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Ridin' in Style

I think it was for my tenth birthday that I almost had the chance to ride on a sled-dog tour. Growing up, my brother’s and my birthdays were always themed; our mother would take that theme and run with it. Being that my birthday is in February, there was a proposed theme that involved sled dogs -- it was something to do with Sir Ernest Shackleton’s journey. Ernest Shackleton was an English explorer at the turn of the twentieth century. Ironically, the expedition he is most known for ended up being a complete failure. Shackleton attempted to cross Antarctica from coast to coast, crushing as far as he could through the ice on a ship before resorting to teams of dogs to pull his crew the rest of the way (hence the sled-dog birthday connection). The promising expedition quickly turned to dire survival which is what changed an on-the-books failure into an incredible success. Throughout the whole endeavor, Shackleton did not lose a single life of his 28-man crew.

Historical anecdote aside, the sled ride at the birthday party never came through. I can’t remember if there was a scheduling conflict that prevented the musher from coming or if a Shackleton-themed birthday party seemed a little far out there for my ten-year-old friend group. Point being, I never got the chance to be pulled behind a team of dogs. Twelve years later, the opportunity presented itself once again and I capitalized.

My family got two Hedlund husky puppies -- brother and sister -- two years ago. Jackson is the canine version of a football fullback. Jet black with scattered sections of white and buff, he is tall, thick, and an absolute freight-train once he gets his body in motion. Mimosa is the opposite: mottled gray and brown of a wolf-like appearance, small, compact, and incredibly agile. But, despite the difference in build, both of them can pull. Really pull. It made for a hell of a ride when I held on to a tow rope as the two of them pulled me a plastic sled down the driveway.

Two weeks ago, the breeder that we got our huskies from invited me up to come for a tour with the dogs. I volunteered my photography interests and said “absolutely!”

The slight downside to enjoying a good sled ride is that the dogs have a linear correlation between performance and cold. The colder it is, the more they love their job and the harder they can work. So at a balmy twenty degrees with moderate winds in northern New Hampshire, the teams were just starting to hit their sweet spot.

When I got there, the dogs were being pulled out of their crates and attached to long lines running parallel to the trucks. There were three teams, each team was running six to eight dogs with another four to five as substitutes (not everyone makes the A-team, even in the dog world) which totaled to about thirty thick-furred, lovable, energetic dogs conveniently tethered in one area. It was a dog-lover’s paradise. I had serious internal conflict between wanting to shoot every photo I possibly could and just playing in the snow with 30 huskies for the next four hours.

The time leading up to the tours was all work. Because of the crusted ice-layer on top of the ground, each dog was outfitted with a pair of booties to protect the soft pads of their feet. Lines had to be untangled and laid out, sleds had to be prepped and padded (which I would find out is for not just warmth but cushioning, too), harnesses had to be donned, all amidst a chorus of excited whimpers coming from bodies trembling with excitement. I was surprised to see the dogs quivering so much. With such thick coats and a genetic disposition to live in sub-zero temps, I didn’t think they would shiver. One of the mushers quickly corrected my misconception. It’s not shivering, she said, it’s adrenaline. They’re excited to get to work.

That made me chuckle. With the exception of athletes or uniformed personnel, I can’t think of too many human jobs that have the employee trembling with excitement (or fear) from the adrenaline coursing through their veins before beginning the work day. As much as an accountant may love their job, I doubt that their pupils dilate and sweat breaks out on their brow when walking through the office door on Monday morning. WOO! I am SO ready to crunch these numbers!

But for these dogs, that drive is real. It’s encoded in their DNA. And when it came time to get clipped in to the lead lines that would pull the sled, the atmosphere exploded with energy. I have only seen dispositions change as quickly as the dogs did while at military school when a commanding officer entered a room and everyone snapped to attention. A mental switch was flipped and all thirty dogs rose up together howling their excitement to one another.

That energy was quickly transformed into raw power the minute the brakes were pulled from the snow. I saw the muscles flex in their hind legs as their paws churned up snow before building momentum and gaining traction. It was like watching a high-performance car burn some rubber on the tires before peeling out.

The pull itself was surprisingly smooth. I guess I had it in my mind to expect something jerky and walk-away with a little whiplash. Maybe I’ve seen the movie Snow Dogs with Cuba Gooding Jr. a few too many times when his first experience out on a sled sent him careering down a mountain side. There were definitely bumps. The sleds are built entirely out of wood and as I said, the blanket within which I was cocooned was my only source of padding between my butt and the wooden frame. But once underway, the motion of the team running together as one made the pulling sensation incredibly smooth -- almost unnoticeable.

After about four miles of snaking through a pine forest and following the Pemigewasset River, the dogs pulled us back to our starting point. Though still energetic and eager to pull, they welcomed the chance to lay in the snow and let the frozen water sap some of the heat from their thick coats. But there never seemed to be a sense of completion or quit from them; it was merely a pit-stop until the next chance to clip in and pull. It was an incredible experience to get to see these dogs in action and learn about something I had very little knowledge of. If the opportunity every presents itself for you, I highly recommend pursuing it. Particularly Valley Snow Dogz up in Campton, New Hampshire!

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