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Dog (sled) days

January 25, 2013

 

We are pleased to hear that Mammoth Dog Teams owner Jim Ouimet finally got word this week that he will soon be able to move his dog sleds and gear into a covered indoor space instead of storing the irreplaceable and historical items in sheds and outdoors in the snows of winter and heat of summer.

It’s about time.

The county has been dragging its collective feet for almost a decade now, trying to decide—year after year, county board of supervisors after county board of supervisors—what to do with what could be one of the region’s most iconic and unique tourist attractions.

It should not have been this way.

Ouimet first signed a lease with Mono County to use a piece of property near the geothermal plant back in 2003, after losing the husky team’s old home to development in the industrial park on the west side of U.S. 395.

It seemed a perfect fit at the time. A team of several dozen howling huskies is anything but quiet. The site was far from town and the old, vacated cinderblock county sheriff’s substation seemed like a logical place to store the rustic, handmade sleds and gear a dog sled business needs.

Over time, Ouimet, with no objections from the county, slowly built up the inside of the building into a museum that paid tribute to the iconic world of dog sledding. Sleds, photos, interpretive signs and other memorabilia from the Sierra’s rich history of dog sledding delighted visitors who came to take rides in the back of a real dog sled.

But then, a few years ago, something went wrong.

It’s impossible to know exactly what. Maybe personalities clashed. Maybe Ouimet overstepped his bounds, allowing his employees to use the substation for housing, which was a clear violation of his lease. And maybe the county turned a blind eye to the fact that he had been doing so almost from the beginning, with no repercussions.

Whatever it was, a few years ago, Ouimet got the ax. County officials told him to remove all evidence of occupation, including the museum, from the substation building.

The windows were boarded up, the gear and memorabilia stored wherever he could find space. He and his dogs were allowed to stay on the property, but could not touch the building. He was put on a temporary lease, giving him no certainty about how long he could stay.

Other problems surfaced: arsenic was found in the water; hantavirus in the building; arguments over water rights from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Drought winters and uncertainty—among other problems—took their toll on Ouimet and the business. Ouimet put the business up for sale, but who in their right mind would take on such a project in such uncertainty?

When the new board of supervisors agreed Tuesday (Jan. 22) not to tear down the building and to allow Ouimet to use at least some of the building, it was a start. Supporting bringing back the museum at some point was another good start.

There’s nothing like Mammoth Dog Teams from one end of California to the next. There’s not much like it in the American West, or, indeed, in the country. Ouimet might not be a perfect tenant, but he has shown—over and over—his devotion to his dogs and to the sport, with a good record from county animal control on all aspects of dog care.

Mammoth Dog Teams was once a thriving business, running several dozen dog sled trips a weekend up near Minaret Vista and later, near Smokey Bear Flats.

A functioning dog sled business is important here. It has the potential to help put Mammoth and the Eastern Sierra on the map in a way few other businesses could.

It would behoove the county to recognize that.

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