Cold Rush

It’s the second-biggest annual event in downtown Laconia — admittedly, a distant second. Both events feature a transportation medium that’s arguably more recreational than practical. Each brings big crowds to Laconia, gets loud and boisterous at times, and produces a fair share of exhaust — some of it, shall we say, more tangible than others.

Number one, of course, is Motorcycle Week. Number two is the Laconia World Championship Sled Dog Derby, held annually on the second weekend in February. The Derby is one of the most storied races in sled dog racing, and it’s at the heart of the sport’s rich history in New Hampshire, which goes back to the early days of mushing.

“There were always sled dogs, but racing started in the Alaska Gold Rush,” says Ann Mariah Cook, a musher and writer from New Hampton. “There were people bored in the mining camps, they bragged about who had the best dog team and they raced each other.” The first organized races took place in the early 1900s; the sport arrived in New Hampshire soon thereafter and has been a fixture of Granite State winters ever since.

Almost a Musher

It’s a cold day in early December, and I’m having a new experience — riding shotgun on an ATV behind a team of eight dogs: Journey, Amber, Lindsey, Zeus, Venus, Isis, Rutherford and Buster. The driver is Jim Lalla of Bradford, a 61-year-old sales rep for electronics manufacturers and a veteran musher. He’s taking his dogs on a pre-season training run and he’s clearly having a ball. I am, too, but mainly I’m trying not to fall off; my share of the seat is pretty small, we’re on an unfinished dirt track, and it’s a bumpy ride.

Why an ATV, you may ask. Well, if sled dogs are going to compete in the winter, they have to start working out before the snow flies. An ATV — with the motor off — makes a great sled substitute on dry ground. And those oversized tires help even out the bumps. At least a little.

Lalla’s career includes a notable accomplishment: In 2004, he won the Sandwich Notch 30-mile race and was given not only the first-place trophy, but also the oldest musher trophy. His team includes quite a few reclamation projects. “I got some of my dogs from shelters,” he says. “Huskies often end up in shelters; everybody wants that beautiful blue-eyed Husky, till they find out what’s involved.” Huskies are bred to work hard. They need a lot of attention and exercise. Lalla devotes most of his spare time to his dogs, not to mention a few thousand bucks a year.

“It’s like they say about boats,” according to musher Ann Mariah Cook, “it’s a hole in the water you pour money into.” Why do mushers do it? A love of dogs and working with them and of being outdoors. Cook’s husband George says, “There’s a certain tranquility to being able to go out in the woods and see a lot of things that nobody else is seeing.”

There’s also the health benefit: All the mushers I’ve met are slim, athletic and look younger than their age. Many mushers live to a ripe old age and stay active into their 80s or even 90s.

At the end of Lalla’s six-mile run, the dogs are panting heavily but clearly satisfied. They could have gone much longer; in season, they do 15 to 30 miles at a pop. As for me, it’s been a great experience, but I’m hoping I won’t be too sore tomorrow morning. And all I did was sit.

New Hampshire’s Best

If there’s a royal family in Granite State mushing, Keith Bryar II is its current scion. His parents, Keith and Jean Bryar, were both champions; after they divorced, Jean married Dick Moulton, one of the true legends of the sport. Among them, Moulton and the Bryars have won nine Laconia World Championships. But although the junior Bryar grew up in the company of dogs, he didn’t get serious about racing until his parents retired. Since then, he’s made up for lost time — his Moultonborough home is packed with trophies, awards and memorabilia.

By day, Bryar runs a construction company, but his real passion is sled dogs. He has about 60 and usually runs a team of 16. That’s a lot of dog power, and he needs it because “I’m a big guy, 235 pounds. A lot of the others are more like jockey-size.”

In many ways, Bryar reminds me of a good sled dog. He’s a bundle of barely controlled energy, who’s clearly more comfortable out on the trail than sitting at his kitchen table. He fidgets constantly, chain smokes and rarely finishes one thought before starting another. “Yeah, I’m probably a better dog person than a people person,” he admits. Which probably explains his success.

It was a bad pre-season for Bryar “because of the weather. It was terribly rainy, so we got way behind on training.” Still, he’s looking ahead to this year’s Laconia World Championship and another chapter in his long-running battle with Quebec’s Real Turmel, one of those jockey-sized competitors. He finished second to Turmel last year; since 2000, each man has four top-three finishes in Laconia. “I race to win,” he says. “I don’t like being eighth. I don’t like being fifth. I have a hard enough time settling for the top three.”

Bryar has a deep respect for the Laconia race. It’s not a championship in the sense of the World Series or Super Bowl; it’s more like the Masters golf tournament, a place where the very best have always gathered. “The history of it, the prestige,” says Bryar. He also calls it “the toughest race in the lower 48” because of diverse conditions — countryside, city and lakes — and because of the crowds. Sled dogs are unaccustomed to performing in front of a big audience.

But what’s bad for the dogs is good for spectators. “The course is uniquely accessible to viewers,” says trail boss Jim Lyman. “We get several thousand people at the start/finish line, and even more when we’re on Main Street. It’s a boost to the midwinter economy.”

This year marks the 76th Laconia World Championship and the Lymans have been involved since the very beginning. Jim’s grandfather Charlie was one of the founders; Jim’s father John ran the race for many years; and now Jim is in charge. The 2006 race is dedicated to John, who died last summer.

Keeping History Alive

If there’s a birthplace for mushing in New Hampshire, it’s the Chinook Kennels in Wonalancet. It was founded almost a hundred years ago by Arthur Walden, a Granite Stater who went adventuring in Alaska and returned an ardent musher. Chinook is now a state historic site and a shrine to mushers everywhere.

Walden was a skilled racer and breeder, and a tireless promoter of his sport. He was the first to climb Mount Washington in winter with a dog team. He was lead dog-team trainer and driver for the Antarctic expedition of Admiral Richard Byrd, who later wrote, “Had it not been for the dogs, our attempts to conquer the Antarctic must have ended in failure.”

For decades, the kennel was a renowned center of dog breeding. It supplied the dogs for both of Byrd’s polar expeditions and for U.S. military search-and-rescue teams in World War II.

Chinook Kennels was rescued from oblivion six years ago by George and Ann Mariah Cook. Well, at first it was just George: “Ann was out of the country at the time,” he recalls. “The kennels came up for foreclosure auction. I decided to bid on it, and won.”

The Cooks formed the Chinook Kennel Foundation and began restoring the buildings. They have big plans: “There is no museum anywhere in the country dedicated to sled dog memorabilia,” says George. “Our goal is to have a standing exhibit with regular hours, so people can learn the history.” As with most nonprofits, the challenge is to raise the funds needed to make their vision a reality.

The Future of Mushing

The Cooks hope that by preserving its history, they will help preserve the sport itself. There are fewer mushers than there used to be in New Hampshire. Dog sleds used to be basic transportation; now, it’s a lot easier to keep a snowmobile.

It’s getting harder to find places to run a dog team. This year, Jim Lalla did his training runs on a plot of land that’s slated for development. And on trails everywhere, mushers have to find a place among the far more numerous snowmobilers, ATVers and hikers.

Two years ago, a Maine musher named Steve Hessert was gravely injured in a snowmobile hit-and-run on a New Hampshire trail. After that, the sled-dog community formed the New Hampshire Mushers Association, a group that tries to provide a single voice for mushers in internal communication, public education and lobbying.

In sheer numbers, they are a small group. But they form a vital connection to New Hampshire’s winter history and culture and a living example of human-animal cooperation. NH