When the Saint comes barking in: meet Powder, Steamboat’s safety dog
March 2, 2019
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Early morning at the top of Thunderhead Lodge passed sleepily on Thursday.
Guests seemed to be enjoying a quieter day at Steamboat Resort after last weekend’s WinterWonderGrass craze, unloading the gondola cabins then stopping to talk amongst themselves in the terminal, in no apparent rush to hit the slopes.
But when a 130-pound Saint Bernard trotted out of one of those cabins and made a beeline for a crowd of people, that tranquil mood burst into Hollywood mayhem.
"It's Powder!" cried a young girl.
"Mom!” shrieked another, yanking her mother's arm. “Mom, look — Powder!"
Phones burst into action, snapping pictures and recording videos. It was as if Wonder Woman herself had just stepped out of a limousine and was strutting down the red carpet.
Duncan Draper held Powder's leash and addressed the onslaught of excited fans in the gondola terminal. He wore his red-and-white ski patroller uniform, a job he has held at the resort for the last 17 years.
At just two years old, Powder is the ski area’s mascot and, more officially, its safety dog. She and Draper roam the mountain a few days each week to spread safety messages in an attempt to prevent accidents at the resort.
Powder and Draper have developed an intimate relationship that goes beyond their mountain stardom. They did not spend a second apart during the hours that they toured the top of the gondola, offering safety tips and posing for photos.
Saint Bernards like Powder are among a few dog breeds, including German Shepherds, Border Collies and Golden Retrievers, that have been used to rescue people from avalanches by sniffing for their scent.
A trained avalanche dog can search a 2.5-acre area in about 30 minutes, according to an article in The Bark magazine. It would take 20 humans with avalanche probes about four hours to cover the same ground.
Powder, more a cute face than a seasoned rescuer, has none of that avalanche training.
Still, her breed has become the poster-child of avalanche dogs because of the miniature barrels often depicted dangling from their necks.
Draper said that according to folklore, the barrels contained a healthy dose of hard spirits, usually brandy. It would be a welcome bit of warmth for someone who had just been rescued from a tomb of snow.
Powder also sports a barrel necklace, but it's mostly just for looks.
"After 5 p.m., there may be some brandy in there," Draper said.
Putting any in before then could be a career-ending decision for a ski patroller on duty, something Draper doesn't want to risk anytime soon.
Finding their place
Powder and Draper, both Steamboat transplants, have happily made the mountains their home.
Draper's accent, thickened with a tablespoon of Southern molasses, causes a lot of people to ask where he moved from. He grew up just south of Birmingham in the bucolic town of Pelham, Alabama.
After he graduated from college, he followed his brother out to Steamboat for one simple reason.
"I got tired of being hot," he said.
Draper inherited his father's love for Saint Bernard's at a young age, but living in the South made it impossible to own a dog accustomed to the western Alps, where snow falls for most of the year.
That changed when he moved to Steamboat.
Powder is now Draper's fourth of the breed. It took him several years to get over the death of his last Bernard, named Bear, who was the resort's first safety dog.
Draper spent months scouring the state for a dog with the right mix of calm and human sociability. He finally found Powder from a breeder in Denver.
All of his past Bernards have had a unique personality, and Powder is no exception.
She clings to Draper more than his past dogs, which he doesn't mind.
They often share the same bed at night. With a dog of her size, 'share,' may be too egalitarian of a word. Powder tends to engulf the bed space, which means Draper's wife has to find another place to sleep.
"At this point, my wife understands," Draper said.
Powder also has what Draper called "dry mouth tendencies." She usually doesn't drool, except when food comes around. That may come as a shock to those who have seen the Disney movie, "Beethoven," and that dog's slow-motion, slobber-flinging scenes.
Speaking of food, a dog the size Powder needs a lot of it.
Draper said she typically eats around 20 pounds of kibble each week, not counting snacks. When it comes to extra treats, she isn't too picky.
"She loves just about anything if you put some human food on it," he said.
Suited for Steamboat
Outside the gondola, Powder's passion for winter was on full display.
She spent most of her shift on Thursday rolling in the snow, tongue lolled out of her jowls and paws poised to the sky. A young boy on skis held Powder's leash, and, to his delight, she pulled him across the bottom of Tower run.
As crowds gathered to catch a glimpse of Powder and give her a few scratches, Draper recited some of the resort's mountain safety codes.
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He emphasized one in particular that many novice skiers and riders tend to be unaware of: "Whenever starting downhill or merging onto a trail, look uphill and yield to others."
Draper hopes that teaching people how to be responsible guests at a ski resort will mean a more enjoyable experience for everyone. He explained that many first-time skiers and riders don't stick with the sport because of preventable accidents.
"If we can help people understand that you need to be mindful of the people around you on the mountain, maybe we can change that," Draper said.
This year, the resort started selling Powder-inspired stuffed animals. Part of the proceeds go to the Routt County Search and Rescue, a volunteer-based service that saves people lost or trapped in the backcountry.
“People are loving them,” said Maren Franciosi, the resort’s digital communications manager.
Powder still has some years to come before Powder reaches full maturity, during which she’ll likely pack on a couple dozen more pounds.
Until then, Draper does not plan to change much about her weekly routine. Visitors can still meet Powder at the top of the gondola, usually every Thursday.
Draper has considered taking her to higher parts of the mountain, but her puppy tendencies and excitability make her too unpredictable.
"We've talked about putting her on a chair lift, but I'm afraid she may see a bird go by," he said.