Horsepower for Dog Power
By Larry Gomes
March 23, 2014
A couple of weeks ago, I gave my wife a birthday present of a dog sled ride. It's something that she has always wanted to try and after helping with the Jericho sled dog races over the past few years, I was also curious about what dog sledding would be like.
We decided to go with the Muddy Paw Dog Sled Kennel in Jefferson, NH which is certified as one of New Hampshire's Grand Adventures. The kennel was founded by Neil Beaulieu and was basically started by accident.
Beaulieu, a high school teacher, was living in Alaska 10 years ago when he volunteered to help out with the famed 1,000-mile Iditarod dog sled race. He was taking care of a team of dogs after their owner dropped out of the race, and somehow he got talked into giving them a permanent home after the woman who owned the dogs told him she never wanted to see a sled dog again.
Beaulieu grew up in Maine and had worked as a registered Maine Guide for more than a dozen years before heading to Alaska to teach. He knew nothing about sled dogs when he acquired his first team, but ended up starting his own business after moving to New Hampshire and helping a friend who ran tours from a local hotel.
Using the donated kennel dogs, he started running sled dog tours. Money from the tours help support the main focus of the kennel — finding loving homes for dogs that might otherwise be killed. The kennel has expanded to housing over 120 dogs and runs tours in both the winter and summer seasons. They are always looking for good homes for the retired sled dogs and I could see that they would make great pets for a loving family.
Our musher and tour guide Karen "K2" Beck
The first step in the tour was to meet our guide who was Karen Beck, also known as "K2". She was not named after the second-highest mountain peak in the world, but she got her nickname because there was already a girl name Karen at the kennel. Even though she is not a mountain climber, Karen has experienced her share of adventure.
She spent several years in California, went to college in Nevada and then traveled the world including spending a winter in Antarctica and traveling all over New Zealand. Last year, she answered an ad looking for help at the kennel and she has been there ever since taking care of the dogs and giving tours.
Karen showed us around the kennel and introduced us to many of the dogs, some of them famous because they competed in the Iditarod races in Alaska. Every dog lives in a small dog house with hay in the bottom and their name is painted on a sign attached to the outside of the dog house. We found our very quickly that each dog had its own personality. Some welcomed our attention, others we afraid of us. But as we made the rounds, most of the dogs responded positively by jumping up on us as we petted them.
Kate is getting to know
one of the dogs.
Each dog lives outside year around in their own dog house. The kennel crew is responsible for feeding the dogs and cleaning the dog yards each day.
Karen got the sled ready and then asked us if we wanted to help by hooking up the dogs to the sled. We decided to give it a try. The first step was putting on their harness. The harness slides over dogs head and then you need to pull their feet through the sides of the harness.
After that you unhook their leash and carry the dog over to the sled by holding the dog up with the harness, keeping their front feet off the ground. It sounds like it would hurt the dogs, but it doesn't and they walked along on their hind legs just fine.
Once they are attached to the gang line, then they start to get excited because they know they are getting ready to run. We repeated the process several times hooking up 4 of the 8 dogs on our team to the gang line.
Larry stands with the team just before departing on the ride.
It was then time to go. We wedged ourselves into the sled and with the command of "hike, hike, hike", Karen had the team started out of the kennel. All of the other dogs around us were barking as we departed, obviously upset that they were not part of the team.
The first turn was a complete surprise. The trail went down a small hill and then turned right hand around a line of bushes. The sled dogs sped up as they went around the corner and tried to pull the sled into the bushes. We ducked and Karen did her best to turn the sled away from the bushes. The bushes crashed along the side of our sled and we were in the clear, barreling down an open field. After another turn out of the field, we were up onto Corridor 12 which is a groomed snowmobile trail that runs along an old railroad bed between Jefferson and Gorham.
When we were leaving the kennel, all of the other dogs were barking and running around upset they were getting left behind.
Once on the groomed trail, several oncoming snowmobiles slowed down and waved as we went by. It was a totally different perspective than snowmobiling. We were very close to the ground and the main sound was the scraping of the sled runners on the snow and the patter of the dogs feet ahead of us.
Then we got an unexpected surprise. Several of the dogs started to "unload" in front of us. The smell was very pungent and we we glad that none of their "deposits" bounced into the sled. Karen said this is normal for the start of a run. Some of the dogs tried to stop during their "unloading" procedure, but they were dragged along by the rest of the team. One of the dogs actually got up on his front paws and scurried along while dragging his back feet during his unloading procedure. It was very comical to watch and not something that was mentioned in their brochure.
The team settled down into their routine and then another dog team that was following us caught up and tried to pass us. The second team leader put on the brakes and held his team back. Karen said this is normal behavior for the dogs. The team that is behind always wants to be in front. But once they are in front, they slow down and the team behind tries to catch up and pass.
With the command of "gee, gee, gee", Karen turned the team right onto Jefferson Notch Road and started heading up the trail. One of the lead dogs saw some vehicles parked by the side of the trail and decided that is where we were heading. Of course the whole team followed.
Karen went up front and pulled the team away from the vehicles and back onto the trail. Once we were underway again, she explained that the dogs sometimes are brought by truck to other locations for tours so when they saw the cars, they thought that was the end of their journey.
We started heading up the first hill on Jefferson Notch Road and the team really slowed down and Karen let the second dog team pass to take over the lead. As the other team passed, the dogs in our team got really upset, barking and trying to bite the other dog team as they passed. As soon as the other dog team went by, they sped up and tried to pass the other team. Karen held them back with her brake.
Heading up the trail along Jefferson Notch Road. The second dog team had passed us and our team was trying to catch up.
It was very interesting to watch and for us it highlighted the amount of training that it must take to put together a championship dog team. You have all these dogs that are dissimilar breeds with varying ages and have different personalities. You must then mold them into a cohesive team that all pull together and respond to your commands the same way. It is certainly a massive undertaking and I gained a lot of respect for the mushers I have met over the years who care for 8 or 10 dogs, then train with with them for days on end, just to compete in a few races a year.
We arrived at the junction with the Mt. Mitten trail and Karen led the team down a small side trail that turned the team around back down Jefferson Notch Road. The sled immediately picked up speed and was flying down the trail. In addition to the effects of gravity, Karen explained that the dogs sensed they were heading back home and so they had picked up their pace. Finally they settled down to their normal gait and at the end of the road Karen yelled out "haw, haw, haw" to turn the team left onto Corridor 12.
Back at the kennel, we helped to put the dogs away by removing their harness and bringing them back to their dog house. We thanked Karen for the tour and headed home.
The next day when we went out riding, we simply turned a key to start our snowmobiles and were on our way. As much as we liked our dog sled ride, we would not give up "horsepower" for "dog power", but we do have a much better appreciation for the mushers who keep their sport alive.
If you have never been on a dog sled, we highly recommend that you give it a try. For more information, check the kennel website at: www.dogslednh.com