LIVINGSTON, MT - January 7, 2013 - The sound is chaotic and deafening. Out of context the high-pitched wails might imply something cataclysmic, but here, the piercing cries speak not to impending doom but to pure primal joy. These yelps are the cries of sled dogs as their mushers from Absaorka Dog Sled Treks prepare them to take guests of Montana’s Chico Hot Springs Resort on an 18-mile dogsled trek through the state’s transcendent Absaroka Mountains.
Chico Hot Springs Resort is located in the heart of Paradise Valley in the foothills of the Absaroka Mountains, forty-five minutes from Livingston and a short drive from one of the gates of Yellowstone National Park. It has long been one of Montana’s most unique and historic family-run resorts.
The grand hotel is an experience in itself. It offers a wide range of accommodations, from small inexpensive rooms in the resort’s main lodge to isolated well- appointed cabins with epic views of Paradise Valley. Chico Hot Springs offers enough entertainment and activities for a family excursion and enough luxury and exquisite isolation to be a prime destination for couples trying to get away from it all.
Guests at this charming, rustic hotel will no doubt lose themselves in the dining room’s extensive wine list and abundant menu rich with a variety of lamb, steak, and trout dishes. Guests could also spend an entire blustery, snowy weekend warming up in the Hot Springs pools.
But the hotel’s many and varied activities are truly what make Chico a unique winter destination.
While a horseback ride through the snowy stretches of Paradise Valley is a quintessential winter activity here (and is offered by the resort), guests would be remiss, not to take an afternoon to bundle up, hunker down, and head off into the Absaroka Mountains with a musher, a team of Siberian and Alaskan Huskies, and a specially made picnic basket for lunch in the snowy Montana wilderness.
Chico and its team of mushers at Absaroka Dogsled Treks have been running dog sleds since 1990. While it is pricey, starting at $120 for a half day and going up to $320 for a full day and picnic, visitors would be hard-pressed to find a more unique and exhilarating way to explore the Absaroka Mountains than behind a team of jubilant canines.
Before heading off into the snow, guests (treks are also available to non-guests) learn dog sled protocol. At Chico, guests are given their own “mushers” as well as an opportunity to drive the team themselves. And while it isn’t complicated or frightening, the basics are a necessity.
The well-trained dogs respond to tones as much as to actual words. To get the dogs started, mushers use a high-pitched and enthusiastic “let’s go, let’s go” to excite them and keep the team moving. To stop the pack, whether to free another sled that is stuck or simply slow to safely maneuver a bend, mushers deepen their voices and call out “whooooaaa,” exaggerating the “oooo” for emphasis.
The baskets on these basket-style sleds are handmade, easily manageable, and weigh about forty pounds. The musher stands at the back of the basket with his or her foot on a brake designed to slow the sled if necessary. Baskets also come with an anchor that must be set when the sled is stopped. If this is not done, and the dogs get excited and want to take off, they’ll do just that and the sled and team will be gone.
Because of the low temperatures and distances the dogs endure, guests often inquire about their wellbeing. The guide is quick to explain that these dogs are born and bred to run. They are also genetically designed to tolerate extremely low temperatures and are actually most comfortable when these temperatures dip below freezing.
If that isn’t reassurance enough, the dogs themselves are testament to their own happiness. When they reach the trailhead and are let out of their cages, their yelps and barks are a blissful contrast to the otherwise silent forest. The dogs greet each other like long-lost war buddies about to fight one last battle as they are lined up according to strength, size and ability to follow command.
If they choose, guests can hold the dogs in place as the mushers line up the sleds, single file, and put the dogs in their harnesses. Guests are then seated in the baskets and again oriented to the workings of the sled. With the cry of “let’s go, let’s go,” the teams take off.
The pace is brisk and the dogs kick up snow as they run in perfect order up the hill. At steep inclines the mushers help out, kicking alongside the sled like a child propelling a skateboard.
The mushers point out moose and bobcat tracks, explaining that while there is wildlife all around, most animals hide from the sled dogs. And while seeing a moose would make this unbelievable experience even more sublime, wildlife is only a fleeting thought. The dogs’ harmonious efforts against the backdrop of the Montana wilderness are more than enough to take any adventurer out of space and time.
More than two hours pass along ridges and through dense forest, the sleds come to a stop. The dogs are rewarded with treats and scratches on the neck. The mushers set up a picnic of French onion soup (a Chico Hot Springs specialty), sandwiches, cheese, hot cocoa, and tea. Snow falls gently as the dogs rest and hydrate by eating snow while guests take in their epic surroundings.
After an hour, the teams are restructured and the guests become the mushers, wandering along the trail, down the mountain, and back to the trucks that will return them to the hotel. Guests make their way back to their rooms, grab their bathing suits and reconvene around the pools, all of which are filled daily by water from natural hot springs. Behind them loom the Absaroka Mountains, mountains that now, thanks to a team of man’s best friends, they all know a little better.
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