If your image of a dog sled team conjures up pictures of Alaska’s 1,100-mile Iditarod race, think again. Mushers come in all shapes and sizes, and dog teams, like engines or saw blades, can be fitted for all kinds of jobs.
My family lives in Warren, N.H., on the edge of White Mountain National Forest. We have a four-dog team that hauls us through miles of northern landscape in every season. In summer, we attach them to mountain bikes. In autumn, they pull us uphill when we hike. In winter, of course, we use sleds. We also hook them to a skijor rig, which is a fancy term for nothing more than attaching one or two dogs to a gangline, then letting them pull you — as fast as 20 mph — on a pair of cross-country skis for a wild and exhilarating ride.
When it’s time to work, we can hook our team to a cargo or toboggan and use them to haul freight. A four-dog team can pull a 200-pound person 10 miles at an average speed of 15 mph, so they have no problem pulling a bundle or two of kindling, or several buckets of newly tapped maple syrup. They also can follow a snowmobile trail just about anywhere, and there’s nothing quite like visiting a neighbor’s house on a sled.
Dog sledding may not be for everyone, but on a small scale, it is far less complicated than you may imagine. We use four Alaskan sled dogs — Muppin, Charlie, Willow and Laika — but most draft dogs will do as well. (Try Siberians or Malamutes if you intend to pull greater weights, because they tend to be larger.)
Nearly every northern state boasts a sled dog club, and the clubs prove a boon for anyone thinking about getting into the sport. Attend a few races. Watch the classifieds. You might check www.sleddogcentral.com, or www.nooksackracing.com; both are excellent websites for mushers. Unless you are considering running the dogs in races, you needn’t acquire first-string dogs. Look for ads that admit a dog is no longer fast enough for the owner’s team, or search for older, more dependable dogs. Also, scan the pages carefully in the spring when mushers are weeding out dogs from their competitive teams. Thanks to good friends and careful research, we have never paid for a dog. Good owners are happy to see their retired racing dogs go to responsible friends and neighbors who will provide the dogs with the kind of lives they deserve.
Wouldn’t a snowmobile be easier? Sure it would. But when our son stands on the runners of the sled, ready to guide the team over a six-mile trail, I inevitably feel pride. The dogs are part of our day, so ingrained in the fabric of our hours that we could not imagine life without them. They are as distinct in our minds as we are to each other. And when they come to a distraction, or to a possible turnoff, and my son shouts, “On-by,” I watch with joy as the dogs skim along, not turning but following the training we have given them.
Warren, New Hampshire