For the past two years, the Silverton Flying Sled Dog Races hasn’t been able to catch a break, but event organizers are confident conditions will be just right this winter to hold the competition for the first time.
The first year the event was planned, 2017, there was too much snow. A storm dumped on the San Juan Mountains the day before the race, creating risky avalanche conditions on Molas Pass, where the race was to be held.
In 2018, there wasn’t enough snow. A record drought year left the track too bare to safely run the dogs. The event, which was planned for January, was moved to February in the hopes conditions would change.
But snow never arrived, and the race was ultimately canceled.
This year, event organizers are optimistic the race on the weekend of Jan. 12-13 will be a go.
“The weather pattern’s looking good, and we’re excited,” said Lynn Whipple, an event organizer and sled dog racer. “Silverton is such a beautiful, historic place and dogsledding is very fitting for that area.”
Dogsled races are held in the winter across Colorado, but efforts to bring an annual race to Silverton started around 2017.
The area around Molas Lake was identified as a fitting spot with good terrain for the race, but after the past two years were canceled, organizers decided to bring the event closer to town.
This year, the starting line will be on the north end of town, on County Road 2. Racing teams will participate in different distances through a variety of races, with plenty of room for people to watch.
Laurie Brandt, a sled dog racer based in Montrose, recommends hanging out at the starting line.
“As a spectator, that’s the most interesting place to be,” she said. “All the dogs are excited, and there’s just a lot of chaos and noise and fun.”
Whereas other famous dogsled races, such as the Iditarod in Alaska, feature long distances and the traditional husky dog breed, events in Colorado, given terrain constraints, tend to focus more on fast, short distances, Brandt said.
As a result, mushers in the region tend to run dogs like Eurohounds, which are bred for sprinting.
“In Colorado, we just don’t have the terrain to offer 100-mile races,” Brandt said. “So we train for 4- to 6-mile distances.”
Most races feature the traditional four- to six-dog sled team. And, there’s a skijoring aspect, where a musher will be on skis and run one or two dogs.
Brandt got into the skijoring side of dogsledding through a friend who is a musher, and immediately took to it.
“I like being physically active and cross-country skiing,” she said. “And it’s a cool thing you can do with your pet. Once I tried it, I was just hooked.”
Whipple, who has been racing dogs since the 1980s, said the sport has evolved a lot over the years, becoming much more ethical in its treatment of the animals.
“A lot of that is old school stuff that’s been pushed out,” she said. “There’s a lot more dog care, and we’re much more on a recreational level.”
Whipple said the activity is great exercise for dogs.
“It puts all their energy to productive use,” she said.
Event organizers also say the race in Silverton will feature classes to introduce people to the sport. For those interested in the skijoring style of dogsledding, it doesn’t take much to get started.
“If you have cross-county skis and a dog, all you need is about $65 to $100 in equipment for things like a harness,” Brandt said.
Whipple said people would be surprised about the range of dog breeds that can participate in skijoring. She encouraged people to come out with their dogs to the tutorial to learn more.
“The sport is really becoming much more recreational and not so much about competition,” she said. “It’s just something fun you can do with your dog.”
With other dogsled races in Pagosa Springs and Grand Mesa, an event in Silverton will mark the third race in western Colorado in a string of competitions throughout January.
“It’s a natural setting for sled dog races,” she said, “Silverton really opened up their doors to us, showed us an amazing little town.”
DeAnne Gallegos, executive director of the Silverton Area Chamber of Commerce, said live music, a “mushers banquet” at the Grand Imperial Hotel and other events will be featured throughout the weekend.
“It’s become a town event,” she said. “And this year, I believe it will be the first year we successfully execute this event.”