A forty-paw adventure through the Stillwater State Forest with one man’s best friends
It’s the far off sound of howling and yelping that has us winding up a snow-packed, narrow road with curiosity. Within moments, the dense, flake-dusted trees give way to a field of huts and perches where dogs with golden eyes and thick coats jostle against their chains and point their noses to the skies and let out a long, loud whine as we put the car in park in front of a small lodge.
At first glance you might be fearful for them, out here where our noses are blushing red and running—where the heat from the tips of our fingers is already retreating inward. But they are waiting for us, celebrating our arrival because the time for work has finally come. We are at their home and the home of Jeff Ulsamer—their master, friend, and loving co-worker—to indulge in the adventure of dog sledding. It feels primitive and wild as if we are thousands of miles into the depths of the forest, soaking in the chaos of dogs at every turn as we traverse our way through them, petting those that are lunging at us in excitement.
Jeff and a few young men make up the team that readies these dogs for action, unclipping them from their cave-like homes and walking them to their designated places along the line leading to a sled where we are about to take our seats. The sled we will ride in is hand built by Jeff—wood that creaks and sings with each movement the team is making to prepare for our ride. It’s an inviting place for our jittering limbs now covered in a heap of blankets and furs.
It seems the energy has changed. The dogs clipped to our sled are wide-eyed and thrusting forward and those still chained to their homes are screaming in jealousy. Our dogs know what they are about to do, each of them looking ahead at the snowy path that leads to a cathedral of trees.
And we’re off—lurching forward as if by motor and not the sheer power of 40 paws peppering us with bits of snow as we get underway. We are whisked away into a near silent winter wonderland where the air is biting at us and our bellies are in our throats, stirring our laughter and igniting our adrenaline. The dogs have quieted and allowed for the low thumping of the sled on snow around curves and down long straightaways. We are here, winding through the Stillwater State Forest, because of the twists and turns Jeff has taken in his own life. After having been raised in Brooklyn, New York, Jeff moved to Colorado following his love of skiing until he broke his leg on a visit back East.
“I couldn’t get out skiing with my friends so I had dogs pulling me around on cross-country skis and that’s really how I started,” said Jeff.
He leans into the turns and calls to them. Good dogs, good dogs.
“You can never think of having a job this crazy,” said Jeff, recounting his time in Colorado and stumbling upon Montana on the way to Alaska one year, pleasantly detoured by the friendly natured people and stunning scenery. He had a business of giving dog sled rides to people in Steamboat Springs with 11 of his own personal dogs, all of which came from the pound, but that number climbed upward to 42 dogs before he purchased land in Olney, Montana, where he and his dogs (and two horses) would call home.
Jeff has never had the itch to compete in dog sled races. Instead, he thrives on the dogs’ passion for the sport, for their love of life, and the work that they long to do.
“Dogs just love to work. They’re so honest, they love their jobs. …Some dogs may not have been as good as others but they all try as hard as they can try. They’re just like people,” said Jeff. “A lot of people don’t understand how much a dog can love their work because they never did. That’s what gives me the inspiration to do this because I could never do this if I had to make the dogs do it. I’m just enabling the dogs to do something that they love.”
Good boys, good girls, that’s a good dog. Jeff speaks to them and they seem to give us a new gear, heaving themselves into a steep hill, their shoulders rising and falling, their heads turning to look at us and each other.
Jeff’s passion and dedication are an important part of what sets his dog sled adventure business apart but it’s also the point at which this whole journey began—for Jeff and his dogs. From his 11 rescues, Jeff’s pack has grown to a rowdy and loving 125, most of which have been rescued from the less desirable chapters of their lives. He currently homes 30 retired dogs that are reaping their hard-earned benefits, living out their days (sometimes into their 20s) under the light of the starry big sky.
We can hear the familiar cries as our path starts to widen and the dogs begin to slow. The thrill of our return can be seen in the steamy clouds of dog breath, their tongues long and flickering beneath their smiles. We watch our dogs take their places back in their homes as Jeff readies their meals—25 pounds of salmon, plus vitamins, minerals, and stabilized rice bran for their coats. It is a dog’s favorite song set on repeat. And it is for Jeff, too.
“I could never get paid for the amount of hours I’ve got into it. I do it because I love it and if you really love what you do,” said Jeff, “it’s not work.”
We cheer beneath the warm glow of the lodge, to the fresh oatmeal cookies, hot chocolate, good dogs, and a good life.