By Tony Adams, Sports Editor
Dynamite comes in small packages, no doubt about it. The same can be said about Belton Journal Managing Editor Devin Corbitt. A 2014 graduate of Southwestern University in Georgetown, the 22-year-old Corbitt has never shied away from challenges. Instead, she has tackled everything she has taken on. Including her latest venture: dogsledding.
Dog power has been used for hunting and travel for over a thousand years. As far back as the 10th century these dogs have contributed to human culture. Assembling a dog sled team involves picking lead dogs, point dogs, swing dogs (primarily in an eight-dog team) and wheel dogs. Lead dogs are crucial, so mushers take particular care of these dogs. Corbitt’s excursion started at the Northern Tier Okpik Boy Scout Camp in Ely, Minn. The group was comprised of three men, three women, one female guide and one male guide.
“We had three, six-dog teams on our trip,” Corbitt said. “I was able to work with all three teams during the three-day excursion, which, being the animal lover I am, made me more than willing to brave the cold and the challenges.” Asked if the dog teams differed in work ethic and overall agility, Corbitt felt that the first-team was the most disciplined and easiest to work with, due to their experience and intelligence.
“We had some issues initially with the second and third teams’ pairings,” Corbitt explained. “When we rearranged the pairings according to complimentary personalities, though, the teams worked perfectly together and we made a lot more progress.” Although having good lead dogs is critical, it is important, as well, to have powerful wheel dogs to pull the sled through the snow. Point dogs are located behind the lead dogs (in the eight-dog set up, point dogs are optional), swing dogs (if utilized) are between the point and wheel dogs, and team dogs are all other dogs in between the wheel and swing dogs and are selected for their endurance, strength and speed as part of the team.
In dog sledding, Siberian Huskies, Alaskan Huskies or Alaskan malamutes are the main types of dogs used for recreational sledding, because of their attractive looks and willingness to work. Alaskan Huskies are the most popular breed for sled dog racing, because of their endurance, good eating habits, speed and dedication to running even when tired. For this excursion, the majority of the dogs were Alaskan Huskies.
“Much like people, dogs also have different personalities,” Corbitt said. “The dogs that we had were all hard workers being Alaskan Huskies, but they certainly were made for different tasks. The lead dogs are very smart and attentive; the point dogs are energetic and keep the lead dogs from losing steam; and the wheel dogs are the work horses of the group.”
At the conclusion of the first day, Corbitt learned that the conditioning for dogsledding was quite a bit more than she bargained for.
“When you first get out on the trails, you learn that breathing is much, much harder in cold air,” Corbitt said. “You just have to deal with the burning sensation in your lungs. Once you get used to that, cardio is key. You don’t get to just ride on the sled all day. You have to help the dogs, run along side the sled and help push it uphill and sometimes run ahead to help make pathways for the dogs. You utilize all of your muscle groups, and if you are not in correct shape or condition, you can really hurt yourself.”
Following the first day on the trails, the excursion called for a campout on Moose Lake, just outside of Ely, Minn. Because of the freshly fallen snow, this was easier said than done. The group slept outside the first night beneath the stars – and frost.
“We didn’t make it to the planned campout point; in fact, we ended up a half-mile short of the stop point for the night,” Corbitt said. “It worked better than we expected because the location where we stopped had a better wind-break. The temperature the first night was negative 27 degrees Fahrenheit…without the wind-chill. Those dogs knew exactly what they where doing.” Being 5-1 and all of 100 pounds (the weight minimum is 100 pounds to even be able to make the excursion), her physical stature had capabilities and limitations.
“With being small and light, I was extremely versatile in what I do to help out the excursion,” Corbitt said. “It also allowed me to interact with the dogs better without having an intimidating presence. However, it also kept me colder than the others because of inability to produce similar body heat.” The second day on the trails involved a day-trip to the Canadian border. At the end of the second day, the excursion included spending the night in Inuit quinsy.
“A quinsy is basically a snow house,” Corbitt explained. “You make a big pile of snow, let it set for at least six hours and then you hollow it out. Our quinsy was started the first night, so the snow was nice and packed. The size of our quinsy was five-and-a-half feet tall by eight-feet long by six feet wide (264 square feet). Because snow acts as an insulator, the quinsy stayed a ‘cozy’ 30 degrees Fahrenheit.”
The third day of the excursion continued through the frozen Great Northwoods, making their way back to Okpik. Once the teams returned to Okpik, Corbitt said it wasn’t as easy as just leaving everything.
“The dogs always come first,” Corbitt said. “We made sure the dogs were taken care of before we went about our business. We unharnessed them, put them in their houses and gave them one last hug before we went on our way.”
Always a work-first type of woman, Corbitt could not go to bed following the three-day excursion. She immediately went work on Jan. 8 edition of The Belton Journal and Jan. 9 edition of The Harker Heights Evening Star. But not without experiencing a much-needed luxury or two.
“A hot shower was first on the list,” Corbitt said. “We smelled so, so bad when we got back to the camp. You never would think you would smell that bad from the cold. But you have no idea. A good meal and little nap helped as well.” At the conclusion of the excursion, Corbitt was reflective on the experience. It is one that not many people from Texas would even consider attempting. But she is not your average cowgirl.
“I don’t hate the cold in Texas as much as I thought I did,” Corbitt joked. “But seriously, I have a newfound respect for dogs and their responsibilities and roles. It takes a special breed of dog to be able to work in inclement conditions such as these and it takes hearty people to brave some of the most brutal conditions, not only in blizzards and blustery conditions, but in blinding sunny conditions were it gets so cold it can’t snow and all you have is sun and wind.”
The Iditarod is the most popular dogsledding race in North America, which starts on March 7 in Anchorage, AK. Asked if she would consider an Iditarod race, Corbitt shivered for a moment. Then, as only she would respond: “Uh, no,” Corbitt said, laughingly. “There are challenges in life that meant to be endured and there are special people to take on those challenges. This Southern girl is not one of them.”