Sled dog racing becomes passion for local musher
Doug Wurzelbacher strokes Mack, who is in training to be a lead dog. Standing beside Mack is his father, Otto, who has been the lead dog for years. Photos by Shannon Morrow
3/24/2010 - Sled dog racing is one of those sports that most people don't know a lot about, but for those who do, it pretty much takes over their lives.
Doug Wurzelbacher is a good example of a dog musher that has dedicated his life to the sport. Wurzelbacher bought land just inside the Plumas County border, north of Chilcoot, in order to train his dogs without having to travel to snow.With 28 Alaskan Huskies in his kennel, keeping the dogs in shape is a full-time job. Wurzelbacher spends around $8,000 a year on dog food, in addition to the meat broth and meat snacks he uses for racing and training.
Wurzelbacher also has a fleet of sleds which he built. The race sleds are small and light, while the touring sleds can carry a family of four.
With so much time and energy devoted to his sport, it naturally became a business for Wurzelbacher. A professional kennel, sled dog touring and custom sled building are some of the services offered by his business, which he named Husky Mountain.
Wurzelbacher lives on the base of a distinct peak at the end of Doyle Grade, which he calls Husky Mountain. The peak is officially named Sugarloaf, which creates confusion with another peak named Sugar Loaf just 10 miles away in the northwest corner of Sierra Valley.
At approximately 6,000 feet in the northern Sierra Nevada mountains, Wurzelbacher is ideally located to be one of the only sled dog kennels in California that is competitive against dog mushers from northern states with colder climates.
Wurzelbacher, now 34-years old, moved from Pennsylvania 10 years ago and began working for a sled dog touring company in Tahoe.
After a year, Wurzelbacher knew he had to go big time, so he moved to Alaska and began working for a large kennel with 300 dogs.
After four seasons of apprenticing for others, Wurzelbacher bought several of his own dogs in Alaska and brought them back to California to begin his own kennel.
Several years of breeding and training grew Husky Mountain into a competitive kennel, and this past winter was Wurzelbacher's most successful season yet.
Husky Mountain raced in eight events this season, including the 350-mile Race to the Sky in Montana, which is considered one of the toughest races in the lower 48 states.
Wurzelbacher compared his last decade of becoming a dog musher to a rubber band being wrapped tighter and tighter, until it finally exploded this season.
Husky Mountain's "A-team" of 10 dogs has logged over 2,000 miles this season. In addition to the team that does the most racing, the kennel has several veteran dogs that are valuable in training the younger and upcoming dogs.
Wurzelbacher knows each one of the dogs well. He keeps track of how they're all related and learns their individual personalities.
Otto is Wurzelbacher's lead dog and came from Alaska.
"Otto is my man," said Wurzelbacher. "That dog will do more for me than 95 percent of people I know. He's my best friend. He sired half my kennel and toured with me when times were tough. The bond between me and him is 10-fold what anyone will ever have with a pet dog."
At eight years old, Otto is getting beyond his prime, but he's still running lead with his son, Mack, who is being groomed as the next lead dog.
Ultimately, Wurzelbacher has established himself as the alpha male, because he is the one who provides food and has to remain in control.
"When I'm in a bad mood, I need to clear my head before seeing the dogs," said Wurzelbacher. "They will pick up on my mood."
While on the trail for days during a race, Wurzelbacher provides warm meals, straw for the dogs to sleep on and massages for the dogs' sore muscles.
Wurzelbacher observes the gaits of his dogs closely, watching for fatigue and injuries.
Dog mushers are continually concerned about their dogs' feet and often put booties on the dogs' paws for protection. Wurzelbacher has gone through 900 pairs of dog booties.
The sport has many other expenses beyond the dogs, food, sleds, booties and other equipment.
To keep good snow for the dogs to train on, Wurzelbacher uses a snowmobile to groom a 50-mile trail, which takes a lot fuel and time.
Wurzelbacher also built a custom truck to haul his dogs.
Traveling to races and paying for entry fees also costs money, and Wurzelbacher is currently seeking sponsors.
As the business aspects of the kennel are demanding more of Wurzelbacher's time, he relies on a full-time handler to help feed and care for the dogs.
Still, most of the training is done by Wurzelbacher, and it's a year-round job to keep the dogs in shape. Once the snow's gone, Wurzelbacher hooks his team up to a modified golf cart, and the dogs pull it just like a sled.
One big consideration for mushers is the temperature. The attributes that allow sled dogs to thrive in cold weather make them vulnerable once the temperature gets above 55 degrees.
During the summer months, Wurzelbacher will sometimes get up at 3 a.m. and run the dogs a couple miles before the sun comes up.
As consuming as sled dog racing is, Wurzelbacher loves the sport and dreams of racing in Alaska with his own team.
Wurzelbacher would like to participate in the Yukon Quest, the 1,000-mile race that begins in Fairbanks, Alaska and follows the historic dog sled routes used for mail delivery.
Of course, the famous Iditarod also beckons, but Wurzelbacher is realistic about the race.
"More people have climbed Everest than have run in the Iditarod," said Wurzelbacher. "It's not an obsession."
To run in the Iditarod, teams need to participate in several qualifying races and finish within a set time. Even if he qualified, Wurzelbacher estimated it would take at least $25,000 to compete in the Iditarod.
"If I get sponsorship and qualify, I'm going to do it, but I'm not in a giant rush," said Wurzelbacher. "Most don't run the Iditarod until they're 40."
Most teams that enter the Iditarod are from Alaska. A few teams represent the Lower 48, Canada and other countries. Wurzelbacher is pretty sure that no team living in California has ever raced in the event.
Wurzelbacher loves the lifestyle it takes to be a dog musher, and he said some of his favorite experiences are simply camping with his dogs.
"But given my competitive nature, I can't help but race," said Wurzelbacher. "Given the dogs I have, it's something I want to do."