Over a river and through the woods where the Mission and Swan mountains meet, a team of powder hounds harnesses the Montana winter for one wild ride.
Base Camp Bigfork holds a reputation for providing a “bucket list experience” with its unique dog sledding tours, but behind the scenes, the family running the show works hard to make every day worth remembering.
Mark and Samantha Schurke have run their dog-sledding outfit in Bigfork for the last nine years.
Their 8-acre property is home to their two sons, Otto, 8, and Dietrich, 6, and 18 Inuit sled dogs along with one brave tabby cat.
Almost every morning, from the first of December until the snow melts, Mark grooms the network of trails snaking through their property in preparation for the day’s run.
Upon arrival, clients receive a hands-on experience unique to his business. Customers meet their teams and help harness them up before learning the basics of mushing.
Once the dogs are strapped in, they bounce and yap in anticipation, pulling at their harnesses as Mark yells for them to “get ready dogs!”
A loud “hup” sets the team in motion and Mark hangs back to help each new musher get comfortable behind the team as they bound over the snow.
Once the musher gets the gist, it’s up to them to drive the sled as Mark jumps out in front to lead on his cross-country skis.
Mark gauges each client and helps set the pace based on each person’s preference, occasionally pausing to take a few snapshots of the grinning faces.
“Dog sledding is an experience for all the senses,” he said. “That’s really where the beauty of dog sledding is, that it’s the silent way of traveling through the winter landscape where you’re at a speed where you notice all the subtleties. You notice the animal tracks or the marking on the trees.”
Instead of riding on a tandem sled or following a snowmobile, clients get the unique experience of driving the team themselves from beginning to end.
“It was fantastic. Favorite thing ever, probably,” said first-time musher Amy Goodson as she and her husband, Brad, dismounted from their sled after a morning run.
That, Mark said, is one of his favorite parts of his job: getting to provide a bucket list experience to people from all over the country.
MARK LEARNED the dog-sledding trade from his uncle, an Arctic explorer who depended on his 70 Inuit dogs for his livelihood, guiding sledding tours the same way he taught Mark.
One of the rarest dogs in the world, Inuit dogs, unlike other breeds, have evolved much like wild animals over many centuries.
The Inuit people who first began using the dogs thousands of years ago allowed them to become a product of the rugged Arctic environment and lifestyle rather than selectively breeding them to produce certain traits like more modern dog breeds.
The result was a hardy, primal dog capable of enduring colder conditions than any other domesticated animal.
“Dogs have been man’s best friend a long time and this is more of the form of what that first looked like,” Mark said.
The breed as a whole has made a comeback since the 1980s when they nearly went extinct.
Today a small community of people works to care for and keep the breed alive, trading dogs amongst themselves rather than breeding for sale.
DURING MARK’S time working with his uncle in Minnesota, he met both his calling and his wife, Samantha.
The year they married, the couple set out to explore Montana for the perfect place to settle down and a start business.
“Out of the communities and places we went and explored, Bigfork was definitely the one that stood out as the opportunity that we were looking for,” Mark said. “If we could pick any place in the world to do what we’re doing, this is it.”
The Schurkes launched Base Camp Bigfork in 2009, and business boomed from the get-go.
Despite the continual growth in business, however, the health and wellbeing of the dogs as both working animals and pets remains the Schurkes’ main priority.
“They are absolutely our pets that we care for and love on every single day,” Samantha said. “They bring an income to our family. They’re probably loved more than your house dogs in that sense.”
“But they’re also very tangible working, athletic dogs that have a job to do. They know how to do their job and we respect that and the history of it,” she added.
Because of the breed’s genetic diversity, the Schurke’s pack of Inuit dogs varies in both appearance and character, each dog with its own unique personality.
The trick to turning that pack into a team, according to Mark, is figuring out which personalities work best together and in what position.
“It’s like putting together any kind of team,” Mark said. “Whether it’s a football team or what have you, you’re finding positions, trying to find what player suits that position best, hoping that they all get along to where you accomplish a goal together.”
Inuit dogs operate in the same pack structure as wolves, with a constantly changing hierarchy and a language that has largely been lost in other breeds of dogs.
Their temperament and instinctive need to work makes them less than perfect house pets but well-suited for their job at the camp, according to Mark.
“Just like a lab likes to fetch, these dogs like to pull. It’s something that they’ve been bred to do for thousands of years,” he said.
The Schurkes’ dogs grow up learning the commands and discipline of a sled dog through repetition and example from older, more experienced dogs.
Consistent exercise and dedicated care means most of the dogs live long, stable lives averaging 12-14 years and working for between 10-12 before retiring at the camp.
Even retirees stay active by helping teach the Schurkes’ boys the family trade, pulling them on miniature sleds of their own.
THE SCHURKES have continued to expand the services offered at Base Camp Bigfork, including recently completed lodging for guests.
Though they are now booked through most of this season, Mark and Samantha said they encourage future guests to book early for next year.
Come summer, the dogs will take the season off to recuperate as Base Camp Bigfork transforms into an outdoor rental and delivery service, offering kayaks, paddle boards, mountain bikes and other gear for summer adventures.
Meanwhile, the pack will sit back in the shade of their pens to enjoy the dog days of summer.
For more information on Base Camp Bigfork, visit http://basecampbigfork.com/.
Mary Cloud Taylor can be reached at 758-4459 or email@example.com.