Photos and text by Rocky Hoffmann
Everyone thinks it odd that a 73-year-old grandmother is running a team of dogs in front of a sled....especially in Nebraska.
When Joyce McNeil of North Platte goes for a sleigh ride, it involves a whole lot more than a simple slide down a hill on a Flexible Flyer. In fact, McNeil’s style of sledding doesn’t even require a hill, because gravity has little to do with it. Powered by as many as six huskies, McNeil can run her sled up or down most hills and go flat out fast on level ground.
“Everyone thinks it odd that a 73-year-old grandmother is running a team of six dogs in front of a sled … especially in Nebraska,” Joyce said of her unique sport as she led each dog from the kennel to a tie-out chain near her sled.
Joyce is a small lady, and it wasn’t without difficulty that she handled each dog across icy footing to the sled.
“They were born to pull. It doesn’t matter to them whether they’re pulling the sled or me around in my boots. In fact, while I’m hitching them up, I have to tie the sled to a tree until everything is in place and ready to go, including me,” said Joyce.
Each dog is hitched in an assigned order depending on his or her ability and skill. The “wheel dogs,” Mushnuk and Yukon, are the hardest-working dogs of the team and are the dogs closest to the sled. The “team dogs” in the center of the hitch are Mushski and Zorro. Team dogs are used to provide extra power to the hitch. There may be as many as eight team dogs on larger hitches of twelve or more dogs.
“My ‘lead dogs’ are Mushdog and Shammu. Ideally, these are the dogs that direct the team upon my commands. I have no reins or lines to the dogs like one would have with a team of horses, but as with horses, the commands are ‘haw’ for left, ‘gee’ for right and, of course, ‘whoa’ for stop. Those are the three primary commands, but in reality my lead dogs don’t respond as I would like them. A while back my veteran lead dog was run over and killed, and Mushdog and Shammu stepped in with no experience in that position. Because they don’t always listen, I don’t know where we’re going to end our run. I have a brake on my sled, however, which gives me the ability to enforce the ‘whoa’ command before we get too far in the wrong direction. Then I get them back on trail and off we go again. They’ll eventually learn the commands.”
All the dogs are husky and Samoyed-cross except for Mushnuk, who is a Siberian husky/Alaskan Malamute cross. Siberian huskies, Alaskan Malamutes and Samoyeds are all northern breeds of working dogs. Siberian huskies originated in eastern Siberia and were first bred by the Chukchi tribes. They are medium-sized dogs but quite capable of working in severe Arctic cold. Malamutes descend from dogs of the Mahlemut tribe of northwestern Alaska. Malamutes are large dogs that are capable of pulling heavy loads long distances. Samoyed dogs derive their name from the Samoyedic people of Siberia. They were used to herd reindeer and to pull sleds during nomadic journeys.
Joyce’s past is not typical of most “mushers.” Being a native Nebraskan, selecting a snow sport would usually rank far from the top of the list of favorites, and taking up such a demanding sport is not normally something begun at age 66. Coming from a farm and ranch background and running a large dairy herd while raising five children, however, Joyce was not afraid of the work that caring for and handling a team of large dogs requires.
Even when she adopted her first husky from the North Platte animal shelter, she had no intentions other than making the dog a pet and providing it a good home. The dog had belonged to a man who had moved into the North Platte area from Colorado and didn’t have a place to keep him. Joyce was amazed at how fast and strong the animal was. In order to exercise him, she’d take him down a country road, holding the leash out the window of the pickup truck.
About the time Joyce was wondering what in the world she was doing with such a hard running dog, another man, this one moving to Colorado, gave Joyce a purebred Siberian husky female. Things began to click in Joyce’s mind, and soon she adopted two more huskies. Now she had a team, be it small and consisting of only wheel dogs and lead dogs. Son Mike built a wheeled cart for her summer use and a sled for winter.
Joyce recalled her frustration. “I knew absolutely nothing about dog sledding. I had never seen a dog harness and had no idea how to hook sled dogs up other than tying the whole bunch together with ropes. As fast as I’d tie one to the hitch and go to another, the first one would chew through the rope. As expected, they were all eager to run, but I had little understanding at the time how difficult it would be to handle them while hitching the team to the cart or sled. There had to be a system.”
While she was building makeshift harnesses and learning to handle her dogs, she was also building kennels, doghouses and a large exercise pen. Fencing had to be strong enough and tall enough to keep them confined.
“They are working dogs, and they’ll work hard to get out and run because that’s what they like to do!”
Then tragedy struck in 1998. That very desire to get out and run resulted in Joyce losing three of her dogs. The heartbreak wasn’t over – that same year, both of her parents and four close friends passed away. Grief pushed its way into Joyce’s life and took over.
