As mushers and dogs alike jockey for position on the snowy terrain of the Alaskan tundra, Jay Olmstead Jr. and his wife, Sherla, are at their home in Sinclairville. Five of their sled dogs are in their indoor dog kennel, while the sixth, Gatlin, lives in the Olmsteads' home.
The dogs won't sink their paws into the cold surfaces of the Iditarod Trail or compete as a team in an International Sled Dog Racing Association race this weekend. The Eurohounds and their owners will instead reflect on a 2012 season that brought them five wins in five ISDRA races.
The Olmsteads and the Jay Jr.-led four-dog professional, speed racing team traveled to compete in Canada, Wisconsin, Michigan and New York in 2012. In years past, they've raced in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maine, New Jersey, Colorado and Alaska.
Jay Olmstead’s sled dogs pull him along during a race. Front, from left, are Gatlin and Wilson. Back, from left, are Whistle and Mercury.
Photo by Nancy Molburg
The Olmsteads' four-dog team of Gatlin, Wilson, Whistle and Mercury typically competes two days in a row for 4 or 5 miles at a time.
"Our sled dog competing has let us meet wonderful people and their dogs who have become very dear and close friends of ours," the Olmsteads wrote in an email to The Post-Journal. "We both cannot think of any other sport/hobby that would give us more joy than sled dog racing."
In 1968, the Olmstead family, including a 9-year-old Jay Jr., his parents and sisters, returned home from a Sunday drive with four Siberian huskies, and a sled-dog family was born.
"At one time, his parents had more than 50 dogs for them to run. Back then, their family was considered the biggest family sled dog team in the country," Mrs. Olmstead said. "Jay found the love of sled dog racing when he was 9 years old. Then, I found the love of sled dog racing in 1981 when we started going together."
Olmstead owned as many as 30 dogs at one time himself. He raced in one-, three- and seven-dog classes before eventually settling in with the four-dog division.
"We really can't get enough mileage and enough training in this area to have a larger team," Mrs. Olmstead said. "We've found that we can be very competitive in the four-dog class."
Mrs. Olmstead ran a three-dog team of her own for a while in the 1980s, before deciding to focus on taking care of the kennel and helping her husband and the dogs train.
The couple's kennel eventually switched from Siberian to Alaskan huskies before settling on the Eurohounds when they became more serious about competing professionally.
HITTING THEIR STRIDES
Like much of the sporting world, professional dog racing has become a year-round, sponsor-driven activity. The Olmsteads train their dogs on dry ground by dragging a 4-wheeler behind them, which allows them to keep the Eurohounds active in non-winter months. Although they won't slap sponsor decals on their dogs, the Olmsteads will place logos on their dog truck to help pay the bills and to allow local businesses to gain exposure.
The Olmsteads traveled to the World Championship Sled Dog Race in Fairbanks, Alaska, in 1993 after earning an invitation based on past performances.
"It was a wonderful adventure, and it was a very good learning experience for us and the dogs," Mrs. Olmstead said.
In 1995, they were invited to the World Championship in Lake Placid, finishing 10th overall. They're hoping to receive an invitation for the next World Championship in 2013.
Olmstead and his four-dog team received silver medals from ISDRA in 2005 and 2006 and brought home a gold medal in 2007. The Olmsteads decided not to compete in a four-dog division race in Alaska this month due to the cost of flying themselves and the dogs to the event. However, thanks to a successful five-race campaign, Olmstead expects to bring home the 2012 gold medal.
Whether the couple and their dogs have another medal to drape around their necks, the Olmsteads plan to continue doing what they love.
"To this day, we both love and enjoy the dogs and the sport so very much," Mrs. Olmstead said. "Our dogs are our children. They mean the world to us. We love them and care for them deeply."