In Apocalypse Now, Robert Duvall's character Lt. Colonel Kilgore stood tall and said, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning. It smells like ... victory."
To a sled dog racer, there's only one thing that smells like victory, and it's something you don't want to step in.
Every winter, deep in Colorado's snowbound Rockies, the hills come alive with the sounds of barking, yelping, howling, yapping and growling as hundreds of sled dog aficionados and thousands of dogs converge from all over the Rocky Mountain West for racing season. It's a slice of Colorado's unique winter culture.
The parking lots at events in Kremmling, Ouray, Leadville, Redstone, Glenwood Springs and Grand Lake become beehives of activity as dogs and humans alike anticipate the big race.
You just need to watch where you walk.
Sled dog racing is big-time in Alaska and Canada, where purses reach hundreds of thousands of dollars, attracting the top names in the sport. In Colorado, where organized racing started in the early 1960s, it's the pure fan who makes the commitment to race dogs.
Purses are as high as $8,000 for top regional events, but it's not for the love of money that people dedicate their winters to mushing through the woods.
"It's all about the love of dogs," said Brenda Valletta, a former world champion who lives in Kiowa, a farming community about 40 miles northeast of Colorado Springs. "It's about the love of going fast; raising little puppies and then seeing them fly through the snow three or four years later. It's very addicting."
It was so addicting that Valletta spent the past 21 winters racing dogs on the circuit. She's won two international gold medals, making her and her dogs the fastest in the world. She even met her husband at a sled dog race.
"It's a huge commitment to race dogs," said Valletta, now retired from competition. Between her and her husband -- also an elite racer -- Valletta said they would spend between $30,000 and $50,000 a year on racing. Top racing dogs cost between $1,000 and $3,000 each and dog food costs $35 a day. Tag on hotels, meals and gas ... and expenses add up.
"You have the travel, the sleds, the dogs, vet care, dog food -- it adds up pretty quick," she said. "You need an understanding boss."
It's a dog's world
Any dog lover would love a sled dog race. It's obvious the dogs do.
"They just love it," Valletta said. "The dogs just go crazy waiting to get the chance to race. In the fall, when it starts to get cold, they know it's their time."
When most people think of dog sledding, they think of purebred Samoyeds and Siberian huskies, the wolflike creatures out of a romantic Jack London novel. Today's top dog in the sled dog world is the Alaskan huskie.
Described as a "greyhound with fur," Alaskan huskies are specially bred, lightweight racing dogs with longer legs and shorter hair than Siberians or Samoyeds, allowing them to dissipate heat during long races.
Strict guidelines protect the dogs' health and race organizers are required to have a team of vets on hand to deal with any emergencies.
And they're off
Amos Auringer recently retired from the Air Force, but his passion for movement lies much closer to the ground. The Woodland Park resident loves racing his dogs, nine Siberians that he's been running for 12 years.
"For these kinds of dogs, it's like playing fetch for them," Auringer said. "They just love to run and pull something and they just go and go and go."
Serious racers will start training their dogs in September, attaching them to ATVs or dry-land sleds during training sessions of 40 to 50 miles to build up the dogs' strength and endurance. Racers must spend hours with their dogs to keep them active with obedience training, hiking, running and dog-sled training.
Most Colorado races are weekend affairs, with racing typically split among several classes Saturday and Sunday. Teams range from 3 up to 12 dogs while races range from short sprints of a few miles to longer mid-distance races of up to 60 miles. Colorado doesn't have the long, multiday races that are so popular in Canada and Alaska.
"It's a great ambiance at the races," Auringer said. "It's the friendship and camaraderie that keeps me coming back. The dogs know something special is going on. Being around 1,000 other dogs, their senses really come alive."
Upcoming sled dog events in Grand Lake, Colorado
Feb. 9-10 Grand County Rendezvous 303-621-2460
Feb. 16-17 Grand Lake Sled Dog Classic, 970-627-3372
Feb. 23-24 12th Annual High Altitude Sled Dog Championship 970-627-3372