Slush Puppies: A couple offer tours of the Sierra with sled dogs
For many children growing up in the 1990s, the animated film “Balto” had an impact.
The film follows a half-wolf, half-husky on his journey leading a sled team pulling a diphtheria cure through Alaska.
While most kids who watched the movie dreamed of owning a brave dog that would pull them through a snowy landscape, Alyssa Martin made that dream come true.
Martin, who grew up in Truckee, watched shows on PBS about Alaskan sled dogs.
“I think I was about three years old when I told my mom I was going to miss her when I moved to Alaska with my dog,” Martin said. “I didn’t know you could do that in California.”
Shortly after watching “Balto”, Martin started his first “team”, which consisted of his little brother and their Labrador tied up with jump ropes and leading her.
She bought a real harness from a local dog store and started researching training. When she was 10, her grandparents bought her a sled, and by 12 she was driving dogs.
Martin’s partner, Rohn Buser, grew up with sled dogs in Alaska. Today, they own 13 dogs and run Sierra Husky Tours.
They describe Sierra Husky Tours as “a bunch of happy huskies who love sharing their adventure.”
Every winter, Martin, Buser and the 13 dogs lead two-hour tours around Lake Davis near Portola.
“It’s so quiet and beautiful,” Martin said of why she enjoys leading tours. “You can go out on a snowmobile, but it’s noisy and you’re moving too fast to really see anything and that’s why I like dog mushing.”
“I don’t think there’s anything better than going out in the snow behind a team of dogs,” added Martin. “It’s so peaceful and it’s so much fun watching them do what they love to do.”
According to Outdoor Dog World, people have been dog sledding since about 2000 BC. Primarily, the Inuit and indigenous peoples of northern regions like present-day Canada, Greenland, and Siberia use sled dogs to transport food and supplies.
The first dog sled race was held in 1850, from Winnipeg, Manitoba to St. Paul, Minnesota. One of the most famous dog sled races, the Iditarod travels 975 miles from Anchorage to Nome. The Iditarod Trail was frequently used for transportation during World War I and World War II, but is best known as the route taken by Lead Dog Balto and Lead Dog Togo to bring diphtheria serum to Nome.
A team consists of a lead dog or dogs (there can be two lead dogs at a time) who are in front, team dogs in the middle, and wheel dogs who are directly in front of the sled helping to pull the sled from and around corners or trees.
Martin and Buser’s dogs consist of lead dogs Porsche, Fiddler, Inca and Ruger; team dogs Strider, Punzel, Zelda, Kybur, Lobo, Bolt, and Aleu; and wheel dogs Finnick and Diesel.
Malamutes and huskies are the traditional sled dogs. Malamutes are bigger and stronger, so they are usually used to pull heavier loads over long distances.
Siberian huskies are long-distance runners, but Martin describes them as “free-thinkers,” while Alaskan huskies are a bit smaller and more willing to please their owners. Both breeds have thick double coats that keep them warm in the snow.
Martin and Buser have a combination of Siberian and Alaskan huskies.
Martin said they don’t always lead all the dogs at the same time. It depends on the weather and snow conditions.
“You know how we get Sierra cement, so if the snow is really sticky, we’ll take 12 out,” Martin. “If it’s more icy, if the snow is firmer, the sled slides more easily.
She also said it depends on the weight of the load on the sled. She’s smaller than Buser, so if it’s just her and one other person, they don’t need as many dogs. The sleds can accommodate a total family weight limit of 400 pounds.
Martin and Buser have a dual rider sled, which allows one of the guests to stand on the handlebars to give them a more authentic experience. In front of the pilots is the basket, which contains the other adult and two children.
Tours last two hours. It begins with guests meeting and petting the dogs while Martin and Buser explain the sled. They have several different trails around the lake that they can take and if they are really lucky they can cross the lake.
They also only run one tour per day so as not to tire the dogs.
Even when there is no snow on the ground, the dogs get plenty of exercise. Martin and Buser regularly take the dogs paddleboarding and running. They will practice making turns and listening to commands while attached to the harness, even when there is no snow.
Although Sierra Husky Tours are fun for Martin to run, she said these dogs are first and foremost their pets.
“They are all family dogs.”
To register for a tour, visit http://www.sierrahuskytours.com.
This article appears in the Winter 2020 issue of Tahoe magazine.