Mush ado about dog sledding
Post Independent Staff
Glenwood Springs CO Colorado
REDSTONE ” Behind me is a string of beehive-shaped coke ovens, guarding the entrance to one of the prettiest little towns in the country. The sun is out, causing the snow-covered trees and ground to sparkle.
And I’m not paying attention to any of it.
Instead, I’m focused on 11 Siberian huskies, digging and pouncing and panting. Unbelievably enthusiastic, they’re tied to the sides of musher Aaron Natoniewski’s truck. As he unloads a sled and harnesses, the yelps get more feverish. They want to run.
“It’s a lot of work. It really is,” he says, smiling, as he gets ready to take off from Chair Mountain Stables.
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We don’t talk much. He’s trying to wrangle the canines into formation, and I’m attempting to capture the whole scene in pen. The deafening dogs are smaller and leaner than I expected, and Natoniewski seems different than imagined, too. Though sporting a red beard, he’s young-looking, no grizzled mountain man.
He’s petting the pooches and talking to each one by name, and there’s just no questioning his dedication to them.+
Now 32, Natoniewski has been in the mushing world for six years. Admittedly competitive, on a sled he’s one of the fastest guys around these parts. This weekend, he’ll join the 25 to 30 teams competing in Redstone’s 24th Annual Sled Dog Races.
I met him by phone on Monday, the night before. His voice was slightly hushed and gentle then, as he was just getting over the death one of his pets.
“Even the most hard-core racers I know, I’m sure they still cry when one loses a dog,” he said.
He explained that, like the other half dozen or so mushers in the valley, he doesn’t do this for money. In fact, the biggest purse he has ever won was $75.
An electrician by trade, the Redstone resident said he came into the sport “by accident” six or seven years prior. That’s when he bought a couple of huskies because they fit his rugged lifestyle. Though he had given no thought to racing them, when he heard about his town’s competition, he decided to just go with it. He began on skis, being pulled by two of his dogs. Though he placed dead last that first year, he was smitten.
“There was nothing but room for improvement,” he chuckled.
The next year, he met his now-former wife, past musher Jennifer Webb. With her encouragement and knowledge behind him, he dug deeper into the sport. He bought more dogs, and started to take it seriously. Within a few years, he was racing with sleds and larger canine teams ” and winning.
Natoniewski is now rated number one in the state for a six-dog team with the Colorado Mountain Mushers, which sponsors this weekend’s event. With 13 dogs these days, he described winter as a time of constant practice, when he tries to run his animals eight miles at a time, at least four days a week.
During last year’s Redstone races, he placed first with his six-dog team and first on skis ” something he hopes to replicate this time around.
“I never get tired of watching them run,” he said of his dogs. “It’s just the most beautiful thing, the timeless rhythm.”
Though his words were swelling with belief, it was hard to truly understand his perspective. In my mind, it seemed like so much effort and time, with an emotional payoff I couldn’t even picture. So, when he offered me a chance to see what he meant firsthand, I was surprised, and then I jumped at it.
Back at the stables, Natoniewski has pulled and coaxed the dogs into place. Surrounded by a blanket, I’m sitting on the sled. I’m clutching a pen and paper and still thinking I can write as we move.
We take off. I hold onto the sides of the thing with all the strength I can muster. Though under my guide’s control, the sled feels reckless as it races forward. The dogs stop barking. The only sounds I hear now are their breathing, their feet hitting the snow and the slide of runners against soft ground. In front of me, I see powerful, fluffy behinds bounce, emitting poofs of unmistakable odor.
At one point, they hit a rough patch and tip the sled sharply to the right. I’m dumped out into feet of fluff. Natoniewski is lightly apologetic, but mostly focused on getting me back onto the sled before the dogs take off once more.
We spend about two more miles together. As we speed up and around curves, hurling through a world of white, I never lose my sense of awe. The wind is smacking my face, and my light clothing leaves me shivering, but I’m excited. This feels completely foreign, and I don’t want it to end.
After about 15 short minutes, Natoniewski drops me off near my car.
“I have to keep running them,” he says. “They’re used to going about eight times this far.”
We wave good-bye. I climb into my front seat and scribble down everything I can remember.
There is no way I can convey all of it ” I’m sure of that. But I’m smiling. Now, I think I get it.
Contact Stina Sieg: 384-9111
Post Independent Glenwood Springs CO Colorado
WHAT: The 24th Annual Sled Dog Races
WHEN: 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, with the 3rd Annual Dog Parade at 3 p.m. on Saturday. A snow sculpture contest will be held in Redstone Park from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. both days.
WHERE: Chair Mountain Stables in Redstone (races) and Redstone Boulevard (parade)
WHY? Because you’ve never heard this many dogs bark at once.
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