I'm standing on the narrow asphalt road that runs north from Fort Missoula, watching 58-year-old Suzanne Reed drag a shiny metal cart attached to a kick-scooter across the platform bolted to the top of her small red pickup truck. Bursts of cold wind bite into my face. It's starting to drizzle. I pull the hood of my jacket up over my head as Reed positions herself between two narrow metal ramps running parallel from the platform to the ground. She tugs on the scooter-cart, guiding each rear wheel into the track of a ramp. The scooter floats out in front as she bends her knees and lowers the vehicle toward the ground. Suddenly, the left wheel slips off the ramp. The right side of the cart juts skyward. "You want help?" I yell into a gust of wind.
"No thanks, I've got it," she says.
But she doesn't. I quickly stuff notebook and pen into a coat pocket, grab onto the side strut, and lift it up and over to set the wheel back on the ramp. Together, we ease the cart down and onto the road. "Well," Reed says, straightening up, panting a little. "This is what experimentation is all about—trial and error."
Reed has spent the past two years doing research and experimenting with design ideas for this vehicle, which she calls a dog chariot. Yes, her chariot will be pulled by her dogs, Leo and Bree. Leo is a two-year-old chow-husky mix and Bree is a three-and-a-half-year-old Siberian sled dog. When the idea for dog-powered transportation first popped into her head, Reed searched the internet for a vehicle she could purchase. She found people using dogs to pull scooters, two- and three-wheeled bikes and sleds with rubber wheels, but she didn't find a vehicle she could use for a trip to the grocery store—one with a crate where her dogs could be safe and comfortable while waiting. So, with the help of Dave Donahue, welder and owner of All Things Metal, she created one.
Reed's father was a mechanical engineer who spent part of his career as an efficiency expert and product developer. He also had a strong resource-conservation ethic, which propelled Reed into earning a bachelor's degree in Forest Resource Management from the University of Montana in 1990. Following graduation, she worked in the Yaak for five years, where she and a partner lived in a one-room cabin. They hauled river water, heated and cooked with wood and used an outhouse. Also there: nine sled dogs that provided winter transportation. Once back in Missoula, Reed looked for ways to transfer some of that self-sufficiency to city living.
Urban mushing seemed like a logical focus. Also called dry-land mushing and dog-scootering, it started to gain momentum in the U.S. a few years ago. Before watching Reed's trial run of her dog chariot, I looked at a few online videos. I saw people harnessing dog power for all kinds of recreational fun, but none of the dogs were pulling a load of groceries on city streets. What, I wondered, will happen when Reed's dogs see a squirrel, a cat, or a half-eaten cheese burger in a yard across the street?
Successful mushing, Reed says, depends on the relationship dogs have with their people. "About a month ago, we took a training run on the bike trail from 14th Street north to McCormick Park, then east to Bark Park at Jacob's Island and back. We made our way through a family mob of dogs on leashes, toddlers on trikes and yakking, inattentive adults without a single difficulty. An onlooking dog owner commented on how well trained my dogs were to get through that mess without a hitch."
Okay, but I still have questions. Do her dogs want to pull a chariot full of her and her groceries?
Evidently, the answer is a big fat yes. Dogs like Leo and Bree were bred to pull and run. In fact, Reed has to let them out of the truck to run for a couple of miles before our dog chariot prototype adventure. "Otherwise," she says, "they'll pull me too fast, and I'm still working on the braking system."
With the chariot on the ground and pointing north, Reed snaps Leo and Bree into nylon harnesses, which she then attaches to a tugline attached to the front of the kick-scooter. The dogs prance in place, eager. Reed grabs the handle bars, puts one foot on the narrow steel floor of the scooter and pushes with her other foot, shouting, "Hike-hike!"
Leo and Bree move ahead. Reed and her dog chariot roll forward smoothly. The rope goes a little slack and Reed calls, "Out front!"
The dogs move faster. I jog along for a few yards, searching them for any sign of strain. Nope. I stop to watch, rubbing my frozen hands together.
As they near a place where the road forks, I hear Reed say, "Gee, gee!" Leo and Bree angle to the right, circling until they're trotting back toward me. I look hard, squinting into the wind: Are those dogs smiling?