Steamboat Springs It has been a week since the team's last run, and the crisp mountain air at the top of Rabbit Ears Pass makes waiting almost unbearable for a group of sled dogs eager to take on the frozen landscape.
Twelve-year-old musher Krista Halsnes is equally anxious to get going. But in the few short years since she started driving dogsleds, she has learned that the dogs come first.
And she doesn't mind.
"One of the reasons I do it is because I love animals," Krista said. "I love to take care of them and to work with them. It's a big process, getting ready, but it's worth it."
The 12 dogs that will be pulling the Halsnes' two sleds must be watered, fed and harnessed before hitting the trail. Every detail must be checked before Krista and her father, Jarle, begin the trip.
For now, the dogs' enthusiasm is restrained by a thin steel chain and their voices quieted as they devour a "soup" mixture of Kibbles and water that will power them along the planned 15-mile journey.
At one end of the line, a fit-looking Alaskan husky named Acorn paces menacingly back and forth, jumping forward from time to time as if to test the strength of the chain.
But as Krista approaches the 7-month-old dog, his seemingly fierce disposition melts away. Within seconds, he acts more like the family's lovesick pet than a trail-savvy sled dog.
It's obvious the dog enjoys Krista's hugs and affection nearly as much as he enjoys running in front of her sled. But make no mistake --e was bred to run.
Moments after hitting the trail, Acorn's friendly appearance has been replaced by his desire to run. He yelps into the wind as he bears his sharp, white teeth. Every muscle in the dog's lean, powerful build is exposed as his strong legs power the sled across a carpet of white that leads into the Routt County wilderness.
Behind the sled, Krista sees little of the dog's aggressive nature, but she feels it as she holds on to a sled that carries her to a place where she has discovered peace and comfort.
"I enjoy the challenge and adventure of dogsledding," Krista said. "It's like going back in time."
It's an emotion that her father, who grew up on a small farm in Sauda, Norway, understands.
"I've been running dogs since 1979," Jarle said. "But I've been around them my entire life. It's wonderful that I can share this part of my life with my daughter."
Jarle is a former ski racer who, along with his brothers Stein and Edwin, dominated the professional tour in the 1980s and early '90s.
Most of his dogsledding experience came on and around his family's farm in Norway, where he learned to ski behind a Polk -- a small sled that is used to pull provisions. It typically is attached between a small team of dogs and a cross-country skier.
As a young man, Jarle would skijor behind a team of dogs, which eventually led him to full-blown dogsledding.
Krista was introduced to dogsledding by her father when he took her on a Grizzle-T Dog & Sled Works tour for her ninth birthday.
The sledding tour turned out to be the perfect gift to ignite Krista's passion for dogs. During the past three years, she has pursued dogsledding, and this year she started competing in four-mile races at regional events. She ran four-dog teams that finished fourth in a race in Granby, fourth in a race in Norwood and second at another event in Granby.
After starting with one dog, Dutchess, three years ago, the Halsnes' kennel has grown to 15 dogs, and they plan to continue to expand.
"We think of (dog) names when we are driving to competitions," Krista said. "Right now, we have a list of about 13 more names, and I'm sure we will keep thinking of more."
On this day, Krista drives six dogs on a groomed trail on the east side of Rabbit Ears Pass. Someday, she hopes her dogs and this sport will take her farther north, to exotic locations along the 1,150-mile trail from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska, where the famed Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race is held.
"It would be like the Super Bowl for her," Jarle said. "It takes years to get a team ready for that race, and lots of money."
For now, Krista will set her sights on the junior Iditarod -- a less demanding 160-mile race for mushers between ages 14 and 18.
Krista still has a couple of years to get ready for the race, and she is determined to make it happen.
Her experience behind the sled also is driving new interests. Krista has expressed an interest in becoming a veterinarian.