Community profile: Blazing trails through Garfield County
Couple keeps mushing alive locally — with help from their canine pack
More than 30 years ago, one energetic puppy led Mark and Linda Hatch down the trail toward becoming dog sledders.
“We were dating at the time, and Mark got me an Alaskan mixed breed,” Linda Hatch recalled. “That dog needed a lot of exercise.”
An avid hiker, Linda took the dog into the mountains regularly, eventually becoming a regular around Garfield County’s dog sledding circuit.
Before long, Mark and Linda were volunteering at the races, and one dog leads to another — and another.
Nowadays, the couple share their home with 18 dogs, most of which are current and retired dog sledders. One Siberian husky, Bobo, is a conscientious objector.
“The first time we took Bobo to the races, he sat in the back of the truck looking at the other dogs with this look on his face like, ‘I want no part in whatever that is,’” Linda said, chuckling. “He never did find an interest in it, so now he’s a house dog like Chucky.”
With two different colored eyes — ice blue and dandelion yellow, Chucky, a mutt of indeterminate breed, sat at Linda’s feet, nudging her hand with every mention of his name.
“He’s my hiking buddy,” she said, scratching behind Chucky’s ears.
Behind the Hatch residence near Canyon Creek, more than a dozen huskies clambered over each other at the chance to greet a new face, chase a pack mate or bound around in the sun.
“As you can see, we let them redecorate however they want,” Mark joked, pointing out a patchwork of trenches dug in some of the kennels.
Dog sledding is primarily Mark’s ambition, and most of the huskies gravitated toward him in the yard. But, swinging on a wooden bench in the shade, Linda was far from alone.
Chucky and three other dogs vied for a coveted position on her lap while a few more chased each other around her legs.
“As my mother used to say,” Linda started, grinning, “‘When you grow up, you can have all the dogs you want.’”
The Hatchs started racing sled dogs in the early 1990s, when the sport drew quite a bit of support from the surrounding community.
“It used to be a pretty big deal,” Mark remembered. “They’d bring in snow, dump it on Grand Avenue and race dogs down the main drag.”
Two of the state’s sled dog races were a stone’s throw from Glenwood Springs: One near Redstone and another at Fourmile Park.
Over the years, interest in the sport waned, and Garfield County is no longer home to an official sled dog race, Mark said.
“It has a lot to do with parking,” he explained.
Several serviceable trails exist throughout the county, but bringing 30-40 teams together for a race requires a decent-sized staging area.
In years past, Colorado Mountain Mushers hosted a race on a slice of land owned by Pitkin Iron in Fourmile Park. A local group of snowmobilers worked out permissions for winter enthusiasts to use the company’s parking lot as the starting point for a series of snowmobile tours and dog sled races. But after Pitkin Iron sold the land to Black Hills Energy, the staging area was fenced off and Mountain Mushers was left out in the cold.
Efforts are underway, however, to organize a long-distance race near Rifle Mountain Park.
“We’re working with another snowmobiling group, who groom the trails up there,” Mark said, “as well as the U.S. Forest Service and Rifle Parks and Recreation Department.”
Forest Service District Ranger Kelsha Anderson said the permitting process for starting a dog sledding race that crosses multiple tracts of land can be complex. The Forest Service screens the application to ensure the race coincides with designated land uses, and rangers consider impacts on the land, if the use is in the public’s interest and whether the area’s parking can accommodate the event plus regular recreation activities. An environmental assessment is also required before the permit can be approved, Anderson said.
“They approached us last spring, and we gave them some information on the application process,” she said.
Unfortunately, the Forest Service and Mountain Mushers weren’t able to reach a land use agreement before winter set in, but Mark said the group is trying again this year.
Beginning at Hoffman Gulch, the race could cover more than 20 miles with various stopping points for shorter races.
“It’s been a long time since Colorado had a long-distance race,” Mark said. “We’re going to submit a plan for the permit to the Forest Service by the end of August, and we’re hopeful to host the race around February next year.”
When the temperature is below 40 degrees, Mark and Linda take their teams out to train in South Canyon, pulling Mark on an ATV down the snowy gravel back roads.
“I’ve seen kennels in Alaska that train by pulling Volkswagen bugs,” Mark said.
While Mark keeps the motor running, the goal is to ensure the dogs don’t overwork or underwork themselves.
“I train my dogs for distance,” he explained. “So we shoot for a pace of about 12 miles an hour.”
With the trees budding and the temperatures rising, however, spring brings the end of dog sledding season.
“As early as March, the trail gets a little too unmanageable,” Mark said. “It’s either too icy or too soft, so we start doing more with the dogs at home, in the kennels and the yard.”
During the off season, Mark and Linda take their pack out for free roaming days. If the weather is too hot, they all walk down to an irrigation ditch near their home where the dogs play in the water to cool off.
And they always keep an eye on the dogs’ diet.
“We really have to watch their weight in the summer,” Linda said. “It’s a lazy time, and they can pack on a few pounds before the sledding season begins again around September.”
Reporter Ike Fredregill can be reached at 970-384-9154 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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