By GERALD E. YUNGLING
Inter Lake Advertising Writer
Although Martin Buser has completed this year's Iditarod
in record time, it's not too late for you to experience your
own Dog Sled Adventure right here in the Flathead Valley.
With the wind in my face, it was hard not to recall
such childhood heroes as Jack London's The Malamute Kid and
Sitka Charlie. The air was cold and crisp, yet I sat warmly
bundled in the dog sled, smoothly cruising through Stillwater
State Forest 20 miles northwest of Whitefish. The sound of
the sled's runners gliding through the freshly fallen powder
was broken only by the occasional "I-eep! Good dogs!"
as the driver, Jeff Ulsamer, called encouragement to the team
of 10 trotting ahead.
The powder was deep that morning and it was up
to our team to cut the trail for the two sleds behind. Ulsamer
would occasionally rest the team along the 12-mile trail but
the dogs would only sit for a minute - maybe less - before
they'd jump against their lines, jerking the sled in their
excitement. Pulling is in their blood. "Let's go Ulsamer
would call, and we were off again, through field and forest
on a dog sled adventure. "I-eeep! Good dogs!"
Ulsamer is just what you'd expect: a bearded bruin
of a man with a growling voice betrayed only by his warm honest
smile. A man who loves what he does, he began mushing 22 years
ago while living in Steamboat Springs, Colo. It's easy to
see that he has a fierce love and respect for his dogs.
"My first dog and I had learned the sport of skijoring
one winter," Ulsamer said. "While my friends were
skiing the slopes,
I was out with a broken leg. Actually both
legs were in a cast but that's a story for another day."
Ulsamer had rescued his first dog from an animal shelter,
and his second and his third. Before long he had a team of
"I met a guy from Alaska looking for a place
to give dog-sled rides. After talking him into staying, I
became his apprentice. I started my own place the following
After about 11 years in Steamboat Springs, Ulsamer
decided it was time for a change in scenery. "The area
had gotten too crowded, it was losing its sense of community.
I'd passed through Whitefish years ago and remembered that
I had really liked the area so I packed up my dogs and gear
and hit the highway."
By then Ulsamer's pack had grown to more than
40 dogs. Some rescued from shelters others specially bred
from a mix of Husky, German shepherd, greyhound and other
breeds for their big heart and lungs, long legs and eager
"For the most part they're mutts," said
Ulsamer. "Pure breeds tend to be less hearty," he
said. "But almost any dog can be trained to pull."
Today, Ulsamer has 80 dogs, of which 10 are retired
and 20 more are nearing retirement and run only once a day.
Ulsamer and the three drivers that work for him will run the
tail about 500 times each winter. The equivalent to about
five full-length Iditarods. "Each run on the trail is
one one-hundredth of the Iditidrod," said Ulsamer. Because
his dogs are winter work dogs, Ulsamer feeds them large frozen
blocks of ground meat and fish. Despite the high fat and protein
diet, all his dogs are in exceptional shape. Ulsamer said
"Gliding through the freshly fallen powder"
|A team of 10 working sled dogs takes
a brief rest while retired dog Uno scouts the trail ahead.
| It's not uncommon for his dogs to live past 20 years.
As I race with Ulsamer on my own leg of the journey
- Uno one of the retired dogs - runs freely ahead, scouting
on and off the trail following wolf and other wildlife tracks
through the woods. But the dogs online stay focused and undistracted
by the visible tracks of other animals; keep their noses to
the trail ahead.
"Stay gee," Ulsamer
calls to Cowboy and Hurricane, our lead dogs, directing them
to follow the trail to the right as it forks. Blizzard and Twister,
the swing dogs - Ulu, Indy, Owly and Hawkeye - to keep the momentum
going and the wheel dogs Cooper and Cheyenne, to pull the sled
smoothly around. Each of the 10 dogs can easily pull its own
weight, which means a driver, two adult passengers and a sled
weighing about 120 pounds is light work for this team.
more than an hour we pull back into camp. The dogs are served
hot meat broth for their work, although often it seemed like
play to them, and I'm treated to hot cocoa and fresh oatmeal
cookies in the lodge.