The air is a din of yelping, whining and barks. A red streak in the snow serves as a starting line, beyond which a man with a stopwatch counts, “three, two, one ...”
Nancy Coffelt leans back; her dogs strain forward. It is their first race of the day, and owner and dogs bristle with nervous energy.
And they’re off.
For most of the year, Nellie, Nelson, Suri and Ennis are house dogs, the kind that curl up on couches and look guilty for digging through the trash. But a few times each winter, whatever primal pulling instinct still dwells inside them surfaces, and for a few brief, cold minutes, they’re answering the call of the wild, strapped to a sled driven by Coffelt and racing over deep snow.
The dogs yelp with excitement and pull against the guiding line connecting them to Coffelt, the dogs’ churning paws creating a miniature blizzard in their wake. A man in a black jacket with red trim holds up his stopwatch — she makes it out of the gate and around a bend in 35 seconds, not bad for a rookie at the Frog Lake run.
Usually the province of majestic, loping huskies in faraway, snow-blown states, this is a side of sled dog racing rarely seen, driven by the weekend warriors and their raggedy crews of mixed breeds.
Some Cascade Sled Dog Club mushers use the dogs typically associated with sled dog racing — the thick-tailed, gray-and-white huskies that look born to run in snow.
But most mushers run dogs that look like, well, regular dogs.
“If you’re training for the Iditarod, this is probably not first on your list of places to go,” said organizer Kate Stinson.
The nonprofit club promotes what it calls “dog-powered sports of all kinds,” with dogs pulling people on sleds, skis or bikes — a non-snow activity known as “bikejoring.”
Each dog, like the people who drive them, has its own story. Nellie, one of Coffelt’s dogs, has long, amber fur that betrays her golden retriever heritage. Suri was born on a subzero night in Alaska. All of his half-husky, half-Labrador littermates froze and died. Coffelt adopted him and nicknamed him “Survivor.”
Other mushers have their own stories. And like nearly every dog story since the existence of dogs and stories, most have a sad ending. Dogs get old and die or the infirm are put down, a last and heart-wrenching act of compassion by an owner.
“You get used to death after a while,” Coffelt said.
Most mushers explain their obsession with dog sledding by explaining their first failures of dog adoption.
There was Roy, who was a jerk, and there was a malamute that killed another dog. There were difficult dogs and aggressive dogs and some dogs too wild for an apartment. But the mushers went back to the shelters and tried again.
Their draw to the sport came in myriad ways too. Coffelt and her husband are empty-nesters looking for something to do.
“The kids know it’s Mom’s thing now, and they don’t say boo,” Coffelt said.
To others, it was a one-time trial that turned into a years-long obsession. One Washington state vanity license plate read, “WE MUSH.”
The club wants to show dog owners that any pup is a potential sled dog. “Give us a dog that wants to work and its human that wants to go for a ride, and we’ll harness that energy,” the club says on its website.
“Work,” in this context, is a dog’s primal urge to pull when harnessed, a trait that is less helpful on early-morning Sunday walks but works well on the skijor, which puts a driver on skis tied to two dogs.
Dogs operate oppositionally, meaning the tighter a musher tugs on the line, the harder a dog will pull. Unlike humans, sled dogs should generally run on an empty stomach — food in the stomach can cause the organ to twist.
Dogs learn from one another, Stinson said. An inexperienced dog will learn in a pack of other dogs what is expected of him or her, and within weeks understands the general contours of racing.
Founded in 1959 as the Northwest Sled Dog Club, the group held its first race in 1961 in Oregon’s Santiam Pass.
To promote the club, in 1962, founders Art Christensen and Will Koolger took mail by dog sled from a ski area in central Oregon to Sisters, Ore., about 20 miles away, the first time mail was delivered in the state by dog sled.
It’s a tradition imported from Alaska, where the Iditarod, a distance race, is run more than 1,000 miles over several days. Small races, like the one at Frog Lake, are sprints of four or six miles.
In the first race of the season, the snow gods have been kind. For two years, the Cascade Sled Dog Club ran races each January over snow that was thin and icy. But now, thanks to El Niño, the people of Mt. Hood are rejoicing.
Sleds pulled by dogs need at least 8 to 10 inches of snow to operate a snow hook, which digs into the ground behind the sled and functions as a kind of emergency brake.
Sledders primarily run on fast trails groomed by snowmobiles, shouting “gee” to tell the dogs to pull right and “haw” to command them left.
Coffelt imports her dogs from Alaska, but has no ambition to race her dogs past Oregon. With a steady, icy wind blowing off the mountain, she rounds a bend, Nellie and Suri in the lead.
One hundred yards from the noise and chaos of the starting line, towering, snow-draped conifers lean overhead, bordering the trail on both sides. The dogs finally shush, their eyes trained forward, hot breath fogging the air in front of their muzzles.
With just the snow shushing under the sled’s skis, silence envelops them all.