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Snow Dogs of the Cascades

Mt. Bachelor has gone to the dogs. Every day, several dozen canines are mixed in with the humans who work and play on the flanks of Bend’s ski hill. Whether they are the rescue dogs trained to save lives in the case of an avalanche, or the sled dogs raised to ferry humans quickly and safely over the snow, these pups are not spending this winter lying around by the fire. Meet the dogs of the Cascades.

Ski Patrol Avalanche Dogs

Time is of the essence when looking for a buried skier. Bachelor’s ski patrol veteran and Snow Safety Supervisor Betsy Norsen says 90% of avalanche victims will survive if they’re recovered in the first 15 minutes after burial. This statistic drops to 30% after a half hour, and just 10% after two hours.

That’s where man’s best friend comes in. A single, trained rescue dog can search two and half acres in 30 minutes, while 20 humans using avalanche probes would take about four hours to cover the same area. This is due in part to the fact that these athletic and intelligent animals have a far greater sense of smell than people do. “I’ve heard that a dog has anywhere from 10,000 times to 100,000 times more of an acute sense of smell than humans,” says Norsen. “Scientists say dogs can detect most odors at concentrations of parts per trillion.”Mt. Bachelor “employs” five rescue dogs, most commonly referred to as “avy” dogs. The four-legged pros partner with a ski patrol handler and train seven days a week, year round. “We train our dog teams constantly,” says Norsen as she pats veteran avy dog and black Labrador, Riggins, on the head. “What that consists of is a simulation of someone buried in an avalanche. We dig holes or caves and hide an object or a ski patroller in the hole, cover it with lots of snow and then turn our dogs loose. One of our dogs will dig out a person in a matter of minutes, and of course they’re rewarded with either a tug toy or a food treat.”

Rescue dogs were first used by Swiss monks in the early 18th century on the St. Bernard Pass, a treacherous route between Italy and Switzerland known as ‘white death’ because of the harsh weather. Saint Bernard dogs helped the monks navigate during bad storms due to their keen sense of direction, smell and resistance to the cold. Napoleon’s army of 250,000 soldiers credited their lives to the dogs and the monks when they crossed the pass during their campaign, and later, in the 1930s, the Swiss Army started training and using avalanche dogs.

Mt. Bachelor’s avy dogs are the best of the litter, from German shepherd, border collie and golden retriever lines. Unlike the monks who used the Saint Bernards of lore, the ski patrol needs fast and nimble dogs. “We look for good stamina,” says Norsen. “With one litter, while we were playing with the puppies, there was one who didn’t want to stop playing when his siblings went back to their mom and fell asleep. We knew this dog would be a good candidate as an avy dog.”

Fortunately, the Mt. Bachelor dogs haven’t faced a real life-and-death situation at the resort since they were introduced into the ski patrol in the early 1990s. Still, the dogs are rigorously trained and certified either through the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association, the Wasatch Backcountry Rescue in Alta, Utah, or the Grand Targhee School in Wyoming. The Steven’s Pass Avalanche Dog School (in Washington), where Swiss instructors are flown in to teach the handlers and the dogs, is another intensive training program the dogs undergo in the summer. Every year the dogs are featured on T-shirts that are sold at the mountain to help pay for these training schools.

Snow Dogs of the Cascades

A Dog Day

It’s early dawn on Mt. Bachelor, long before the first skier or snowboarder will arrive. Professional ski patrollers Tyler Buwalda and Simcha Lachman and their dogs Banyan and Flash have swept the mountain, looking for possible hazards and dangers. Both Banyan, a four-year-old golden retriever, and Flash, a two-year-old silver Labrador, are trained to do their patrols either running alongside their ski patroller or just between their skis.

“No doubt about it, they’re hard-working dogs,” explains Lachman. “They have to learn to ride the ski lifts without being scared—Flash is still learning that. They have to be able to ride a snowmobile, too.”

“I would seriously trust my life to Banyan,” says Buwalda as he takes some boxes out of his truck and hides a scarf underneath one of them. Within seconds, Banyan has discovered the object. “It’s a game to them, but all their training and their senses could save your life, if you really needed them.” 

Both Buwalda and Lachman say it’s hard and dangerous work for all the avy dogs, which is why Mt. Bachelor carries health insurance on all of them. Some of the danger they face is something you might not expect—unintentional but entirely avoidable injury inflicted on them by resort guests who lose control of their equipment. “Unfortunately, I’ve had skiers approach who couldn’t quite stop, and they’ve cut the dogs with their skis or boards, which required stitches,” says Lachman. 

The rescue dogs are well socialized, but ski patrollers caution skiers who see the avy dogs to ask first if they can be petted, because they may be in training and working. “Just like people, dogs have good days and bad days, so always ask the trainer if you can pet them.”

Back in Norsen’s office in the ski patrol room, Riggins casually saunters back to his warm kennel. While it may seem like quite the dog life, make no mistake about it. Says Norsen, “When he’s out on the snow and he hears the word ‘search’ or ‘work,’ Riggins is ready to go into instant action.”

