Have dogs, will travel: Oak Creek mushers head to Alaska
Oak Creek mushers head to Alaska
Steamboat Springs — It’s usually not very difficult to find Dan or Sarah Piano in the spring in Routt County.
The Oak Creek couple have long been two of the most avid kayakers in the area, and any afternoon stroll along the Yampa River Core Trail or visit to the Bud Werner Memorial Library typically offers a strong chance to see the couple bobbing and paddling, spinning and flipping in the cold river water at Charlie’s Hole in downtown Steamboat Springs.
It’ll be a bit more difficult to track them down this summer.
After three years spent running their own local dog sled operation, the Pianos decided to take their show to Alaska, and they’re currently en route — 25 of their best furry friends in tow — for a summer of sledding.
“It’s a crazy dream come true,” Sarah said. “I’m very excited about it.”
The Pianos will be working for Alaska Heli Mush, a company that caters to cruise tourists docking in Juneau, the state capital, who opt for a dog sledding stop on a helicopter sightseeing tour.
The trips will take place on the Norris Glacier, a huge slab of ice. For the helicopters, it’s just a 15-mile commute, but for the Pianos, it will be a cold and remote office they’ll live at eight days out of 10.
The adventure will run until mid-September.
“I never thought in my wildest dreams this is what I’d be doing,” Dan said. “I’m going to go with it. We’re excited and nervous. We don’t really know what to expect.”
The decision to take the trip was in the making for several years.
Sarah first got into mushing nearly a decade ago, hired on first as a part-timer for a local business that catered to tourists. She worked for several local outfitters through the years, then three years ago, joined her husband, Dan, to start a new operation, Snow Buddy Dog Sled Tours.
They operate out of South Routt County, in the Flattops, and business has boomed, even this winter when warm weather and low snow conditions limited them to daily morning trips instead of the twice-daily trips they usually offer.
Business has primarily been from Steamboat, but about 10 percent comes up from Vail, and many other customers have driven up from the Front Range, come out from other ski resorts or even flown in from other countries.
“We have people coming from all over the place. It’s been pretty cool,” Dan said. “Every year we’ve grown, and we grew to a point this year we were turning business away.”
Their kennel grew from a few dogs at first to nearly 30, not the genesis for a race team, but often castoffs and retirees — “the island of misfit sled dogs,” in Sarah’s words.
The Pianos each had separate jobs in the summer, Dan as a carpenter and Sarah running a start-up cleaning business. The dogs don’t go away, however, and their expense was a major factor.
Sarah said they cost $1 a day to feed, minimum, before any treats or beef bones or other splurges the Pianos conjure up. There are ever-present veterinarian bills on top of that, all adding at least $1,000 a month in expenses that are piled on top of a mortgage and every other daily expense.
Add to that puzzle the time required each day to care for the animals and get them out to train and run, and there’s been little time left in the last three years to catch a breath.
Consider all that, and everything — breaking a long-established summer-winter routine, living on a glacier for nearly five months, skipping the season of Yampa River kayaking — starts to make sense.
“It’s just been one thing that’s led to another,” said Dan, who five years ago had just one dog and thought at the time it was plenty.
They’re leaving that pooch, a border collie named Hector, behind with a house-sitter as he has a habit of trying to herd the sled dogs. But, 25 others are along for the ride, crossing the Canadian border today, then riding a ferry to Juneau and eventually taking the helicopter to the glacier.
The days will be long, and not just because of the area’s northerly latitude. Each team of dogs will be responsible for as many as four trips a day, while their drivers could do as many as nine trips a day.
At the end of that day a 10-foot-by-10-foot tent awaits, with Army-issued cots.
It’ll be expensive to resupply outside of planned trips to the city, so once on the glacier, the Pianos will mostly be stuck there, even on socked in, rainy days when the helicopters won’t come.
That could be both the best and worst of the experience.
“We’ve been running two businesses from home and haven’t had a moment to sit down. Running nine trips a day, 12 hours a day, our days will be longer, but it will be nice for the summer to work for someone else,” Sarah said. “We’ll be whipped at the end, but it will be nice to just relax in the tent sometimes with a book.”
It all makes for an experience, challenges and all, that they’re both eager to begin.
“We’ll get to work with the dogs all summer, keep them exercised and healthy and hopefully make a little money,” Dan said. “This will make owning 30 sled dogs a little more realistic.”
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