchoring their sleds in the snow, and the howl-fest begins to move.
Snowmobilers listening to the excited teams the past 20 minutes part way for the two teams that zip forward in single file at a 5-mph clip, and all those miles of pulling ATVs begin to pay off.
“When you get on the sled, you’re at the mercy of the dogs,” Purkeypile says.
More dogs doesn’t necessarily mean a faster pace, but more stamina for a longer run, Crocker says.
The huskies leave the resort with a clamor. They return an hour later nearly silent, the howling having been run right out of them for now. They are content to lap water from dishes while Crocker and Purkeypile deconstruct their sleds.
“They’re wonderful animals,” Crocker says. “These dogs are 12 and 13 years old. It’s tough on them, but they still want to get out and do it.”
Crocker used to run eight dogs, but she’ll need to borrow a few dogs to put together a six-dog team for the Diamond Lake race.
Crocker doesn’t plan on stepping off her sled’s runners any year soon.
“I’m running out of dogs, that’s my problem,” Crocker says. “I love it. I still love it.”