Weasel Works Greenland/Canadian Inuit dogs
Sun, sand, and… sled dogs? You might rub your eyes in disbelief and amazement to watch a team of sled dogs hauling a cart and musher across the coastal mud flats and up a sand dune. But don’t be surprised. If it’s March in coastal Oregon, USA, it is probably the Oregon Dune Mushers’ Mail Run, said to be the longest dry-land sled dog run in the country.
Not a Race
It is a 72-mile weekend run over sand dunes, down beaches, across mud flats, through lakes, ponds, and even a river, and finally ending each day in a small coastal town. This is a RECREATIONAL run, not a race, although many well-known racers participate. This year, the 21st Mail Run, I noted people from Washington, Oregon, and California; a total of (I think….) 14 teams.
The teams are divided into the Mini’s, the Advanced, and the Traditional. The Mini’s consist of 3 to 5 dogs, and this run takes place over 3 days, with less challenging dunes and fewer miles (I don’t know the exact mileage). The Advanced and Traditional parties are both 2-day runs and consist of teams with 6 and more dogs. The Advanced party starts an hour earlier each day, and the teams are usually smaller and not as speedy, while the Traditional teams are the larger racing teams.
Overall, it is quite an incredible experience. This was my second time running it, and I ran the Mini with 3 Inuit dogs. There were four in our party: Bev Meyers (our leader) with 3 mals, Greg and his 4 Siberians, Dina and her 5 Sibes, and myself. Steve and his beautiful Sammy team joined us on the third day. Running in sand is very different than running on snow. It is harder pulling, especially with a small team, but very forgiving and easy on the feet and the muscles. It requires a good leader since there are no trails per se on the sand.
The dunes are dotted with streams, swamps, and ponds, and you need to be able to scout a path for your team and direct them through the shallows or everyone ends up swimming (fortunately, the carts DO float, right Dina?). In places there is real honest-to-gosh quicksand that must be avoided. The many streams and ponds provide a welcome relief from the warm day, and the dogs take every opportunity to wade in and get cool. Bev’s dogs, in fact, would swim right out to the deep stuff, hauling the cart after them, and she would walk around the shoreline and meet them on the other side!
The edge of the world
The hallmark of this run is the dunes themselves. They are HUGE. Can’t even tell you how tall they are, but they are far taller than a sane person would ever go down on a sled. It sometimes takes a half hour or more (for the small teams) to make the climb up to the top of a dune. At the crest of the dune is a narrow ridge. The other side is often undercut by the wind so as to appear very nearly vertical. One by one, the teams go over the edge, and it truly looks like they are dropping off the edge of the world. Amazingly, the dogs leap off with the greatest of confidence and run down the slope while the musher hangs on for dear life and tries to keep the cart upright!
The other adventuresome part of the run is the river crossing. We did it four years ago when I ran, but the Mini’s elected to hold off this year as the water was very high. As it turns out, the water was so deep and fast that the dogs could not touch bottom and had to be led and pulled across. I’ll let Margaret or someone else tell that story, but I do know that at the end of the day we helped her take off her wet clothes and GALLONS of water came out of her boots!
Mingle with the mushers
We ended each day by running off the dunes and into a town, escorted by the local fire department. This is a big event for these little towns, and the people turn out to welcome the teams; we then stake out in the town center to allow the people a chance to mingle with the mushers and meet the dogs. Best of all, at the end of an exhausting day on the dunes, you feed and water the dogs, put them away in their cozy boxes, drive back to the hotel, and take a nice hot shower to get rid of all that sweat and sand! I’ll take that over the Iditarod any day!
Special thanks to Bev and Sonny Meyers, of the Oregon Dune Mushers, for organizing the Dune Run and for leading the Mini teams with such good nature; to all the helpers and handlers (especially my handler John Senter), to my mushing partner Dina Lund and her handler Sharon Brink, and to all the folks in coastal Oregon who made this run possible!