Ohio City’s Crowder sets sights on running Iditarod
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Will Shoemaker

Barks of anticipation give way to the sound of dogs’ feet kicking up snow as the team of 10 picks up speed. By the time they hit a steady run, musher Abigayil Crowder’s commands cease.

All is quiet — except for the sound of the sled whirring over the frozen ground.

“The best part about mushing is the views,” she says while redirecting her gaze from the dogs ahead to a series of peaks on the skyline — before rethinking the statement. “Well, the best part is the dogs, but the views are up there.”

Abigayil, or Abbie, is relatively new to dog sledding. Her first time on a “real” sled behind “real” dogs was about five years ago. But in that time, the 24-year-old has become obsessed. Abbie currently works as a tour guide for Gunnison’s Lucky Cat Dog Farm and has set a goal of running Alaska’s famed, 950-mile Iditarod in three years.

In fact, she’s dreamed of competing in the race since she was a young girl — thanks in no small part to the animated adventure film “Balto” about a dog by the same name that helped save children infected by diphtheria in the 1925 serum run to Nome, Alaska.

Abbie was born in Massachusetts, but with her father in the Navy, the family moved all over the country when she was young. She graduated from high school in New Mexico and attended college there for a few years before moving to the Gunnison Valley.

Abbie’s father currently works for the IT department at Western Colorado University. Her mother, Lee, works security at Western, and the family resides in Ohio City.

As a youngster, Abbie had a small dog that she trained to do all sorts of tricks. But by the time she turned 13, she wanted a big dog.

“I ended up getting an Alaskan husky that came from a 100-year line of dogs in Alaska,” Abbie explains. “All she wanted to do is run and pull, so that’s what we did.”

A spark is ignited

Initially, the duo partook in “bikejoring” — or Abbie riding a bike pulled by the dog.

Today, that dog — Breeze — is 11 years old and semi-retired. But on a recent outing up Quartz Creek, Breeze ran alongside the team (though untethered) with the vigor of a puppy.

“I learned a lot from Breeze,” Abbie says, recalling one instance when a run on hot pavement burned the dog’s paws. “Alaskan huskies are tough. She would have kept running through it if I had let her. Of course, I got her booties after that.”

But what began as a single sled dog has grown significantly. The Crowders now have 17 dogs in total — including eight Alaskan huskies and three Siberians.

Alaskan huskies are a unique breed of sled dog whose looks can vary widely. They’re a mix of many breeds — including Siberian husky, German shepherd, Inuit husky and border collie — and were developed for an ability to pull and work well as part of a team.

Most of Abbie’s dogs are rescued, and she’s acquired pooches from across North America.

“There are just so many dogs in shelters that need homes that would be incredible sled dogs,” Abbie explains.

Abbie runs between 10 and 14 dogs depending on the situation, and her team is called The Mushing Mutts.

Abbie’s mother, Lee, considers herself a primary point of moral support behind the team. But the mother also was drawn into the sport by her daughter.

Today, Lee has her own sled and will venture into the wide open with a team of dogs.

“We got a second sled and I said, ‘I’ll try it,’” Lee recalls. “I did it with two dogs and thought it was great fun, so I said I’d try it with four dogs.”

Fast forward a few years and Lee has now driven a 10-dog team.

“It’s addicting,” she says. “And the dogs are amazing.”

‘She’s very conscientious’

It helps that the Crowders live in Ohio City. In the summer months, Abbie trains the dogs by letting them pull an ATV along Gold Creek Road at night. It’s too warm for the dogs to exert themselves in such a way during daylight hours.

And in winter, the area provides sledable trails in nearly every direction.

But in addition to continuing to lead the public on tours, Abbie’s sights are set firmly on the race that first sparked an interest in dog sledding — the Iditarod.

Most of Abbie’s dogs are rescued, and she’s acquired pooches from across North America.

Later this month, she and her dogs will venture to Oregon for her first Iditarod qualifier — the 200-mile Eagle Cap Extreme. She’ll need two more 300-mile races to qualify for the Iditarod.

Not long after moving to the Gunnison Valley, Abbie was introduced to Becky Barkman, who’s owned Lucky Cat Dog farm for the last 30 years. Barkman says the qualities Abbie exhibits today are ideal for a guide.

“She’s very conscientious. She’s good with the people. She’s good with the dogs,” Barkman says. “She’s able to take direction and extrapolate that to a situation she’s never been before.”

As for Abbie’s aspirations of running the Iditarod?

“It’s not out of the question,” Barkman says. “I personally think it sounds crazy to run the Iditarod, but if I was 24 years old I might think differently.”

A start in racing

With a race under her belt later this month, Abbie plans to begin seeking sponsorship. The trip to Oregon will cost $600 in fuel alone, and another $500 in dog food.

“I wanted to give people proof that I’m serious about it,” Abbie says.

Getting the dogs in shape for such a race requires running them long distances. At the peak of training, Abbie runs the dogs 40-50 miles with a fourhour break between jaunts.

“I do that three times and then the fourth time I give them an eight-hour break,” Abbie explains.

But mushing is no easy task for the human in charge, either.

“I think you have to be a little masochistic to be a musher,” Abbie admits. “You have to run. You have to push the sled. Sometimes you have to go ahead of them with snowshoes to break trail.”

(Will Shoemaker is the former editor of The Gunnison Country Times)