Eden Dogsledding Eden Dogsledding

MUSH by Mary Lee Blackwell

MUSH! by Mary Lee Blackwell and Featured in INK Magazine February 2009 Click here for link to this issue!

“One of the things I always loved about Connecticut was the four seasons,” says ex-Westport resident Jim Blair. Standing in his welcoming barn where the wood-burning stove blazes and a half dozen Alaskan Huskies lounge on the couches, I am a little perplexed by the statement. Vermont, after all, still boasts four seasons doesn’t it? “I found Vermont has only two seasons,” he continues with a smile, “Winter.  And getting-ready-for-winter.”

We’d driven about an hour from our hotel in Stowe, Vermont to Eden Mills to take the “Discovery Channel-type dog sledding tour” with Eden Dog Sledding. Their website promises hands-on education and adventure when we visit.  We can be involved in all aspects of the sport from harnessing, hitching and mushing to feeding treats and romping with the free-roaming Alaskan Huskies following our ride. I love my privacy and I escape into the wilderness any chance I get but driving along the sparsely populated dirt road for nearly a half an hour before turning up the drive I find that this may be taking it a bit too far even by my standards. It’s gorgeous, don’t get me wrong, but the nearest grocery is at least 45 minutes away. I’d have to be organized and efficient with a decent memory- a maddeningly elusive trait of late- to make a go of it here.

Visiting during stick season, a subclass of the getting-ready-for-winter season when the snow hasn’t yet arrived but the trees have shed the last of their leaves, my 14 year old son James and I are eager to try our hand at dog sledding-on-wheels. Also called dog carting, dog sledding-on wheels offers visitors the experience of dog sledding but takes advantage of milder weather. Blair developed his wheeled cart as a way to give rides to tourists during the off-season while keeping his huskies in top form. His dogs, who have been arriving and departing from the barn in pairs and trios to visit with us, are palpably excited by the prospect of taking us out for a spin. Each time a new dog enters, he takes a lap around the barn greeting the other dogs there, jockeying for position between James and I nosing us for ear scratches and belly rubs and, at times, leaping from the couch to the floor to the table top and back to the couch again to recline.

“I have to ask€¦ how did you end up here from Westport, Connecticut?”I venture. “I followed the snow, I guess” Blair begins. As a very competitive athlete from his high school days, Blair segued from ice hockey to cross country skiing to skijoring (cross country skiing behind a sled dog or two) to dog sledding. He followed the snowfall for the latter sports eventually landing him in Eden Mills, Vermont. Set amidst 3000 protected acres Eden Mountain is nestled on 75 private acres in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom; the wide open space is any dog’s dream. Add to that the obvious joy and love Blair both gives to and gets from his canine companions and it becomes clear to me that whatever remoteness I may have perceived driving out here it is anything but isolated.

Blair brings out a magnetic board with 26 nameplates on it. The girls names are painted in white, the boys in red. “They each have their own personality,” Blair explains of his dogs as he moves the names around in two two-column lists. There are leaders and point dogs (the two dogs just behind the lead dogs), wheel dogs (the last in line before the sled) and pack dogs (all those between the point and wheel dogs.) The lead dogs are highly intelligent with a drive and determination to lead, the wheel dogs are typically the largest and strongest of the team as they bear the brunt of the weight as the sled gets underway. Some will run side by side amiably, others get intimidated by each other so the line up takes careful consideration. After manipulating the names of the dogs around on the board to see who will run with who, who needs to get out for exercise, who needs a day off and picking up plenty of fun factoids (did you know that the elongated muzzle of the Alaskan Husky allows the air they breath in to warm up sufficiently before entering their head essentially keeping ‘brain freeze’ at bay?) we get a lesson on harnessing. Leaving the regular collar in place we slip a figure eight-like piece of webbing over Peabody’s head then lift his paws through the “arm holes.”Ensuring that the regular collar is outside of the webbing and moving freely, the harnessing is complete.

