360 miles in 360 degrees: Mushing in Northern California

 

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Mushing, dog racing, dog sledding—no matter what you call it, it’s going to require a lot of snow. In Adin, California, 360 miles north of Stanford University, lies a long dirt road and a lot of snow, and six miles down this dirt road lies musher Hugo Antonucci’s pride and joy: R&R Huskies, his dog racing kennel. Antonucci is the owner of R&R Huskies and president of the Sierra Nevada Dog Drivers, a northern California dog racing club. Accompanied by April Cox, his training partner, owner of Sumbawa Siberians, Antonucci explained that he had moved to Adin with his wife (not present that day) more than 30 years ago to run his dog kennel and has lived there ever since.

Antonucci fell into mushing after he agreed to take in a husky puppy from his sister. The puppy became very destructive in the house, and after a few recommendations to find a companion for the dog, he took in another husky. He then joined a Bay Area Siberian husky club and decided to try a sled with the two dogs, which he found enjoyable. After a few runs, he started purchasing more dogs, bought a sled and started doing winter camping while taking the dogs out with the sled. After two dogs came four, then six and then eventually 12 dogs—Antonucci now has more than 30 dogs in his kennel.

“The logic behind was that the more dogs I had, the farther I could go,” he says.

Antonucci, a Bay Area native, prefers northern California to the rest of the state. After moving to Adin so it would allow him to run his dogs starting in September, he appreciates the friendly people and the rural environment.

“The difference between northern California and say, the Bay Area, where I grew up, is the people,” he says. “People are much different here. When I lived in Los Banos, I had neighbors—didn’t really know them, weren’t very social. Up here, I can tell you everybody that lives on this road. They wouldn’t hesitate to help me out if I needed it, and I wouldn’t hesitate to help them. Just the climate up here with the people is so much different. They’re maybe more down to Earth, if you want to put it that way.”

Aside from the people, Antonucci enjoys the wide open space taking his dogs out to the national forest, where they can run for miles with no one in sight. After passing the national park gate two miles from his home, Antonucci can take his dogs all the way to Ash Valley, 20 miles from Adin.

“We can go to some of our favorite campgrounds; we can go fishing if we want,” he says. “We’ve done that before—load up the cars and go trout fishing.”

Antonucci notes that all of the recent California races were cancelled due to a lack of snow, and the only race in the area that had enough snow was a race in Oregon. Nevertheless, this season was an oddity—there is usually plenty of snow.

“There’s been some mornings that it was cold enough in July that we could have run if we wanted.” Cox says.

Antonucci adds, “It’s not unusual to have it be 30 degrees in August in the morning, or on occasion even get snow.”

hwen there is no snow, Antonucci takes the dogs out and attaches them to an all-terrain vehicle, colloquially known as a quad. He notes that training the dogs on the quads is useful because he can stop and make corrections or untangle the dogs if their lines become twisted together.

Even though California may not have had any races, Antonucci is still looking forward to a number of out-of-state races in the near future.

“[I’m excited for] the Eagle Cap [Extreme Sled Dog] Race, which I haven’t finished—the distance part of it—yet. This year I had hoped I was going to finish it, but my sled broke, so I was unable to finish it. I’m going to go back there again in January [2019],” he says. “I also am looking forward to possibly going and running in the Pedigree International Stage Stop Race. We did that a couple of years ago. Another race that I’ve considered is possibly Race to the Sky—that’s a Montana race. I raced that a couple of years ago and didn’t quite make it due to a broken leg on the trail. That’s one that I want—it’s been in the back of my mind.”

Each dog runs more than 1,000 miles each racing season.

“We feed them high-energy kibble, and we mix that with a meat diet—a special diet that is designed for sled dogs and working dogs that’s beef, and chicken, and liver,” Antonucci says. “It’s very high in protein and calories because sled dogs will burn up 1000 to 1200 calories a day, so you have to keep refilling their gas tanks, and their food is their fuel. The meat increases their endurance and increases their muscle mass.”

Most of Antonucci’s dogs are thin and muscular—traits that are good in racing dogs, Antonucci adds. He typically obtains dogs from racers—many of which have won the Iditarod, one of the most prestigious sled dog races in the country—looking to place dogs in new homes. The dogs are typically flown down from Alaska to the continental US.

Antonucci recently spent $850 on a lead dog—the most he has ever paid for a dog. Finding good lead dogs is difficult, because not every dog can be a leader, and Antonucci notes that not every husky is even made to be a racing dog.

“You can train a dog to follow the commands, but if they’re not a leader and they don’t have the drive, then it doesn’t do any good to put them up front,” he says.

Antonucci and Cox both believe that many people don’t understand mushing and think that mushers force the dogs to run. They find that some people don’t understand that huskies are built to run and want to run, barking loudly when they hear the truck or quad engine and whining when they return to the kennel. Antonucci describes himself as having a bond with the dogs, and he finds it rewarding to be able to go sledding with the dogs. He encourages people to go to a race to better understand mushing rather than simply making assumptions.

Antonucci has two dogs that went blind, and he keeps them in his kennel along with the rest of the racing dogs rather than getting rid of them. When Antonucci acquires a dog, the dog stays a part of his kennel for life. The training partners know the names to every single dog in the kennel, and they view the dogs as valued members of their family—a family that sticks together in the forest, the tundra and the freezing cold.

Watch the 360° video at the top of the page for a closer look at mushing in northern California—experience R&R Huskies and take a ride on a dog-pulled all-terrain vehicle.

Watch the behind-the-scenes documentary at the top of the page for a closer look at Olivia Popp and Matt Shimura’s 19-hour journey to and from R&R Huskies.