A chorus of howls breaks through the quiet of the wilderness at Base Camp Bigfork, just a few miles from the heart of downtown, though it feels much farther. More than a dozen Inuit dogs jump and prance about their cages as owner Mark Schurke approaches. His presence usually means one of two things: it’s time for supper or time to run.
From the middle of December through mid-March, Schurke leads dogsledding tours through the Flathead National Forest and Swan Valley. Uniquely, participants get the chance to actually mush the sled, rather than simply ride along, on tours ranging from a few hours in length to overnight camping trips.
In the summer months, Schurke switches gears, packing up harnesses and dogsleds in favor of kayak, paddle board and mountain bike rentals and guided tour experiences. For the last four years, Base Camp has also offered Airbnb-style accommodations in a newly built lodge, and new this winter they’ve expanded their cross-country ski rental fleet and added a sauna.
It’s taken a lot of “hustle” to make Schurke’s dream take flight since he and his wife Samantha opened the doors to Base Camp Bigfork in 2009, but all that hard work has paid off. Last year, the couple celebrated 10 years in business and as Schurke says, his family is literally living the dream.
“We’re enjoying life and raising kids and living the dream,” he said. “When you have a business you kind of hope for that.”
When the Schurkes moved to Bigfork, they did so with the specific intention of starting an outdoor venture. Mark Schurke earned a degree in parks, recreation and tourism and spent multiple seasons working for his uncle Paul Schurke, a famed Arctic explorer, who ran a dogsledding business in Minnesota. Paul Schurke’s 1986 journey to the North Pole by dogsled earned the explorer a cover story in National Geographic, so Mark was learning from one of the best. But rather than stay in the Midwest, Mark wanted to create something of his own.
He and Samantha were drawn to Bigfork for its ideal blend of outdoor opportunities and modern conveniences. At the onset, he found a job in construction so the couple could get a loan to buy a home, and spent his free time exploring the outdoors, getting to know the trails and rivers in the area.
Then came the dogs.
Schurke runs a pack of Inuit dogs — a rare breed of canines with a wolf-like appearance, bred to undertake long treks in cold environments. Inuit dogs were used to pull sleds as early as 800 A.D. and also filled the role of hunting partner and guard dog for the Inuit people, who reside in the far northern reaches of Alaska, Canada and Greenland.
He describes his dogs as “wild and raw, but domestic nonetheless.”
They live together, grouped in outdoor pens in couples or trios, with names like Zap, Smash and Ripley.
“We didn’t know if the phone was going to ring at all,” he said of that first year.
As the economy bounced back from the recession, Base Camp blossomed.
“It felt like the dogsledding did draw attention — it wasn’t hard to book trips,” he added.
Schurke also prided himself on providing anything but the cookie-cutter outdoor experience. Guests, as long as they’re comfortable, mush the sled themselves with a little guidance from Schurke. He cross-country skis alongside participants, often snapping photos of them in action to memorialize the occasion. For many trips, he’s part of creating a bucket list experience, or the best day his guests have ever had, they tell him.
“With dogsledding it’s a means of getting out in the winter landscape that really anyone can do, no matter their ability level,” he said.
And some runs are more adventurous than others. The unpredictable nature of both the weather and the dogs can lead to some comical, and occasionally chaotic, situations.
“I’ve definitely had one in particular where a sled made it to Highway 83 in the middle of the Swan Valley, and luckily a logging truck was coming and I was able to jump on the outside of it and he took me down the highway to catch the dog team,” Schurke said. “That’s part of what makes dogsledding such a unique thing. No matter how long one’s been a musher, there’s that unpredictability to it. There’s that sense of adventure … thankfully even the higher adventure moments, they all seem to end well.”
Over the years, many of his customers become repeat adventurers — dogsledding or cross-country skiing in the winter, and returning to rent a kayak or book a trip come summer. The couple made the “leap of faith” and purchased a shop downtown on Montana Highway 35, and in addition to guiding, deliver rental gear to customers who don’t have a means of transporting the equipment themselves.
“It gives them a level of service where it’s not just, ‘hey, here’s your gear — go figure it out,’” he said.
He enjoys introducing people to different outdoor activities and strives to provide quality gear and a high level of service in hopes that his guests continue to pursue them on their own.
“We want people to want to do these things again, and maybe develop a lifestyle that incorporates them,” Schurke said. “It’s not about putting on the miles, it’s more about the adventure.” »