Grand County’s dog sledding pastor feeds – and exercises – his flocks
Article by Holly Collingwood
There are many ways pastors find their flocks. Steve Peterson, chaplain at Snow Mountain Ranch – YMCA of the Rockies, has found his team – in the form of dog sledding.
Maybe you’ve seen him on flying along a Grand County trail with a team of high-tailing dogs. Or driving down CR 40 with a load of dogs in their truck boxes. Or perhaps you’ve come to one of his dog sledding presentations at Snow Mountain Ranch. Regardless of where you meet him, Peterson is someone everyone likes to talk to. He’s a natural born storyteller who knows how to listen as well.
In the 1980s, a younger version of the bearded Colorado mushing pastor led many backpacking trips and was always accompanied by a beloved dog named Fox. After Fox passed, Peterson began researching dog breeds and decided it would be fun to have one of the Nordic breeds so they could go winter camping together. He knew that if he trained the dog well, he could get it to pull his gear sled.
Peterson located a breeder in Grand Rapids, MI, with a dog available and planned his road trip. On the way he overnighted with a friend of a friend who had raced dog teams in the past. For $35 he sold an antique sled and rickety harness to Peterson and a rookie musher was born.
Peterson admits, from that time forward, his interest quickly became a passion. “If one dog is fun, what about three? And if three dogs are great, how fast could I go with five? And if I had 10 dogs, then I could bring a friend along!”
In April of 2008, Peterson was hired as Snow Mountain Ranch’s chaplain. He filled the shoes well with his storytelling, caring and attentive personality. His duties included offering Sunday morning services, officiating weddings and other celebrations, and providing counsel and leadership for guests and staff. One morning in 2010, he was approached in a staff meeting by the Program Director and was asked if he would provide a dog sledding presentation for the weekend guests.
To everyone’s surprise, 150 guests showed up!
Typical to Peterson’s “I can do better” personality, he decided the next weekend he would build a small track and offer kids rides after the presentation. The second weekend, another 150 guests listened to the presentation and 60 kids had the opportunity to ride behind the team.
The following winter, Peterson worked with the Program Department to make dog sledding a regular part of the programming for guests to Snow Mountain Ranch. Every Saturday and Monday morning, that is where Peterson can be found – along with Eli, Chrissy, Nance, Tip, Glacier, Anna, Rosie and many of his other dogs.
Guests who sign up for the program first listen to Peterson share stories of dog training, crashing, praying, healing, growing and leading. Each parable he speaks of holds a lesson in tenacity, problem-solving, motivation and faith as he urges listeners to, “discover what you’re passionate about and how your skills and talents can help serve the human needs of others. When those overlap, that’s when the magic happens.” After he introduces a few of the dogs, participants have the opportunity to take a ride on a two-mile loop.
Following nearly every presentation he has adults approach him and let him know that his presentation helped them consider their interactions with difficult co-workers, aging parents, a spouse or a supervisor at work. Dog sledding and the lessons learned on the trail provide new insights to every listener.
He also has children with special needs attend who experience comfort and growth, especially as they trade cuddles and belly rubs with Zoey, Indigo and Aspen – three of the team’s gentle and intuitive dogs. One mother said, “My daughter’s sensory needs were minimized when she was grooming Steve’s dogs and asking a battery of questions.”
While Peterson loves Sunday morning church services, he readily declares, “Anytime, anywhere. I don’t need to be in a chapel. For me, the dogs are a way into the hearts of others.” Each winter, more than 2,000 people attend the dog sledding presentations.
This past winter, Peterson had the opportunity to help film a Jeep commercial for the X-Games. The film crew worked at C Lazy U Ranch for two and a half days and required Peterson to teach his dogs new commands they had never performed or even practiced before. While his dogs have pulled many sleds and riders, they had never pulled a snowboarder, delivered the snowboarder to a jump, or raced a bright blue Jeep across a snow covered meadow. “It was hard work, but I’d do it again in a heartbeat,” Peterson said.
Every day, depending on how hard the dogs are working, they can ingest between 4,000 to 10,000 calories. On their busiest work days they pull about 40 riders on a two-mile lap. Peterson reports they can go through 30 to 50 pounds of beef every day in addition to a 50 gallon bucket of high quality kibble. They eat less in the summer months.
In order to feed the current team of 19 dogs and help pay for their care, Peterson and Snow Mountain Ranch set up the “Power Our Team” program. Donors can sponsor a dog for a day, month or year and receive appreciation and communication in the way of paw print thank you notes from each dog. Frequently kids share their allowances with Power Our Team to support their favorite dog. Each dog has a profile on the Snow Mountain Ranch website that shows their photo and a bit about their personality.
Since its inception, the dog sledding program has grown. The program has recently added moonlight rides, longer rides and group experiences for retreats or family reunions. Peterson has several staff members, both seasonal and year-round, who assist with the dogs. After each session they meet to debrief. “We talk about team work, leadership and the YMCA’s core values. I want to know how they include the values in their day and every day moving forward.”
At Snow Mountain Ranch – YMCA of the Rockies, dog sledding is about the dogs, and so much more.