Susan Parraga runs her Siberian Huskies along the Divide Country between Big Sheep Creek and the Imnaha River — some of the same ground covered by the mush teams of the Eagle Cap Extreme Sled Dog Race. (Courtesy Gary Parraga)
Rural Joseph woman tests dogs in Eagle Cap Extreme
Celebrating 10 years of hosting dog sled racers from around the West and Canada, this year’s Eagle Cap Extreme welcomes local Susan Parraga of rural Joseph to its list of competitors.
Parraga and her husband, Gary, have raised Siberian Huskies for show for decades. This year, they want to add racing to their list of accomplishments.
Parraga said she and Gary left northern California in 2000 looking for a place without a nearby McDonald’s. Wallowa County fit the bill, and the couple bought 12 acres along the Wallowa Mountain Loop Road outside of Joseph. Soon after, they opened Zuska’s Siberians. The kennel, the name derived from the Russian word for “Susan,” boasts 14 dogs and three puppies.
Parraga said most of her dogs are descended from two of what she calls her “foundation girls,” including Lola and Shasta. Parraga said she started showing her Huskies 12 years ago, but was first introduced to the world of show dogs when, as a young teen, she entered her Miniature Dachshund in a competition in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.
“At that show, I saw a dark red and a black Siberian Husky. You don’t see too many down there. After I got married in 1983, one of my co-workers had a litter of Siberian Huskies, and I got my first one from her.”
Later, she said she got Lola and another female, Shasta, which she raised for show and to breed.
As a volunteer for the Eagle Cap Extreme Sled Dog Race, Parraga got a taste for dog racing. This year, she’s using the best sled-pulling dogs from her kennel and borrowing a couple from a friend in California who races — an experienced lead dog and another descended from one of her dogs.
This winter, she and Gary are trying to get the dogs used to hills in their “backyard” — running them up the Divide Road across from their home and up top at Salt Creek Summit where all of the races
After watching the race a few times, she said she’s ready to test her dogs in the two-day, 62-mile pot race, which runs from Ferguson Ridge Ski Area to Salt Creek Summit.
“We started training this team in August with a dryland outfit,” Parraga said. “Depending on the week, we would think, ‘Oh, this dog is never going to make it,’ and two weeks later it’s the best dog on the team. We have not set in stone the six dogs we are going to take on the race, but we have nine to choose from.”
Parraga said at this point she’s self-trained as a sled operator.
“When I moved out here and got a sled, my original dogs were pretty good at doing the commands to run around the yard,” she said. “The first dogs I tried out I would run three at a time and go around the yard carting with them in a three-wheeled training rig.”
She said the carts are good for dry-land training, and some places even host dry-land races.
“We don’t know how well they will go up and down the hills. It’s easier to use an experienced lead dog to train the others,” Parraga said. “You sure want them to go left when you want them to go left. When they are first starting off, they are so excited they get tangled for the first mile or so, especially running uphill.”
Hills can be tough on dogs just starting out, Parraga said.
“In the summer, we take them out on some of the dirt roads. Mostly we would go where it was flatter to keep their spirits up,” she said. “When we started to go up the Divide Road, they were really kind of dragging. We took them out on Turner Lane on a gradual slope downhill and they took off running.”
Looking toward her inaugural sled dog race, Parraga said, “I’m not trying for a good time — if we finish the race all in one piece that’s the most important thing. If they can finish happy and wanting to still go, I will be happy.”