Even in Orange County, they’re ‘born to pull’


COSTA MESA — If you’re lucky, you just might see them: a pack of six Siberian huskies flying through the morning fog with an “urban musher” in tow.

To spare his team of dogs from training in the midday heat, Rancy Reyes, 50, an urban musher from Costa Mesa, said he trains his huskies — all rescue animals — early in the morning and late at night.

“We are very cognizant of the heat,” Reyes said of the heavily furred dogs that are more at home in snowy climates than sunny Orange County, but are “born to pull.”

Next week, Reyes’ dogs, along with several others owned by other county residents, will test their speed and endurance at the American Dog Derby, an annual dog sledding race since 1917 in Ashton, Idaho.

Reyes will race a team of six huskies — two of his own and four borrowed from Matt and Claire Mardesich, of Three Dog Bakery, an all-natural dog food maker in San Clemente — in a 24-mile race spanning two days. Some of the other races staged at the derby cover greater distances — up to 100 miles, he said.

“[The mushers] have been surprised, but very welcoming,” San Clemente resident Bruce Stegmaier, 54, said of their snow-savvy competitors. “I think it’s a bit like someone from South Dakota entering in a surfing competition.”

Stegmaier will also be racing a team of six dogs.

Not only have most of the competing mushing dogs been born and bred in snowy conditions, but they’ve been trained to mush since they were pups, he said.

Huskies have too much energy and become anxious if not properly exercised. However, when Reyes brought home his first dog six years ago, he found that walking or even running with the dog wasn’t enough.

“You try walking a husky, and your arm gets yanked out of the socket,” said Reyes, who owns three huskies.

Stegmaier, owner of Alpine Outfitters, a Costa Mesa-based mushing equipment supplier, said his huskies and most of the other huskies that belong to urban mushers are animals rescued by shelters.

“We feel like we have the Rat Pack going up there,” Stegmaier said with a laugh.

In preparation for the race, the dogs stretch their leg muscles by bounding along Orange County’s coastal trails, including those in Newport Beach’s Back Bay and Costa Mesa’s Fairview Park. Sometimes the husky pack can be seen passing down Coast Highway.

“I’ve had people actually pull over their car to get out and take a picture,” Reyes said.

Urban mushers ride behind the dogs on a scooter or sled modified with wheels. Stopping at intersections can be tricky for urban mushers, especially when the lead dog is 25 feet out in front of the sleigh.

“I don’t have reins like you do on a horse,” Reyes said.

The dogs respond to verbal commands such as “gee” for right-turns and “haw” for left-turns.

Urban mushers also gather their dogs to train, when they’re able to, in the mountains, such as Mammoth — then the dogs really show what they’re made of, Reyes said.

“A seasoned musher once told me that if a team can run so many miles in the dirt, then they can run one-and-a-half times that amount in the snow,” Reyes said.

In the snow, the cooler weather and lighter weight of a regular sled enables the dogs to use their energy more efficiently, Reyes said.

However, because the Idaho event will be the first big-time race for their teams of dogs, Reyes and Stegmaier are not putting too much pressure on the dogs to win.

For these urban mushers, it’s about the dogs and what makes them — not their owners — happy and healthy.

“These are real sled dogs,” Reyes said. “But, these are also our pets.”