“I had one dog, the purebred female, and a big empty kennel. It was decision time. My answer surprisingly came in the mail in 1999. It was a brochure about an expedition-type adventure in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota. The advertisement, among other things, was for a hands-on experience in dog sledding. I would drive a sled, perform health checks on dogs, camp in the snow, cross-country ski, travel by snowshoes, navigate and learn winter survival. Most inviting to me was this was also a ‘life renewal’ course, something that I desperately needed at that time.”
Joyce deeply believes in fate and is strongly vested in faith. When she finally called for reservations, there happened to be one opening left, and the expedition was to begin on her 67th birthday. Her age, however, sent up a red flag with the expedition hosts.
“They required me to have a complete physical examination and my doctor’s written permission,” Joyce recalled.
She was informed by the expedition that she would be required to run three miles in 35 minutes on uneven terrain while toting a 45-pound pack. Not a problem, it was only July and the expedition didn’t start until December 27.
“Regardless of all the preparation in store for me, the first thing I did was get my lone surviving purebred female bred. What could be more uplifting than a box full of warm fuzzy puppies?” Joyce said.
Joyce remembered that the expedition was everything it was advertised to be, an absolutely unique learning experience for novice dog handlers. What was most rewarding was that she was with people that talked about and enjoyed the same sport. Not many people talked about dog sledding back in Nebraska.
“I also enjoyed the wilderness, the quiet and peaceful setting, where the only interruption was the nightly howling of the dogs and the answer from gray wolves,” Joyce recalled.
She arrived home eager to get started and much more knowledgeable about her sport. Being an accomplished leather craftsman, she reenlisted her old heavy-duty Singer sewing machine and began fashioning harness. She purchased an authentic gang line to replace the cobbled up ropes that her previous team had chewed. The wheel cart was an excellent training device for the five puppies that arrived in March following her expedition, but Joyce knew that as the dogs matured, the cart would be too light and therefore too dangerous for her to handle.
In the procession of wheel carts, Joyce then found a stripped down ATV to which she welded a horseshoe for a hitch and mounted a metal seat from a hay rake. Last summer, daughter Julie presented her with a commercial, heavy-duty child’s coasting cart, that she adapted to be pulled by dogs.
“I may have raised a few eyebrows from neighboring ranchers with some of my past contraptions, but I was proud of all my adaptations. If you know ranchers, you know they can’t help but poke a little good spirited fun at you, especially if you have a hobby as unique as mine. One rancher accused me of running all the deer out of the country on the opening day of deer season. I couldn’t help it that it snowed on that particular day, but I sure wasn’t going to waste the first snow.”
Another dog sledding expedition in 2000 put her in the company of instructor Paul Schurke, who was a member of the team that made the first dog sled expedition to the North Pole without support of new supplies since Robert Peary accomplished the feat in 1909. Joyce faced much greater challenges and rougher territory in this expedition and returned ready to take on anything Nebraska had to offer. Later that year, however, tragedy struck again when Joyce suffered a debilitating back injury that resulted in chronic pain.
Unable to exercise her dogs, she did what she knew was best for them and gave them up to a dog sledding business in Leadville, Colorado, along with harness, kennel and trailer. A year later the pain still continued to plague her, but fate stepped in once again. The sledding business in Colorado had done well and the folks who bought her team asked her to come out and drive the van picking up guests at Vail and serve as a tour guide. Along with her new responsibilities came renewed vigor for life as she would again be with her dogs.
Joyce returned to Nebraska in the spring, bringing Mushski with her. Mushski had become too slow for the rest of the 12-dog team that she was a part of. She provided companionship while Joyce sought alternative medical treatments for her back injury. One of the procedures finally worked, and she became pain free. Another call came from Colorado, this time with bad news – one of her dogs had gotten free and was killed on the highway."
Do you want your other dogs back?” asked the kennel owner, knowing how upset Joyce was about her dog and how much she missed all of them. Fate had intervened again.
“My dogs are coming home!”
The dogs had worked for three years and Joyce estimated they ran at least 1,000 miles each year. They had matured and become much easier to handle, even jumping onto a bench to be harnessed. Joyce now shares her sport and her experience with various organizations, churches and youngsters in the North Platte area.
During last winter’s final snow, she hitched four dogs to an antique racing sled given to her by daughter Shannon, and tucked nine-year-old Erin Weaver of North Platte into a wool Hudson Bay blanket. Striking off through shelterbelts that lined a Sandhills trail, the dogs were at their best. The ride was stunning and so fascinated her young rider that they returned to the kennel and hitched all six dogs to a safer, more sturdy sled required by the additional dogs. This time Joyce mushed her team into the deeply dissected, cedar-lined canyons southeast of North Platte. An eerie fog dampened nearly all sounds, while amplifying the icy song of the steel runners on the sled. That evening, as the dogs rested in the snow and Joyce and Erin stared into the fire, Erin told Joyce that she had just had “the best day of her life.”
Joyce, a remarkable lady, who had nearly given up on her hobby as well as life in general, could not have been more rewarded.