Thank you for submitting the form. Your reference number is
They may be far away from their ancestral arctic origins, but Siberian huskies are right at home in the Victorian alps.
Story: Justine Costigan. Photos: Anne Morley.
By early June each year, overnight temperatures in Victoria’s alpine regions start dropping below zero, skiers begin obsessively monitoring snowfall, snow chains are checked and fondue pots dusted off as the thrill of winter in the mountains approaches. And not far away on a property near Omeo, Jake Greaves’ animal family of 58 Siberian huskies are raring to run.
These traditional sled dogs with a double fur coat are highly intelligent and blessed with extraordinary speed and endurance. Their intrinsic desire to run in packs has been harnessed for transport and haulage by Arctic communities for thousands of years.
Jake’s huskies pull sleds for visitors to Dinner Plain, Mount Hotham and Mount Baw Baw through the winter season. His Howling Huskies tours run on bush trails on alpine resort land with up to eight powerful dogs pulling a sled at top speed. It’s a joyous and raucous experience for passengers, but do the dogs enjoy it too?
‘They run because they want to’
“You’ll see,” says Jake, as he heads with the buggy (a sled with tyres for when there is no snow) towards a handsome pack of dogs relaxing under a tree at Mount Baw Baw. “You can’t make the dogs run, they do it because they want to.”
As Jake approaches, the huskies start jumping for attention in a dog version of “Pick me, pick me!”. Two start howling with excitement, then they all join the canine choir until safely hooked up to their harnesses.
With barely any encouragement from their musher (driver), they’re off, running at speed through the winding bush trail. Each dog has a role in the team – leaders at the front, strongest at the back – and they work together seamlessly. After each run, the dogs rest. There are strict health and safety rules limiting how often they run and there are no sled tours when the temperature rises above 15 degrees.
Running or walking, they draw a crowd
Despite their appeal as pets, Jake says the breed is often misunderstood. “They are lots of work,” he acknowledges, which may explain why so many are surrendered by their owners. All but 14 of Jake’s 58 dogs have been rescued, and with him they have a home for life. Older dogs no longer run, instead leading ‘snow-play’ walking tours. Running or walking, they draw a crowd, and their pack-dog heritage makes them good with people.
In some communities they also have hero status. In 1925 in remote Nome, Alaska, huskies pulling sleds brought desperately needed diphtheria serum to the town. The 674-mile expedition through blizzards in -50c temperatures became known as the Great Race of Mercy, and a commemorative statue of lead dog Balto still stands in Central Park, New York.
The Victorian ski season begins on the Queens Birthday long weekend, 9 to 11 June.