Posted by: Sue D. Gelber | December 27, 2010

Going to the Dogs on Christmas Eve

This Christmas Eve I was completely prepared for The Big Day. We were lucky enough to spend Christmas in Montana, and I made sure everything was bought and wrapped in plenty of time. No last-minute stress. No 11th-hour trips to the mall (not that there is a mall nearby, but you know what I mean). Christmas Eve was going to be all about having fun and spending time with my family, or at least that is what I hoped. Of course, things didn’t go as smoothly as planned. In the end, we didn’t go to the mall, but you could say we went to the dogs.

I wanted to get in a decent run on Christmas Eve, so that morning I headed over to one of my favorite summer marathon-training routes, a lovely loop along the shores of Flathead Lake. In the summer, Flathead is a bustling hub of seasonal activity. In the winter, however, the place is deserted. I encountered a mere 5 cars in 7 miles, and not so much as a single other pedestrian.

After a summer spent avoiding the local sow and cub pair, I was relieved not to have to worry about bears, knowing that they were peacefully hibernating for the winter. There was, however, one predator out stalking and harassing me. I am speaking, of course, of the dreaded domestic dog. If you have read my running posts before, you know that dogs hate me. I don’t know why – I love dogs – but I am convinced that at some point there was a full-page ad in Dog World Magazine with my photo and a big “Wanted, Dead or Alive” headline. Whether I am running or biking, dogs love to chase me. Big, small, young, old, they all run after me for sport. Blood sport.

Fortunately, since the summer people had abandoned the shores of Flathead, most of the dogs were gone too. I ran along blissfully, taking in the quiet scenery around me, until about mile 4. Then I heard it: a deep bark echoing across the snow. Ahead of me, off  in the woods about a quarter-mile, I saw a large black thing moving towards me. The barking got louder. He appeared to be some sort of black lab mix, and he was headed straight for me. I had to think quick. I knew from past experience that trying to run away only triggers a dog’s chase instinct. I stopped and stood still. He continued towards me at top speed. “He’s just a goofy lab,” I told myself, “nothing to be worried about. A goofy lab. A lab…hmmm….” I reviewed what I knew about labs. Labs are playful and friendly (except this one who was barking like crazy and clearly wanted to tear me limb from limb). Labs are also usually stupid, no offense to any smart labs out there who might be reading this blog.

I quickly formulated a plan. As the dog started charging down the road towards me, I reached down to the ground, scooped up a hunk of frozen snow and yelled “Fetch!” The dog stuttered to stop. I threw as hard as I could. He took off in the direction of my throw. He bounded down the road as the snowball hit the ground in front of him and disappeared. He slid on the slippery snowpack and turned around, heading back my way. I grabbed another hunk of snow. Lather, rinse, repeat. I kept chucking snowballs for him, he kept chasing them. I had finally found a way to ward off attacking dogs, and it was far more effective than any pepper spray. After several minutes of Fetch the Snowball, Stupid Black Lab’s owner came and got him. Relieved, I continued on my way, cruising down empty snow-covered roads, taking in the scenery.

I got a good 7 miles under my belt and then wrapped up my run so we could get on with Phase Two of The Gelber’s Excellent Christmas Eve Adventure. It involved a long car trip, but I didn’t mind, since this year had almost been The Christmas Eve That Wasn’t.

We had known for months that we would be spending Christmas in Montana, and we also had known for months that the kids wanted to go dogsledding while we were there. We decided that would be our “big” gift to them this year – a family dogsledding adventure. Did we think to call ahead and make reservations? No, of course not. It’s Montana! I figured maybe we would need to call a day or two ahead of time, ideally we could wait to see the weather forecast and then book something. Just to be sure, however, I asked my husband to give a ring about two weeks in advance to check what days there were open. Bad news: booked solid. Booked every day from Dec 18th to January 2nd. Massive parenting fail.

