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The golden rule of dog sledding? Don't let go of the sled

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

There has not been very much snow at all here in Washington, D.C., this winter. But some parts of this country have had enough snow for dog-sledding, which was a lifelong ambition for Minnesota Public Radio's Catharine Richert. Here's her report.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOGS BARKING)

CATHARINE RICHERT, BYLINE: Here's the first thing you need to know about dog-sledding.

DAWN LANNING: Golden rule of dog-sledding? Don't let go of the sled.

RICHERT: Repeat that, Catharine.

D LANNING: (Laughter) Don't...

RICHERT: Don't let go of the sled.

I'm heading out with Dawn Lanning, owner of HHH Ranch. She's a dog-sledding expert near Rochester, Minn., and my guide for the day.

D LANNING: I'd like to tell you if you lose the sled, the dogs will say, oh, no, we lost them, and they'll sit down and wait for you. Does it sound like they're going to sit and wait for you, right? So hang on to the sled.

RICHERT: And as if on cue, Clyde, one of 10 dogs Lanning has for our expedition, slips out of his harness and bolts into the woods.

D LANNING: Uh-oh.

SHAWN LANNING: There goes Clyde.

D LANNING: Clyde. Clyde.

S LANNING: (Laughter) Come on, Clyde.

RICHERT: Clyde sheepishly comes back as soon as Dawn and her son Shawn (ph) call for him.

Did you tell them to do that? That was a (laughter)...

S LANNING: (Laughter) No, yeah, that was good...

RICHERT: ...Perfect illustration.

S LANNING: Yeah.

RICHERT: Clyde and I, we have something in common - we both love our jobs. If it's not clear already, Clyde and his colleagues cannot wait to get out on this dog-sledding trail. And neither can I. Since moving to Minnesota in 2009, I've always wanted to try this sport. But before we can hit the trail, Lanning wants to introduce me to the rest of the crew - like Rivet.

Do you want to smell me?

D LANNING: Come here, Rivet.

RICHERT: Hi. You might smell my cats on me. That's a little weird, huh?

Rivet is a good-looking dog - blond hair, part husky, part greyhound, giving him those long legs he needs to take big strides, friendly too. And his bloodline is special. He's related to dogs used by Lance Mackey.

D LANNING: He's an Iditarod legend. He actually won four Iditarods in a row.

RICHERT: Rivet is the leader of one of today's teams, a quality not all dogs have.

D LANNING: It's always good to have that confident dog for a lead dog that'll listen to you and isn't afraid to run up front. You know, it's pretty easy to chase a tail.

RICHERT: Lanning says forming teams from the 40 dogs she cares for is one of the best parts of the job.

D LANNING: I just love it when they all come together as a team.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOGS BARKING)

RICHERT: It's finally time to race. I've learned how to get on and off the sled properly. I've learned how and when to brake. I've learned that my many years of downhill skiing will pay off when I have to lean into those turns. And I've learned that you don't say mush. That's just something Hollywood made up. For this first round, I'm going to be the passenger while Lanning guides the dogs.

Oh, my God. That was so fast. Woah. It's a little bumpy (laughter).

Being in the passenger seat so low to the ground, I'm getting sprayed with snow as the dogs kick it back. And from down here, this ride feels really fast. It's like you're part of the pack. One of the things I'm struck by is how quickly things quiet down. Those howling, impatient dogs from a few minutes ago are silent now, laser focused on their run.

It's really awesome just to watch all of their legs kind of running in sync with each other, too. It's really cool from this perspective down here.

After about 10 minutes...

D LANNING: OK. You want to try driving?

RICHERT: I think so.

D LANNING: OK. Come here...

RICHERT: Oh, my gosh.

D LANNING: ...With me, girl.

RICHERT: Dawn and I carefully swap spots driving the sled, making sure one of us always has a foot on the brake.

D LANNING: Ready? Let's go. On by, on by.

RICHERT: Woo-hoo. I'm doing it.

D LANNING: On by, on by, on by.

RICHERT: What a beautiful sport. What a way to enjoy the cold with a group of beautiful animals doing what they love. It's all joy. Just don't let go of the sled.

For NPR News, I'm Catharine Richert near Rochester, Minn.

(SOUNDBITE OF COM TRUISE'S "PROPAGATION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Catharine Richert