Eden Dogsledding Eden Dogsledding

New York Times January 2007 article

Direct Link to story at the NY Times

Sgt. Preston, Where Are You? Dog Sledding Isn't Easy 

Jim Blair, the owner of Eden Mountain Lodge in Eden Mills, Vt., directs his team on a trail ride with guests.


I MOUNTED the runners of a dogsled on Eden Mountain in northern Vermont, bracing for my first solo mush. The sun sparkled on a snow-covered field framed by stands of sugar maple, beech, birch, spruce, pimlock and pine. A few yards away, my wife, Alison, and my son, Harrison, stared at me with disbelief.

Bundled in a down parka and ski pants, I felt like I was about to embark on a miniature version of the Iditarod, the 1,151-mile endurance race from Anchorage to Nome. My team consisted of five Alaskan huskies. They were led by Peaberry, a short-haired blond 6-year-old with the crossbred snout and haunches of a greyhound.

“Hike!” I hollered.

At my command, absolutely nothing happened. The dogs did not run or bark or even turn their heads. I glared down at the sled, horrified and perplexed. The metal brake bar wasn’t engaged. I wasn’t standing on the rectangular rubber mat between the runners. There was no apparent reason we were not moving.

“Hike! Hike!” I hollered twice more.

Suddenly, Peaberry and his teammates bolted forward like racehorses breaking out of the starting gate. My neck snapped backward. As I white-knuckled the bow handle of the sled, I heard Alison and Harrison guffawing.

“Gee!” I cried out.

My dog team and I were supposed to circumnavigate the periphery of a frozen pond off to the left. Instead, we charged straight ahead toward the wilderness.

“Whoa! Whoa!” I wheezed, hopping onto the drag mat. 

Peaberry and his teammates slowed obediently. I depressed the brake bar, bringing the sled to a shuddering halt.

Jim Blair, the owner of Eden Mountain Resort, raced up on foot. Jim, a 52-year-old former high school hockey star and cross-country skier with longish gray locks, bore a striking resemblance to Paul McCartney. He winked at me as if he were Sergeant Pepper coming to the rescue of his Lonely Hearts Club Band.

“You said ‘Gee’ when you should have said ‘Haw,’ ” Jim declared. “ ‘Gee’ means turn right. ‘Haw’ means turn left.”

I hemmed and hawed on the sled runners, blushing with embarrassment. I had come to Eden Mountain in executive pursuit of a wintertime recreation my family and I could enjoy in a spirit of sang-froid togetherness. Harrison was the one who had proposed the trip. But once again, it was dear old dad who made a fool of himself.

As Jim turned the dog team around, I swallowed my pride and reflected on my dog sledding due diligence. Though hardly as popular as skiing or snowboarding, the sport is currently enjoying a miniboom in northern states like Vermont, Maine, Minnesota, Montana and Idaho, and in Canada, Norway, Mongolia, South Korea and Japan. But its roots trace all the way back to prehistoric times.

“Sled dog activities as recreation and friendly competition may have existed for almost as long as the relationship between dogs and human in the regions where snow was a seasonal probability,” observes Tim White, vice president for development at the International Federation of Sleddog Sports, in a brief history of dog sledding posted on his organization’s Web site.

In a telephone interview, Mr. White estimated there were more than 5,000 active dog sledders in the United States. That figure includes skijorers, who wear skis while being pulled by one, two or three dogs. The grueling Iditarod in Alaska, which typically takes more than eight days for the winner to complete, has drawn teams from over 20 other states and 14 foreign countries, with women and men competing on an equal basis. Ingrid Bower, president of the Green Mountain Distance Mushers in Vermont, says her organization’s events are so popular she limits the number of entrants to 70 teams.

“It’s addictive, exhilarating and difficult,” the federation’s treasurer, Laura Gloor, a dog sled racer from Bovey, Minn., said in an e-mail message.

The biggest growth sector is the commercial dog sled tour in which experienced mushers take clients on cross-country trips. Over the last six years, the number of guests at Eden Mountain Resort has skyrocketed to 400 a season from 12. “There is particular interest in touring among honeymoon couples from Japan who come to Quebec and the Northwest Territories of Canada,” Mr. White said. “Many of them believe that children who are conceived under the Northern Lights are blessed.

As rank novices, my family and I did not aspire to become dog sled racers. We simply wanted to be taken for a few scenic rides through the snow, and, if possible, learn the basics of how to drive a sled. Eden Mountain Resort offers programs that fit the bill and our budget. The 75-acre site has a kennel of 24 Alaskan huskies, 10 miles of sledding trails, a guest house and a log home. Tours and so-called U Drive lessons last about two hours, and cost $325 a sled. Two-night accommodations range from $300 to $700 depending on the time of year.

Executive Pursuits: Paw Power

Jim, the owner, said his 10-year love affair with dog sledding grew out of training for endurance sports like cross-country skiing. Dogs he trained won national skijoring titles in 2003, 2004 and 2005. He operates a “free range” kennel, where his huskies roam their pens unchained. “Chained dogs can be shy and skittish, but my dogs are much better socialized with guests that come and go,” he said, adding, “Every so often I’ll have an evening with the dogs and bring them all into the same room and have a party.”

On our first evening at Eden Mountain, Jim took us on a trail ride under a setting sun and a full moon rising. A large sled pulled by an eight-dog team can accommodate about 350 pounds of weight, so Alison, Harrison, and I fit comfortably in the same basket. Snuggled together under a pile of blankets, we kept oohing and aahing and shouting with glee as our bottoms bounced along the snowy trails. That evening, Alison made a hearty beef stew in the guest house and Jim regaled us with tales of dog sledding adventures.

The following day, Jim gave Harrison and me a three-step U Drive course. Step 1 was riding the runners of the sled in tandem with him. He taught us how to control the sled by standing on the drag mat, and by leaning through turns bending the bow handle. Step 2 was mushing with Jim riding in the sled basket. Step 3 was soloing, which I finally began to master after my initial false start.

But Harrison proved to be the family’s dog sledding star. As his mother watched, biting her nails, he made a series of near-perfect loops around the frozen pond with the same five-dog team that had earlier bolted out from under me. Then he co-piloted Jim back to the barn, where he helped unhitch the dogs, watered them and fed them high-carbohydrate treats.

On the second morning it rained, and the melting snow nixed conventional dog sledding. But Jim showed Harrison how to drive a dog cart. Made in Germany, the dog cart was a two-seater with a galvanized steel frame, disc brakes and four heavy-duty tires. With the trusty Peaberry leading a three-dog team, Harrison piloted Jim down the resort’s asphalt driveway and back and forth along the access road.

President Harry Truman once said, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” I’d found the same could be said of life in general and business in particular. At Eden Mountain Resort, my family and I made 24 new canine friends. My son found a new sport he was good at, and some teammates for whom he felt a special love. “It was a lot of fun,” Harrison said as we piled in the car to drive home, “just like I hoped it would be.”