Tails on New England Trails
Dog Sledding in the Northeast
Dog sledding is a fun way to enjoy your winter vacation in Northern New England. You experience the sensation of sledding over frozen ground and snowy mountain passes while wearing little more than ski pants, mittens, a woolen sweater and a parka.
There is in fact no better way to experience Northern New England in the wintertime than riding behind a team of powerful dogs. Imagine dashing through glistening snow-covered valleys behind your own team of friendly Siberian Huskies or Alaskan Malamutes. Northern New England dog sled tour operators offer trips ranging from a half-day to several days. They teach you the ropes and allow guests to experience the thrill of driving their own team.
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As I write this in late December, relatively few people are looking for ways to extend winter. That’s why my decision to embark on a late winter dog sledding expedition in New England may seem a tad bit peculiar.
There is in fact no better way to experience New England in the wintertime than riding behind a team of powerful dogs. Imagine dashing through glistening snow-covered valleys behind your own team of friendly Siberian Huskies or Alaskan Malamutes. Dog sled tour operators offer trips ranging from a half-day to several days. They teach you the ropes and allow guests to experience the thrill of driving their own team.
Sled dogs love to run. One lodge owner told me: “Every one of them wants to take off each and every day.” She continued: “I’ve heard people say it seems cruel to hook the dogs to a sled, but, knowing these dogs as I do, it would be cruel not to let them run.”
Sled dogs can move at a rapid trot for 6 hours, with hardly a break. Watching 60 legs move in their own special cadence and rhythm for hours on end is almost hypnotic in its poetry.
Eventually it was my turn to try driving. The dogs patiently waited while I fumbled with the harnesses, often getting them on backward, or inside out. Throughout my amateurish attempts to ready the dogs for the sled, they licked my face and burrowed their heads affectionately in my lap. To say the animals were friendly would have been an understatement.
During the time I was dog sledding, I got to know many of the dogs and their individual personalities–Siarnak, the sweet, eccentric hardworking character; mischievous Sheba, who got loose one night when everyone was asleep and ate most of the food that was supposed to feed the dogs for the rest of the trip; and the particularly poignant case of ailing Niki, a once powerful dog who seemed embarrassed that age had slowed him down.
There’s a sophisticated hierarchy among the dogs. Their power struggles and inter-office “politics” are relentless. The pulling dog who’s the strongest and takes direction best is called the lead dog. The lead dog is different from the boss dog, who’s the real chief and corrects everyone else’s behavior.
Dogs often become rivals of one another, but only against another dog who’s on their level of the social structure. It’s in the same vein as when a new junior associate of a firm may jockey for power and position with another junior associate, but is smart enough not to take on a senior partner.
The Mushing Experience.
The dogs howled and tugged as we sat in formation, each tug jolting the sled. “Woo woo woo” from a dog in our team echoed back three or four times from dogs in other teams, as though they were singing back and forth like birds.
Minutes later, on the trail, we found ourselves in the middle of a winter wonderland, the only sound being that of crunching snow as our sled streaked across its surface. While noisy when waiting in camp, sled dogs are silent when running.
The driver’s (musher’s) job is to control the sled by leaning into turns and making sure it doesn’t outpace the dogs when moving downhill. “Gee” means go right. “Haw” means go left. It doesn’t always work, especially when the dogs are told to turn off what seems to them like a perfectly good straight and snowy road.
Executing a turn is serious business for the dogs. If the driver makes a turn incorrectly, by not digging a foot into the snow just so, or by guiding the sled into too tight or too wide of an arc, without breaking stride, the dogs turn their heads to fire back a suspicious look, as if to ask, “What on earth were you thinking?”
Dog sledding is much like sailing, in that sometimes hours seem to go by when you do little work and just move placidly across the snow in a relaxed, meditative mood. Then there are times when it’s ever so demanding as you steer the sled sharply by pulling or pushing it from the front or rear over steep hills.
The next day we moved deeper into the wilderness, which looked more and more like a mesmerizing moonscape. Many times we stopped to take pictures, entranced by pristine New England in its natural state.
The lead dogs are remarkable when you consider their responsibilities. After starting out at a gallop for a half to three-quarters of a mile, they then have to set and hold a slower cruising speed, which they can sustain for considerable distances. The musher helps with commands and heel dragging if the team is too excited to pull back. Second, lead dogs have to keep the lines taut to the sled. And third, the lead dogs act on directions from the musher who is positioned 20 to 25 feet behind them.
Afterwards, back where we started, their mission completed, the dogs looked satisfied. I walked over to thank them for taking me along. One of the lead dogs jumped up on his hind legs and proceeded to fall forward on me. Standing almost as tall as me, the magnificent creature wanted affection, as though perhaps he was more thankful of me for helping drive than I was of him for running.
Who Should Go?
Anyone in reasonably good health and condition can mush a team of sled dogs in New England. The animals do most of the work, and the expedition leaders provide training. Because of the close association with the animals, participants should, of course, like dogs. In addition, a good attitude and a healthy sense of humor help along the way.
Where to Go Dog Sledding?
One of New England’s Premier Dog Sledding Centers is the Eden Mountain Lodge. This northcentral Vermont vacation destination hosts several dog sledding events and can answer your Dog Sled Vacation questions.
Other Dog Sledding locations are Vermont Dog Sledding in Shoreham (tel. 802-897-2311); in the Northeast Kingdom, there’s Hardscrabble Mountain Sled Dog Tours (tel. 802-626-9895) and in Stowe, you can mush with Green Mountain Dog Sled Adventures (802-888-8911).
Dog Mushing Equipment.
Boots are of paramount importance. Pac-type boots (rubber bottoms, leather or nylon tops) are ideal. Bring a hooded, heavy parka that is down or synthetic filled. Many coats are called “parkas” just because they have a hood; however, many of them have virtually no insulation. Besides boots, a solidly constructed parka is your most important piece of gear.
Do bring one pair of outer insulated nylon pants; these should be able to fit over wool or ski pants. Also bring one or two sets of heavy weight polypropylene, wool or down long underwear, tops and bottoms. You will need a heavy wool or fleece shirt, as well as a fur cap, or balaclava (a close-fitting, knitted woolen cap that covers the head, neck, and tops of the shoulders). A thin, synthetic balaclava, which can be pulled up to cover the face, with a long neck to keep out windy drafts, is ideal. Also bring insulated mittens and wool or fleece gloves as liners, as well as polypropylene/wool blend socks.
Have you ever dreamed of going dog sledding in New England? Do you enjoy pristine wilderness as far as the eye can see, the thrill of abundant wildlife up close, majestic mountain scenery, but you don’t want to rough it too much? Then by all means partake of this opportunity.
The idea of a dog sledding expedition should not be intimidating to people. Except for short bursts, this type of trip is not that rigorous for persons of even average physical condition. After all, you are sitting and riding much of the time.
As recreation, dog sledding is an alternative to motorized sports and a way to enjoy Vermont’s winter countryside without the noise and fumes of snowmobiles. And the dogs quickly become your friends, not a machine to be put away for the year.
Spellbound by the beauty that the low, soft sun bestowed on the snow-blanketed panorama, I cast about in my mind for some words that would adequately describe the sights I had beheld and the emotions I had felt on my dog sledding trip. Articulating such moments is not easy, but the eloquent words of writer Robert Service did come to mind:
“The strong life that never knows harness
The wilds where the caribou call;
The Freshness, the Freedom, the Farness
Oh God! How I’m struck by it all.”
by – Mary Syrett
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