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The Speedsters

If you’ve been up on the mountain by the Sunrise chairlift, you’ve probably heard the excited yelping of the Mt. Bachelor dogs who just want to run and run and run some more. These are the Oregon Trail of Dreams sled dogs,
who every day are eager to sprint the snowy trails.

With these dogs, you will likely find Rachel Scdoris, her husband Nick Salerno and their two-year-old son Julian Scdoris-Salerno. If you’re lucky, you may even encounter the founder of the company, Jerry Scdoris, who looks a bit like Santa Claus, with a full beard covered in snow and icicles. Jerry has now retired, and he turned the reins over to his daughter and her husband. The dog sled season runs the same time frame as the ski season, but just as with the avy dogs, sled dog teams train all year long.

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Born to Run

It’s a very frigid morning in fall on the 40-acre
Scdoris dog ranch out in Alfalfa. Jerry has eight dogs hitched to a large, wheeled cart, and they are halfway through their training workout. More than a hundred dogs reside on this ranch, each with his or her own dog house made from wooden utility spools with doors cut into the middle section and straw tucked inside. They train every morning at 6 am, seven days a week, all year round. Each dog is trained to run with a pack while pulling either a race sled or a tour sled.

“The race dog teams are our financial black hole, and the tour dog teams help us finance the race dogs,” jokes Rachel. She and Jerry both race in formal sled dog competitions—Rachel was the first blind musher to enter the Iditarod Race in Alaska, not once but five different times. “It cost at least $100,000 in training and other expenses every time I ran the Iditarod. It’s the tour dogs that go to Mt. Bachelor that make it all possible.”

Jerry brings one of the teams in, and Rachel gives water to each of the dogs. Lead dogs Bolt and Sydney are raring to go, leaping forward as the other tethered dogs get their water. Jerry likens the sled dogs to over-enthusiastic children who can’t wait to get out there and run. “They’re like 7th graders in NFL bodies; they have so much energy,” says Jerry. With the dogs rehydrated, they’re off again in a flash.

“The dogs will run anywhere from 30 to 60 miles during a work out, at various speeds from 14 to 17 miles per hour, which is what the dog teams must run during training to be competitive,” says Rachel.

After the workout, the dogs are unhitched one by one and they dutifully scamper to their private doghouses to eat. Jerry estimates they go through thousands of pounds of meat a week and as the temperature drops they’ll eat even more. “We soak about 100 pounds of raw chicken to make a broth to go with the dry dog food every day,” he says. “Then they also get snacks of beef fat two or three times a day. They eat like a pack of wolves.”

Later, while the adult dogs rest, thirteen puppies born this past summer are playing in the puppy nursery. Racing dogs are all originally descended from Alaskan huskies, and over the decades other breeds, such as the English pointer, the border collie and the Australian shepherd, were added to this sled dog race line. Little Julian toddles over to one of them, and the puppy, standing at about the same height, happily licks Julian’s face.

Rachel explains that these pups have big careers ahead of them, if they can prove their mettle. “I’d say out of a hundred dogs, only about 16% will be fast and strong enough to make the race team. They’re the elite running athletes, and you can only go as fast as your slowest dog on the line,” she says. “The ones who don’t make the race teams will usually become our tour dogs for the visitors at Mt. Bachelor, because you don’t really want to be going that fast with tourists.”

Coming up with names for more than a hundred dogs is no easy task, so they use categories for each new puppy litter. “These puppies are named after great writers and poets, so there you see Harper and Chaucer,” says Rachel. “Every four years we name them after Olympic athletes, and we’ve had the musicians and composers category, so we have dogs named Brahms and Mozart.” Jerry adds, “Don’t forget the year when you were a little girl, where we named them after every Disney character.”

On busy days at Mt. Bachelor, as many as 80 dogs leave the ranch and travel to the mountain so that each 10-dog team can get rest between the dog sled rides. Oregon Trail of Dreams provides hour-long rides or longer excursions out to Elk Lake. Part of the reward for the Oregon Trail of Dreams crew is the joy a sled ride brings to tour goers. Jerry recalls his most memorable dog sled tour. “This family brought their grandfather out who had cancer and told me it was on his bucket list of things to do. I let him ride on the runners of the sled with me, up in front, making sure he was secure, of course, and when we got back, he had tears streaming down his face, he was so happy,” recalls Jerry. “Everyone was crying.”

Rachel explains that, just like humans, sled dogs also slow down with age and some develop stiff joints. The dogs are usually retired at age seven. This gives visitors to Mt. Bachelor another very unique opportunity: “Almost every week in the winter, I’ll bring up one of our retired sled dogs that needs a good home. Almost inevitably, we are able to give away one of our special older dogs,” says Rachel. Just think—next time you visit the mountain, you just might be able to leave with a Mt. Bachelor dog of your very own. 

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