DARBY – It would be wrong to underestimate the power of a sled dog.
“If you tied the dogs directly to your sled, they could literally tear a sled apart,” Nicki Arndt said as she went through the familiar task of preparing her sled for a training run near her home in Darby.
Her four dogs raced back and forth in their nearby kennel as Arndt attached the sled bag designed to carry one in case of an injury.
She checked the gang line attached to different parts of aged wooden sled before giving the shock cord a pull as she hooked in the lines that will connect her dogs to the sled. Arndt dropped the heavy steel snow hook on the ground and drove it into the hard pack with her foot.
“It’s like an emergency brake,” she said. “Or maybe a boat anchor.”
Last, there’s the quick-release line attached to a nearby tree that will keep her team from racing off without her.
The excitement was starting to build in the nearby kennel.
Every time you add a dog to the sled line, the power of the team grows far beyond the brute strength of that single animal.
“It’s not linear,” Arndt said. “You’re adding more drive and enthusiasm with every dog you bring in. It’s like adding nitro to your car.”
After 23 years – including time spent on the competitive circuit – Arndt knows the kind of excitement that mushing offers for both canines and humans.
“It’s addicting,” she said. “Once you try it, it’s hard to not want to do it again and again.”
Next weekend, Jan. 16-17, people will have a chance to see what mushing is all about when nearly two dozen mushers from three states and Canada converge at Lost Trail Pass for the eighth annual Darby Dog Derby.
The free event gets started at 9:30 a.m. both days with a skijoring competition followed by dog-sled races with eight, six and four-dog teams. There will also be junior competition where youngsters complete a two-mile course behind two dogs.
On Saturday, after the races conclude, a lucky group of 10 youngsters will have an opportunity to give mushing a try in peewee division. Sign-ups happen on the morning of the race.
Emma McDowell of Darby was one of those lucky youngsters to enter the peewee event.
This year, the second-grader will be participating in the two-mile junior race behind two of Arndt’s dogs.
Her mother, Hilary, said it’s been an amazing experience to see her daughter learn how to handle the sled dogs and the solitude of the trail.
“For the last three years, she raced in the peewee race,” Hilary McDowell said. “We went out to support this unique event for our valley. It’s such a great winter sport.”
When Arndt offered to teach her daughter about mushing and caring for sled dogs, Hilary McDowell said it was an opportunity that they couldn’t pass by.
The second-grader committed her time to learn how to care for the dogs at Arndt’s kennel. She learned how to harness them and put boots on their paws. And she learned about their nutritional needs and water requirements.
“It’s not just a sled ride for her,” Hilary McDowell said. “She has jobs that she is required to do. In turn, I’ve seen her confidence and commitment level grow. She has to be responsible for the dog’s safety and her own out on the trail.”
The first time that Emma McDowell disappeared around the bend, her mother was struck with a case of motherly nerves.
“I was in tears at first,” Hilary McDowell said. “When she came back with a smile on her face, I was OK. Once she got back from being in the woods alone and showed that she could do the work, I knew this was going to be a good experience for her. We are so fortunate to live in this very special place.”
Sharing knowledge with others has become an important part of Arndt’s life.
“I’m to this time in my life where being competitive isn’t what it’s all about any more,” she said. “I don’t need to win. I do love helping kids get started. It’s really neat for me to watch their wonder as they discover this for themselves.”
Arndt knows there are many different ways to travel in the backwoods in the wintertime. She appreciates them all, especially when it comes time to put the annual race together.
“We couldn’t do this without the help of the local snowmobile and cross-country ski clubs,” she said. “The Bitterroot Ridgerunners go out before the race and put out all the trail markers and then pick up all that stuff afterwards. The Bitterroot Cross Country Ski club arranges for all the grooming.”
Local businesses also help sponsor the event.
“All of them have been just great to work with and very supportive of the race,” Arndt said.
When it comes to exploring the backwoods on a cold winter day, Arndt said she’ll stick with mushing for myriad reasons.
She loves working with her dogs.
“What people don’t understand is that dogs just want to run, and it’s your job to keep them on the trail,” Arndt said. “A musher is like a coach of a team. You take this group of working parts and guide them so they all work together.”
An old musher told her once that a good musher doesn’t need the fastest team to win. They just need to have the team that makes the least mistakes.
Beyond even that, Arndt loves the soft sound of runners on snow and the sight of her team working as one as it races through the quiet backwoods.
“I know when there’s a squirrel alongside the trail,” she said. “I see the flick of my dogs’ ears as they run by. You really become part of the nature that surrounds you.”