It’s All About the Dogs
During the school year, 16-year-old Spencer Bruggeman spends most of his non-academic time with dogs. Lots of dogs. Spencer and his father, Brett, are both mushers, and their Skinny Leg Sleddogs kennel has 46 dogs. In addition to feeding, training and caring for them all, on winter weekends Spencer and his dad are either out on all-night training runs, each with a team of twelve, or they’re racing at an event in their home state of Montana or a nearby state. Spencer and Brett will both be racing in the inaugural McCall Ultra Sled Dog Challenge January 28-31.
It’s Spencer’s “skinny leg” that steered him to sled dog racing and also inspired the name of the family’s kennel. Born with a vascular condition that limits muscle development on one leg, Spencer’s ability to enjoy participating in traditional sports diminished as he grew out of childhood. At age 11, Spencer read Jack London’s Call of the Wild and, intrigued by the story of sled dogs during the Yukon gold rush, wondered if he could run a sled dog team. Parents Brett and Suzette, eager to provide an outlet for their youngest son’s athletic impulses, were game to try. Not knowing anything about mushing, they sought advice from an experienced musher living nearby who showed them the basics such as harnessing and lining dogs up. But the Bruggemans needed some sled dogs.
“We bought four ‘rejects’ that first year,” Spencer says, “and by the end of that year we had eight. It has spiraled into 46 dogs!” The Bruggemans now breed their own sled dogs, and Spencer says about half of their dogs are from those efforts. What makes a good sled dog? “There are the obvious traits of stamina, speed and endurance,” says Spencer, “but also personality, like how well they get along with other dogs, the way they eat – fast, and able to consume a lot of calories. Coat length, gait – how well they run – are also important. When we breed two dogs, we’re hoping for the best traits of each dog.”
The Bruggemans, like many mushers, have “Swingley dogs” – Alaskan huskies made famous by four-time Iditarod winner Doug Swingley. “During the Yukon gold rush, miners brought dogs of every size and breed with them to haul things,” Spencer explained. “When the gold was gone, they couldn’t ship the dogs home so they turned them loose. Alaskan natives kept some and bred them to their own dogs which created the strong Alaskan racing dog type. In the late ‘80s, Swingley bought some of the best dogs from the tribes, racing and breeding them into the common Swingley dog.” Swingley has described the Alaskan husky – more a concept than a breed – as “…a continuous experiment in breeding and really nothing more than a successful mixed-breed mutt. The diverse gene pool is an advantage because it allows mushers to very quickly develop dogs for specific traits.” This explains why, if you look hard, in addition to seeing traditional Siberian and Malamute traits, you may also see hints of hound breeds like German shorthairs or English pointers in some huskies as mushers seek faster dogs. When mushers talk about huskies, they’re describing a dog based on the way it performs, not how it looks; an Alaskan husky sled dog’s appearance is varied, fluid and always evolving.
Becoming a good racing dog requires a great deal of training. Spencer says they start training when the pups are about eight months old, getting them used to a harness, letting them pull a little weight behind them. Next, they’ll attach them to a line with an experienced dog so they learn how to run in a straight line. Eventually they’re put on a line with several dogs to start building up endurance. In late September or early October, when the temperatures cool, the Bruggemans will take teams out for 4-wheeler training on dirt roads, starting with easy five mile runs and working up to 20-30 miles. When snow arrives, around Thanksgiving, they start training with sleds, every weekend going on overnight 100-mile runs in the mountains about an hour from home, Spencer and his dad both running teams of twelve dogs. “When I come home from school on Friday, the dogs are already loaded up,” Spencer says. “We get to the training location around 6:00 pm and starting running around 7:00 pm. We run for five or six hours for the first 50 miles, stop to eat and sleep four or five hours, then run another five or six hours for the last 50 miles.” The dogs average 10-11 miles-per-hour when running. They typically get back home between 2:00 and 5:00 pm on Saturday, and Spencer spends the rest of the weekend resting, doing homework or practicing the cello he plays in the school orchestra.
As Brett points out, these wintertime overnight training sessions are not cushy. “On our camping runs we always sleep out on the trail. After feeding the dogs and bedding them down on straw, Spencer crawls in his sleeping bag and lies down on top of the sled. I usually throw a bed of straw next to a couple dogs and lie down with them. He’s tough to be able to camp like that. Few kids can.”
