Dog Mushers Don’t Shout “Mush”

Oh no, that’s far too soft-sounding a word for the dogs to think you seriously want them to run at full speed. The command is something akin to a guttural “Ahhhhhhh,” “Let’s gooooo,” “Ready Hike!” and “Gooood Dogs.” And the dogs love that. It’s like a shot of straight adrenaline.

It’s adrenaline for Wally and Denise Glass as well. They opened Mountain Musher dog sledding business 22 years ago when they had 22 dogs and one sled.

“At first, the dogs didn’t know anything; and we didn’t know anything,” laughs Wally, who discovered that the dogs are like people, some shy, others gregarious; some agile, and others clumsy; some bright, others not quite so. Now the Glasses own 82 dogs, four sleds and they run two trips a day throughout the winter from the Lazy J Ranch in Wolcott.

“Now the dogs are better than ever, but Bill and I are going down hill,” Wally laughs again. Bill McKeon has been Wally’s right-hand man and musher since the inception of Mountain Mushers.

In spite of the world’s economic woes, business is booming for the Glasses and Mountain Mushers. Waiting lists are not uncommon.

“We don’t get snooty people in fur coats, we get animal lovers,” says Wally with satisfaction.

And that’s precisely what corporate clients from cities love. When Cindy Clement, owner of Adventure Travel in Vail, books non-skiing activities for corporate clients, she finds they love the authenticity of it and meeting genuine mountain men. “Dog sledding is always the most popular of activities that I book,” she says. “It’s so far removed from life in the city and suits and ties.”

The half-day adventure begins when Bill picks up customers anywhere between East Vail and Wolcott, regales them with tales throughout the ride and builds anticipation of what awaits them.

And it is 68 dogs with shiny black noses protruding from circular openings inside transport boxes loaded on a three-tier truck that greet them. As the truck stops, the dogs bark a welcome in unison, straining to be noticed and chosen for the ride. Slowly, one by one, their kennels are opened and they leap into Wally’s arms as he struggles to contain their anxious and wiggling bodies. He doesn’t dare put them down until he has their harnesses attached. Wally insists they dress themselves. “I just slip the harness over their heads while holding them between my legs and they just walk into it,” he says.

It’s obvious the Mountain Musher dogs are well taken care of and well loved. Why else would they leap for joy when they greet Wally, kissing his hands and face, begging to be chosen for the day’s ride and certainly confirming that they are not abused, underfed nor forced to run and run and run.

“They absolutely love to go,” Denise says.

When the dogs get beyond nine or 10 years old and they can’t run anymore, Wally, Denise and daughter, Sarah, still care for them. When they were “working” they were fed a high-energy dog food.

Most of the dogs are huskies, but a couple of them are border collies and some are even stray mutts. “The ideal temperature for huskies to run is 20-degrees below zero because they have two layers of fur and no coat with a zipper to get rid of one,” Wally quips. “The dogs tell you when to stop working. Once it hits 50 (degrees), it’s way too hot and the snow starts to collapse under the sled and them.”

The dogs spend the nights and summers in the country on 40 acres surrounded by BLM land. Years ago when the Glasses were located closer to civilization, there were noise complaints. Now Denise and Wally live in a home that was a general goods store and gas station built in 1938 in Bond, Colorado.

Surprisingly, it is never the strongest, most powerful dogs commanding the lead. They are always in the back because that’s where the “real” pulling happens. The lead dogs usually are females.

“They’re smarter,” Wally declares. “And besides, they don’t stop to mark sagebrush like the males will do. Once one dog marks a sagebrush, all the males have to stop to mark it as well.”

The whole precise and exacting operation of hitching up the sleds takes some doing, but it is fun to watch and it provides photo opportunities. Almost all the canines are friendly and they love to be petted. A couple of shy ones tuck their tails and move as far away as their harness will allow.

While the dogs are being hitched to sleds, that are actually handmade baskets, mushers tuck pillows and blankets around the guests. Once the last dog is hitched up, the dogs are off at full speed.

“There are three things to remember,” Bill said on the drive to the ranch, “never let go, never let go, never let go.” Not to fear, the mushers seem to know just how far they can push the envelope around curves to remain upright.

The scenery will vary from aspen groves and rock formations to random clumps of sagebrush popping through the snow; flocks of birds swooping nearby, even small herds of unperturbed white-tailed deer.

Eventually, Wally will pull the dogs to a stop and guests will be treated to hot chocolate poured from a thermos and moist, yummy pumpkin bread made by Denise.

Born in McCoy, northwest of Vail, Denise has spent all her life in Eagle County, but she’s definitely not the outdoorsy type, preferring to run the business from their home. She still seems in awe of their success catering to 1,700 to 2,000 people on rides each year. “We were so worried when we bought our fourth sled,” she confesses.

Wally, who also is a Colorado native, having been born in Walden, is in his element.

“I love this job,” he shouts over the swoosh of the sled and pounding feet of the dogs. “It lets me be a kid again and I get a lot of respect.”

It’s a sure bet that guests, will not only give him respect, but feel like kids again as well.