Knowing now that a ride is imminent Peabody spins around in a circle and dashes to the door. He gets let outside and is attached to a stakeout chain where he waits for the rest of his team. We harness nine more dogs the same way letting each one outside to wait. By the time we have all ten dogs in harnesses it is absolute pandemonium in the yard. Ten huskies are yowling, barking and lunging in the air just bursting with exuberance at the chance to run and pull. Sixteen others are in their runs racing speed laps and howling as if to say, “Don’t leave without me!! Take me, too! I wanna go!!”

One by one we take the dogs to the gangline; the main line attaching the dogs to the sled. We attach a neckline from the gangline to the collar and a tugline from the rear of the harness to the gangline. James attaches Peabody as one of the two lead dogs and he lies down to wait patiently. Aslan will be co-lead but must wait until all the others are harnessed first. A yearling and a natural born leader who Blair expects could be one of those rare and exceptional (as opposed to good or great) sled dogs, Aslan’s youthful enthusiasm still needs a little tempering. As Blair explains Aslan’s temperament, I can’t help but note a marked pride.

The dogs are still vocalizing enthusiasm at full throttle as we board the sled. James sits in the front and I climb in behind him. I have given James safety goggles from the barn and slip a pair into my coat pocket thinking he’ll be blocking any flying debris.

Blair takes his place on the runners, releases the brake and hollers, “Hike!”- the musher’s term for go. The din quiets abruptly as the dogs get to work. With a surprisingly forcible lurch we’re off powered by the sheer strength and willingness of ten eager dogs. Cruising along at a furious pace mud, snow and pebbles fly from beneath the huskies powerful paws and I realize I, too, definitely need the goggles. A snowfall several days ago has melted for the most part leaving the trail a tad muddy though in the wooded sections of trail snow lingers.

Approaching a fork in the trail Blair commands “Gee!” and the dogs veer right. The ride is both peaceful and thrilling as we careen around a bend jostling over ruts and snow piles then down an embankment.“Haw!”Blair yells out and the dogs take the left ahead. With a ten-dog team you can see the turns well enough in advance to make the call before the turn but add more dogs and an unknown trail and the musher’s job becomes more challenging. The command must be called before the lead dog reaches a turn and in some instances a turn cannot be seen from the sled, the driver must know ahead of time to make the call. It’s a little like driving blind.

After the initial burst of speed the dogs settle into a steady, less expeditious pace for some distance heeding the “Gee” and “Haw” commands flawlessly.“Whoa,” Blair commands and the dogs pull to a stop alongside a pond. They turn to look at Blair as if querying “What next, boss?” In the warmer summer months the dogs would be taken off the gangline and allowed to swim. The nippier air and icy water temperatures preclude the activity today. Panting but clearly pleased, the dogs continue to look back at Blair awaiting the next command. “Hike!” Blair barks and again we’re off, the dogs climbing a hill towards home. “Haw,” Blair calls out and the dogs pick up the pace knowing this is the final turn towards the barn and some well deserved treats. In all we’ve been privy to almost four miles of trails, fields and wilderness at an average speed of nearly 20 miles per hour.

A bevy of high-pitched, welcoming barks greets us upon our return.“Whoa.”We pull up in front of the barn and disembark. James is splattered head to toe in mud but wearing a broad grin.“That was sick,” he confides through chattering teeth. We enter the barn and fix ourselves some hot chocolate and defrost in front of the wood burning stove. James and I each get a cupful of biscuits and head out to the pacified and contented dogs. The treats draw expectant, intelligent and soulful eyes. In short order the treats are gone- caught in mid-air by some, received patiently by others and otherwise scoffed down by the grateful huskies. Though our experience is drawing to a close James and I are reluctant to leave. Slowly making the rounds to each dog, we say goodbye to our generous four-legged hosts. Because it just can’t be contained James states the obvious: “That was awesome.”Indeed.

Eden Dog Sledding runs tours year round. Prices start at $100. Lodging is also available on the premises at Eden Mountain Lodge and is pet friendly. Lessons with your own canine companion(s) are another option as is skijoring. Visit edendogsledding.com to learn more or call owner Jim Blair, semi-retired International Six Dog Sprint Champion and US National Skijor Champ at 802-635-9070.