By Lisa Autz
Photo courtesy of Suddenly Still Photography.
During the gray, frosty winter there is an adventure that awaits with unexpected companions. Instead of grabbing skis for the slopes to break up the groggy winter, more people are opting to sit in a toboggan sled and get whisked away by a racing line of Alaskan huskies with kaleidoscopic fur.
An activity once seen as a purely Alaskan sport, mushing is now becoming a trend for winter resort-goers throughout the country. Resorts in states like Vermont and Colorado are training and showcasing their racing huskies for visitors to try their hand at Alaskan dog sledding.
Behind each dog sledding program, there is a dedicated team of mushers and trainers putting in years of work with energetic huskies to race, win national and international championships, and even provide life lessons on ethical animal care.
On a 140-acre protected wilderness area in Eden Mills, Vermont, lies the Eden Ethical Canine Educational Adventures at Eden Mountain Lodge. Visitors can find lots of dogs lounging on multiple couches ready for the next sledding session.
“When we get the dogs to go out, they get so excited and begin to bark and sing,” Deborah Blair, psychologist and volunteer at the Eden Ethical Canine Educational Adventures, tells BTR. “We believe that all dogs love and want to have jobs… part of their job is sharing their joy.”
Blair describes the woody, backlands, and educational barn as a type of “doggy sanctuary” where 37 panting, smiling dogs run freely around hundreds of acres. Dubbed as the “Un-Chained Gang,” these canines have won regional, national, and international championships racing in 8-dog sprint races for 18 years.
Blair, along with her brother and lead musher, Jim Blair, care for the Un-Chained Gang. These sibling also started an educational center as a model for how to raise a truly winning pack of dogs with love and respect.
The Humane Society reports that from 2012-13 in the US, about 2.7 million adoptable cats and dogs get euthanized in shelters each year. The Blair family believes that instead of going after any abusers, they would simply set a new standard for the treatment of animals.
“We did not believe that dogs should be kept on 3-foot chains,” explains Blair. “We believe dogs should always be part of a human family life. These 37 dogs are our family now.”
When the Blairs and their chainless gang are not racing across the North East or Quebec, they are teaching 3- to 4-hour lessons to children, families, and individuals with mental challenges. Blair explains that children and adults with autism or other such challenges benefit greatly from mushing by building an undeniable connection with the sleigh dogs.
“The dogs seem to have a way to communicate and be there with a child,” admits Blair. “We have many parents that come, even doctors with their autistic children, that come up every couple times a year and feel [dog sledding] is healing and having positive effects on their children.”
There’s an undeniable relationship built with the animals for anyone partaking in dog sledding. It seems that half of the journey is for humans to find the fluidity between themselves and the loyal line of canine runners leading the sled.
Martha Sortland, musher and Strategic Brand Manager at YMCA of the Rockies’ Snow Mountain Ranch, sat down with BTR to speak about her adventures. She has experience dog sledding in Minnesota and the participating in the mushing program at Snow Mountain Ranch.
Mushing for only two seasons now, Sortland is enchanted by the thrill of enjoying the slopes with husky companions. The hours she spends alone with the group of eight dogs brings her a connection that is far more meaningful than any glory that comes from winning a race.
“I think every musher will say it’s the relationship you have with each dog that is so special, especially in a long-distance race when you are with them for 23 to 24 hours straight,” elaborates Sortland. “You become of one mind and one goal and that’s what makes mushers stay in the sport.”
Colorado’s Snow Mountain Ranch offers a dog sledding program led by Chaplain Steven Peterson, a former long-distance musher in Minnesota. Peterson designs dog sledding groups with a mission and lesson in mind for each musher to take away with them.
About four winters ago, Peterson decided to bring up some of his previous racing dogs from Minnesota to the ranch one Saturday to give rides. The rides were so well received by the guests, Peterson continued the riding as a seasonal activity, and his mushing service only kept growing in popularity each year.
Now every Thursday and Saturday, Peterson and folks gather up a playful group of 19 dogs to teach students sledding techniques and give rides. The program also offers a Christian presentation and moral message on topics such as the power of perseverance or the importance of teamwork.
The experience of man and dog working together in nature seems to ignite unmatched insights. It’s no wonder that the growing trend for adventure, connection, and nature is realized through dog sledding, a historic sport of man and wild. Whether it’s through Alaska or Minnesota, mushing is a contagion sport that often leaves riders thirsty for further adventure.
“I think [dog sledding is] coming back, it’s always kind of been a waxing and waning thing,” asserts Sortland. “I would do another long-distance race in a heart beat.”