What does it take to feed sled racing dogs so they have enough energy to run such distances? Spencer knows the answer all too well, as it’s his after-school job to do the regular feeding of all 46 dogs. “In the winter, we take 10-20 pounds of meat, salmon, and basically anything humans won’t eat, add two pounds of beef fat, ground it all up, add a gallon of kibble and some hot water, then pour it into three buckets for feeding,” he says, repeating until all dogs are fed. “During a race, a dog consumes 10,000-15,000 calories a day,” Spencer adds. “At home, it’s more like 5000 calories.”
All of that training and eating prepares Spencer and his dogs for the racing season, which starts mid-January and runs through March. When racing season ends, everyone – including dogs – rests. The dogs would overheat if they ran in the summer, Spencer explains, so they take the summer off while the Bruggemans work on building their kennel with selective breeding of some of the dogs.
Staying On, Staying Awake
Spencer notes that in addition to maintaining his balance on the sled when training and racing, he sometimes has to concentrate on staying awake. Because he was born with his “skinny leg” it’s normal for him, he doesn’t think about it as different, but admits that sledding takes lots of strength in his other leg to maintain balance. “My hips are off alignment,” Spencer explains. “My back is messed up, so I get lower back pain when racing. I started physical therapy last fall, doing some exercises, and it’s helping a lot.”
To avoid nodding off – and falling off – Spencer usually listens to music or books when training and racing. “It’s sometimes hard to stay awake; the music really helps,” he says. He occasionally finds himself “in the zone,” that feeling some athletes experience when everything is going just right. “It happens sometimes late at night,” Spencer says. “I get a sort of tunnel vision, just me and the dogs. I watch the dogs, and I have a sort of auto-balance on the sled where I don’t have to think about it.” He did nod off once, while training. “I was really sick but went anyway,” he says. “I passed out on the sled, fell off. The dogs don’t stop. My dad caught the dogs, and I ended up walking five miles to them.” Spencer adds that he’s usually okay staying awake because he’s not naturally a good sleeper, although he admits that if the terrain is really flat for a long stretch and he’s tired, he might lie on the sled for a bit and just let the dogs keep going.
Spencer says his best racing experience so far was crossing the finish line in second place overall at last year’s Race to the Sky 300-miler, at age 15 the youngest musher to finish that distance there. Ironically, his worst racing experience also occurred at that event. “I was 12 years old and it was my first 100-miler,” Spencer says. “I got lost. It was a miserable run with lots of extra miles. I had to call in because the dogs couldn’t keep running. The next day, I started at the last checkpoint I had reached and finished the race unofficially.” Another memorable worst experience came during a training run. It was windy with temperatures already twenty below zero. “The wind kept going up my jacket; I was hypothermic, out of it,” Spencer remembers. “I didn’t feel warm, so I didn’t get to enjoy any of the pleasurable parts of hypothermia. I was delirious. My dad threw me in the truck to thaw out, which was painful.”
In addition to racing in the McCall Ultra Sled Dog Challenge, Spencer plans to return to Race to the Sky this winter, which is in the Bruggemans’ Montana back yard, just an hour away. He’ll run the 300-miler again, hoping to obtain his second 300-mile Iditarod qualifier. He won’t be able to race the Eagle Cap Extreme in Oregon because he has finals that week. Spencer’s goal is to run the Iditarod with his father in 2020. Racers must be 18 or older to run the Iditarod, and by 2020 Spencer will be old enough. He wants to run the Iditarod before entering college, taking a gap year between high school and college to do so. Eyes set on becoming a surgeon, Spencer recognizes that once he starts college, he won’t be able to train or race, being busy with classes all winter. “It’s going to be hard to give it up for so long,” he says. He’ll have to rely on hearing the stories of his father, who will be running his first Iditarod later this year and will undoubtedly keep training and racing even when Spencer is away at college, although one suspects both Bruggemans will miss those long nights spent training together under Montana’s big star-studded skies, moving over the snow to the sound of panting dogs and hissing sled runners, in the zone.
All photos courtesy of Suzette Bruggeman.
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