My husband was able to get us on the waitlist in case anything opened up, but we had little hope, and we had no back-up plan. We called persistently, but there was no way they could fit the whole family at the last minute. Surely, this would go down as the year when the kids got socks for Christmas and realized once and for all that Mom and Dad were complete losers.

But then, while we were watching Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, the phone rang. They had an opening. They could take all of us on the 24th, Christmas Eve. It was a Christmas Dogsledding Miracle! So, on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, we gladly piled into the car and headed north. We passed through Whitefish, heading north towards Canada, until we got to the absolute speck of a town known as Olney, Montana. We pulled off the highway and headed up a hill into the wilderness.

As we rounded a corner, I saw a husky. Then another one. Then another. Good lord, they were everywhere. I stepped out of the car laughing. The smell of pine was overpowered by the smell of dog urine, and the peaceful quiet of the Montana back country was suppressed by the barking of dogs. Dogs, dogs everywhere.

The owner, Jeff, greeted us as we pulled up. He looked the part of a true Montana mountain man: long scruffy beard and well-worn camo pants. He has apparently been here 20 years, after spending 10 dogsledding in Steamboat Springs, CO. His operation in Olney has built up over the past two decades, and now he has 110 dogs: 109 Huskies and one lone Hound dog.

I looked around. There were dogs as far as the eye could see. Light ones, darks ones, big ones, small ones. Fortunately, it was well-ordered chaos: each dog was chained to her or her own small dog-house. A favorite activity seemed to be standing on top of the house, barking. And once one started, they all got going. It was chaotic. The dogs were exceptionally friendly, and we took turns wandering from house to house petting them. Finally, the barking reached a feverish pitch. The cacophony was overwhelming. I turned to see what was going on and realized that the sleds were being readied. The dogs knew it was time. They seemed to be screaming “Pick me! Pick me!”

Jeff divided us up into the various sleds. We climbed in and had blankets piled on top of us. Jeff’s wife would be my sled driver for the next hour. She told me a little bit about the dogs and the dogsledding operation. I learned that the dogs eat about 300 pounds of food a day, and that most of the working dogs are 10 years or younger. We talked about the group dynamics of putting together a team, pairing by age and temperament. We discussed how she, like so many Northwest Montanans, capitalizes on the seasonal crowd by doing landscape work during the warmer weather to complement the winter dog-sledding business. We talked about the dogs and how they come up with so many names for them. But mostly we flew in silence through the Montana wilderness on a big looping trail, skipping over bumps and soaring down hills. The dogs sprinted along with unbridled enthusiasm, tails wagging, stopping every now and then to catch their breath and leave some yellow marks in the snow. One of our dogs had gas, but other than that mild odorous distraction, we had a splendid ride.

We arrived back at the lodge, greeted by the enthusiastic barking of the 60 or so dogs we had left behind. It was hard to say who had more fun, the humans or the dogs. The humans got hot chocolate and cookies at the end, so I think we came out on top. We bid goodbye to Jeff and his mutts, and we headed back towards civilization.

The dark of night was starting to cloak Stryker mountain as we drove away. We stopped briefly in Whitefish to admire the holiday decorations and then headed on to a friend’s house for a fun and festive Christmas Eve. Who knows, maybe dogsledding will be our new Christmas Eve tradition? Sure beats last-minute shopping at the mall.

(You can find more information about Jeff’s Dogsled Adventures here.)


Responses

  1. What an awesome experience, Sue! And, I’m so glad you survived the crazy dog. Whew!

    • Thanks Brady! And now I know the secret weapon…snowballs. In the summer, maybe I should run with a tennis ball instead of pepper spray?

  2. Merry Christmas Gelbers!!! What a beautiful night I am glad your miracle was answered

  3. What a great experience! I absolutely love hearing your voices in the video!!!
    Happy New Year!

    • Thank you Kathy, and Happy New Year to you!

  4. Sue, what a great experience and wonderful cap to the year. Thanks for sharing it. Happy New Year. Hope to see you Saturday.

    ~ C

    • Thanks Cheryl! It was certainly was a memorable experience. Happy New Year!


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