STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald
Competitive mushing is mostly on hiatus in Southwest Colorado, but local residents involved in the enigmatic sport say they are eager to bring it back.
The strongest contender for revival is the Mancos Mush, which put the tiny Montezuma County town on the world’s sled dog racing map in 2005.
Organizers Gregg and Gretchen Dubit still have hope it could regain its former glory.
La Plata Paw Sled Dog Races, held in February in 2010 and 2011, also had shown promise but was canceled this year because a thin snow cover created unsafe trail conditions.
Reviving the Mancos Mush would require strong leadership and sponsors to guarantee a purse that would attract top mushers, the Dubits, who own and operate the Durango Dog Ranch in La Plata Canyon, said Wednesday.
The Dubits, who have a licensed kennel where they’ve raised Alaskan and Siberian huskies for 18 years, offer sled-dog outings from eight trailheads in San Juan National Forest.
“The snow got here just in time to save the season,” said Gregg Dubit. “This was one of the driest falls I’ve seen.”
Snow still is a concern, he said. A January mush in Silverton, which the Dubits support but aren’t organizing, has been postponed until February or March, he said.
“The snowpack isn’t all that great, and logistics aren’t simple,” Gregg Dubit said.
Way back when, Dubit started with one dog, which he taught to pull him on a ski or a roller blade. He was hooked.
“I’d read too much Jack London as a kid,” he said – a reference to the adventurer who lived from 1876 to 1916 and wrote tales of the Klondike gold rush.
“And how,” Gretchen Dubit said. “It took over our lives. I’ve supported all his cockamamy projects.”
Sled-dog racing wasn’t unknown in Southwest Colorado when he and his wife organized the Mancos Mush, Gregg Dubit said. The list of predecessors includes the two-day Moki Mush held in Boggy Draw near Dolores and a sprint competition in Pagosa Springs, both events in the early 1990s.
Sled-dog racing features sprints of four to 20 miles, mid-distance races of 20 to 70 miles and long-distance races such as the Iditarod in Alaska, which takes mushers from Anchorage to Nome, a distance of about 1,100 miles.
Ryne Olson, a 2007 graduate of Durango High School, took on the Iditarod for the first time this year, finishing 31st among 66 mushers and fourth among rookies.
The Mancos Mush, which evolved from the Moki Mush, was envisioned as a lead-in to what would be the San Juan Stage Races that would take mushers to Vallecito, Silverton, Ouray, Ridgway and Montrose.
Financial support was strong the first two years when Directory Plus put up a $10,000 purse each year, Gretchen Dubit said. The race drew mushers from Canada as well as from mushing hotbeds in the United States and local competitors.
In 2007, the race became the Mancos Mush/Silverton Slush as a San Juan County stage was added. Competitive mushes were held until 2009, when a four-stage race – Mancos, Echo Basin, Purgatory and Molas – was held.
“But it fell apart when purse money dwindled,” Gretchen Dubit said. The purse had dropped to $2,400 in 2009.
“The organizing was wrestled away from me, as well, by people who thought they could carry it off,” she said.
In comparison, the International Pedigree Stage Stop Sled Dog Race, billed as the biggest in the Lower 48, starts in Wyoming and in 2013 is scheduled to enter four states. There is prize money for the top 20 finishers – $10,000 for the winner – as well as day money.
Inveterate mushers will compete for the glory, Gretchen Dubit said. But organization skills are required to sustain interest over time, she said.
New blood could come in the form of Rick and Kate St. Onge, who own the Galloping Husky Ranch near Mancos. The couple, who moved early this year from Cache Valley in northern Utah, where they bred Alaskan huskies, have 165 acres near Jackson Lake. They have 35 dogs.
Rick St. Onge is a retired orthopedic surgeon from Boston who had a 20-year career with professional sports teams, including the Celtics, Patriots and Red Sox. He retired in 1996, and the couple moved to Utah.
Kate St. Onge guided the couple’s No. 1 team to first place in the recent West Yellowstone Rodeo Run, which opens sled-dog racing competition annually in the Lower 48. It was the couple’s fourth first-place finish. Rick St. Onge guided their No. 2 team to fourth place at West Yellowstone.
“I like to train and build teams,” he said. “But she’s the top musher. I’ve beaten her only once.”
The top quality in a sled dog is the willingness to pull and run long distances, St. Onge said.
“It takes a huge heart – physically and psychologically – and they pull because they want to pull,” he said. “You can’t make them run because that’s like pushing a rope.”
“Southwest Colorado is a dream place for stage races,” he said. “The area is attractive, it has good trails, the elevation is challenging and communities – Mancos, Cortez, Durango, Silverton, Telluride – are close enough to avoid long drives such as you do in Wyoming.
“Mushing is a traditional sport in many places such as New England,” St. Onge said. “It could become so here with community backing and dedicated sportsmen.”