“Doing good, 12-dog team,” said Steve as we weaved back and forth on a sled through the snowy hills of Maine.
I had arrived at New England Dogsledding the night before to spend a weekend course learning how to be a musher, someone who drives a dog sled. The term musher comes from the French word, marche or marchons, meaning ‘go,’ or ‘let’s go.’
Originally I had thought about learning in Alaska, but when that proved to be too expensive, I chose Bethel, Maine which is closer to my home in Boston. I had also chosen Telemark Inn because of their commitment to caring for their animals. Besides teaching adults, they have camps for kids as well as autistic and disabled children.
I would be staying at Telemark Inn for the weekend which was also the house where Steve, the owner of New England Dogsledding lives along with his girlfriend, Lea, also a musher, and their 40 dogs. I was greeted by two house dogs who were obviously Steve’s favorites. The rest of the dogs lived outside in separate dog houses, each one painted with vibrant colors and designs. “I like them way more than Lea,” he made sure to whisper to me when Lea left the room.
Dogs of all ages live here – brand new puppies whose training had already begun, dogs in their prime and old blind dogs that could no longer race. Each dog at New England Dogsledding has a retirement package built into his or her running career. And once they come to New England Dogsledding, they live out the rest of their lives here even after their career is over.
At 6am, the day of my first lesson, barking dogs, excited for their breakfast, awoke me. I dragged myself out of bed to help Alex, a junior musher, feed the dogs. We cut up slabs of meat and put them in warm water.
“This is the only way they’ll drink enough water,” said Alex.
Alex has dark hair to his shoulders. He is quiet but passionate and has been running sled dogs and mushing since he was 2 ½ years old.
“It goes deep in his genetic background,” said Steve. “And rumor has it he was conceived on a dog sled.” Alex blushed and shook his head as if dismissing Steve.
I stood outside in my winter clothes as Steve chose his best dogs and placed them one by one into individual compartments in the dog truck. Each dog looked like a mutt of some kind.
“I always thought sled dogs were huskies or malamutes,” I said as he loaded the truck with the dogs.
“Nope. We use good dogs. That’s the most important thing.”
Finally we arrived at the start of the trail. With two trucks full of 24 barking dogs, we now had to harness them. As Steve strapped on their gear, he gave each dog a big pat and hug, while telling me their backgrounds and how they came to live at New England Dogsledding. As he did so, they licked him, obviously very loyal to their Musher.
“Kurt, here, is bred from direct Iditarod descendants,” said Steve, petting a beautiful white dog with striking blue eyes.
The Iditarod, I learned, is a dogsled race in Alaska spanning nine to fifteen days and covering over 1000 miles.
Kurt’s great grandparents on all sides won the Iditerod,” he continued.
“So he comes from 12 Iditarod descendants?” I calculated.
“Yeah. In Maine we call it in-breeding. In dogs, we call it line-breeding,” he said in his dead-pan style.
It turned out Kurt was on the best 60-mile team pulling his weight up mountains and down. Steve seemed proud of each dog for their unique abilities. And while he thought they were all beautiful, he made sure to inform me that they are not bred for good looks or a curled tail. They are bred for endurance, speed, a good attitude, a love of running and of course, tough feet.
When the barking got too loud, Steve wanted to make sure I knew he was in control.
“They listen to me and follow my commands,” he said of the dogs.
“DOWN!” he yelled.
Aware of his voice, the air went quiet for the first time since 6am.
“If only I could get women to do that.” He paused for a moment. “LUNCH!!” he screamed at his girlfriend. She ignored him.
Although Steve can’t get women to do what he wants, he was able to get the dogs to listen with a few basic commands that he quickly taught me: Hike (go), Whoa (stop), Gee (go right), Haw (go left).
With all the dogs placed in their particular order, we hopped onto the dog sled.
“Go for it,” said Steve.
I looked at him, worried. But I was here to be a musher.
“HIKE!” I yelled to the dogs. They didn’t move.
“HIKE!” I yelled again even louder. Nothing. I looked at Steve like I had failed miserably.
“They don’t trust you yet,” he said with a knowing smile as if set me up to fail.
“Hike,” he said calmly, and off we were whisked onto the snowy trail.
Each dog has a specific job on the team. The fastest and smartest are chosen as lead dogs. They run in front of the pack. The next two are swing dogs whose job it is to direct the pack around turns and curves. At the back are wheel dogs, the largest and strongest of team. The rest are team dogs.
On a particularly steep incline, Steve told me to get off the sled and run. I looked at him incredulously. Was he joking?
“Get off!” he said again. He then informed me that good mushers run alongside their dogs up hills to lighten the weight of the sled. I tripped through the snow trying to keep up with the dogs. He laughed as they left me behind.
“Come on, let’s go!” he yelled at me.
“I’m not as in good shape as your dogs are,” I yelled back to him.
“Come on Forrest. Run, Forrest,” he yelled again, laughing maniacally as he sped ahead of me.
Finally he stopped the sled and let me hop back on. 50 yards later and out of breath, I wondered how sled dogs were able to do this for 70 miles a day up to 36 miles/hour. On race days, they can go for 6-10 hours straight.
Steve suddenly became silent. He was almost in a meditative state as we glided past the snow-covered trees with the cold wind blowing on our faces. Calmly and without joking for the first time since I had met him, he said under his breath, “The interaction between humans and dogs is an ancient art form. But this isn’t really about the interaction between humans and dogs. It’s about something much deeper and much bigger. It’s about humans reconnecting with nature, something that is oftentimes lost in today’s society.” He took a moment, smiled at his 12-dog team and continued, almost to himself, “Dogs allow that connection to happen.”
We stopped and waited for the 12-dog sled behind us. I allowed myself to close my eyes and breathe long breaths in and out. The fresh, crispy cold air filled my lungs, I smelled the wood-burning stove in the distance and my nose, running and red from the cold no longer bothered me.
When the other sled caught up, Steve finally let me take over the reins. I had spent the last four hours with the dogs, even running along side them for short periods. He thought they should trust me now.
“Hike,” I said loud enough for the lead dogs to hear me.
The sled took off smoothly as we headed into the Maine landscape. A smile spread across my face and a feeling of peace and accomplishment resonated through my body.
“You are now an ‘American Dogman,’” said Steve, “driving a sled of 12 really good dogs.”