Get Your Mush On
Go along for the ride
I still bear a shiny white scar on my forearm from my one-and-only dogsledding experience more than 14 years ago. It wasn’t a spectacular injury — I merely scraped my arm along some ice-shellacked snow as I was taking off in the sled, leaving behind the faintest reminder of that day. But, if given an opportunity, I love to point it out and say, ever so casually, “Yeah, got this one here from an intense day of dogsledding.” Sounds much cooler than the adjacent mark I got from a curling iron when I was 13.
The best part of that day was the rush of air on my face as a team of powerful, extraordinarily friendly dogs pulled me along in a sled. When we were first gearing them up, they really wanted to go — it was all I could do to hold them back. My preconceived notions that the dogs may be unhappy doing this were quickly blown away. They really seemed to live for it, and it was about their day out — I was just along for the ride.
A Brief History
No one really knows when the first person attached a dog to a sled as means of transport, but some archaeological evidence points to Canadian Thule sites as early as somewhere between 1000 AD and 1600 AD. There are historical records of use of sled dogs in the Siberian subarctic from the 10th century, and in the writings of Marco Polo from the 16th. Dogsleds were in regular use in Alaska until the advent of the snowmobile, but events such as the long-distance Iditarod race were put in place to preserve the dogsledding culture. The event was first created to commemorate the freight route to Nome, highlighting the important role sled dogs had in the settlement of Alaska.
“When folks come on their first dogsled ride, they are usually so amazed at how friendly the dogs are,” says Christine Richardson of Seal Cove Journeys in Canaan. Richardson, who runs the professional racing kennel, has 21 years of experience racing and guiding tours. “Mushing has changed so much in the last 50 years, and we focus very much on every dog enjoying their job as a sled dog,” she adds. At Seal Cove, they raise the dogs from pups, and if any dog demonstrates that he or she doesn’t take to being a sled dog, then Richardson doesn’t force it. Unsurprisingly, they get very close to their canine staff members.
“We also know all their names, and I can even tell them by their barks and howls,” Richardson says. “During a tour, we encourage people to introduce themselves to the dogs based on their comfort level. They can also help us to harness and hook the dogs into the team, then we bundle them into the sled for the first part of the ride. The dogs take off fast, so having guests sit in the sled until the dogs settle into a pace is the best strategy. Then we will have them join us on the runners to see what it feels like to be the musher and give the commands.”
After the tour is over, both guests and dogs get treats — beef soup for the dogs and hot cocoa and cookies for the humans.
“We take time to laugh and share about the ride, and each tour usually ends with hugs and happy goodbyes,” says Richardson.
Adopt a Sled Dog
Working sled dogs do not always fare well if they find themselves in a traditional shelter environment. Often, they develop behavioral problems and end up either deemed unadoptable (and ultimately euthanized), bouncing from home to home or living out their days in a shelter or kennel.
In 2013, the nonprofit NH Sled Dog Rescue, History and Education Center (NHSDRHEC) was formed to further support rescue sled dogs in need, provide education about northern breed dogs to the public and help the adoptable sled dogs in their program find new homes. Together with Muddy Paw Sled Dog Kennel and Raft NH, the NHSDRHEC is responsible for the daily care of about 100 dogs, a number that requires upward of $100,000 for basic care annually. The touring facility at Muddy Paw, which is a traditional working kennel, is a familiar environment for the dogs. Unlike a shelter, it allows them to continue to thrive and “work” until they’re ready to give house life a try and/or can be paired up with the perfect adopters.
If you’re interested in adopting one of the dogs, visit nhsdrhec.com for more detailed information on the process. Do know that some of these former working dogs may have a few specific needs, including an active household that can provide multiple walks a day and engaging toys in the home. They will need to be acclimated to a house environment (including house training — it’s much like welcoming a puppy).