Alex Knight

Winter Weather: A Tale of Dogsledding

A dozen raucous dogs lunged against fixed chains from all sides.  They snarled and snapped and growled and roared.  Three white dogs tried to scale the fence of their pen while they bayed from behind me.  A pack of huskies on top of a nearby hill hurled themselves towards me, each tug unearthing the stakes to which they were chained.  Their owner, the man I came to meet, was nowhere in sight.

Miko, the wolf-like Siberian husky free of chains, ran into my vision as I faced the pack.  He silenced his barking as he sternly approached, but warmed up once he sniffed my hand and got his ears scratched.

Four years ago I signed my college education to Vermont.  As a Tucson-native long adjusting to the concept of temperatures below sixty-degrees, I needed a way to make it through my decidedly final winter in New England’s ice kingdom. I was going to get through it by dog mushing.  I had tried coping through the winter or defecting the Northeast in years past, but I needed to try something else—embrace the cold through adventure.  I had stored up my vitamin D with a month in California, and I came back to Vermont only to be disenchanted by a snowless winter.

This January ground had yet to hold snow.  My final battle against winter weather would now be pathetic rather than epic; my hopes of training to dogsled were doubtful.  Nonetheless I was here.  I crossed the continuing bellows of unfamiliar dogs and traced the perimeter of the house before me, in search of the human captain of this team.

Turning a corner, I came into sight of a man cutting firewood, the growl of his chainsaw overpowered by more primal howls.

“Settle down!  That’s enough now!” Ed’s voice boomed, partially settling the continuing chorus of his anxious dogs.  He set down his saw and walked over to greet me.  “Let’s go meet the dogs.  That’ll calm them down,” he invited after a simple handshake and a quip about the weather.  The unexpected absence of snow did not bode well for the daring mushing quest that prompted my meeting with Ed Blechner.

The first dog I met was Boomer, the youngest, who hurled all of his brawn on me, paws wrapped around my chest.  His snout darted and oscillated, attempting to sneak his tongue through my lips.  “We picked up Boomer and Scuppy on our trip to Maine last year.”  The brothers, like several of Ed’s other dogs, had been abandoned by previous mushers.  “Now, we don’t do any of that here. Once a dog comes here, they’re here for life,” Ed testified.

Ed stood tall and firm above his dogs like a tree.  His face steadily serene in woodly meditation; he oversaw his excitable brood in sweatpants covered in dog fur of all colors.

We circled his property and Ed told me a bit about what made each Alaskan husky special as I met them.  They all had their own hay-lined, wooden-box shelters, contained within the radius of their chains.  Ed gave each dog individual attention in his own house, and time to run around in the pen where the three white dogs waited for us.  “It’s about love, caring and respect,” Ed succinctly stated, followed by a detailed explanation of each tenant.

We ended the tour in the enclosed pen, where Ed was especially proud for me to meet eyeless Ace.  He tossed a ball and searched my face for awe as Ace retrieved it back to him.  “I don’t even think about him being blind.  He’s one of the best runners on the team.”

Finished with introductions to the skilled pack of canine athletes, we walked past our cars in the driveway and on to the Blechner home.  A far cry from the adobe houses of my childhood, the house itself was indistinguishable from any other two-story New England home as far as I could tell.  But it was clear that Ed’s house was unique beyond its dozen guard dogs.  The house sat as the highest structure on Snake Mountain, affording Ed and his wife handsome views of the countryside below.

Just outside the house, Ed showed off his craftsmanship, on display on top of the truck he uses to take all of his dogs to trails or events.  Securely fixed to the bed of the truck, the structure Ed built is a sturdy, wooden box separated into eight cubbies to function as on-the-go dog kennels.  It is designed to hold two sleds on top, and leaves room for supplies in the truck’s bed below.

We continued inside and Ed showed me around his snowshoe- and ski-filled workshop at the lower level of his house.  “Newer sleds are often made of Kevlar or titanium even, and are probably a lot more efficient and better in a lot of ways, but I like to use these traditional ones.”  His sleds were all comprised of sleek, curved slats of wood, folding into a swooped basket framed in handles, and all set on two long runners.

Once inside his home, we were sheltered from bitter Vermont mountain winds as we got to know each other.  He offered me a seat on the sofa normally reserved for the dogs.  A pack of dogs and a life in the outdoors are a vital focus of Ed’s life, and I was surprised to find out Ed did not grow up in a family of mountaineering wolf-tamers.  Ed grew up in Brooklyn, New York, evident in his long vowels.  When asked how he came into a life of dog sledding, his story went back before his first dog.

In his junior year of college, Ed was one of six in the country to receive a scholarship for an Outward Bound wilderness trip.  He was also one of six applicants.  The month-long expedition to Maine was his first extended time in the wilderness, and upon return all practicality of his History major was shadowed by the woodsman life Ed would lead.  The next year he completed a course with National Outdoors Leadership School in Wyoming, funded by some saved money and a ten-dollar monthly payment plan.  I reached out to bond over this shared alma mater—I had completed my own NOLS course a year ago when I evaded the Vermont winter on the beaches of Mexico.

Ed volunteered a free flow of the history and variety of dog sledding, and its impact on him, all the way from his start with a single dog in 1975 to his recent decision to start slowing down after thirty-seven years running and leading long expeditions with teams of dogs.

“Well, I got my first dog when I was about twenty-eight.  I liked to take him outside with me as much as possible.  Skijoring was a natural next step—it’s a great way to spend time outdoors with your dog in the winter.” Skijoring is a form of dog sledding with only one or two dogs, and no sled.  When Ed first explained it to me, I pictured some funny situation of a dog pulling a man with a water-ski rope.  What I thought to be an absurd mental image was actually sometimes accurate.  More often then not, however, the sled dog and the musher will both be wearing a harness, and the dog pulls the musher on cross-country skis.  “Sometimes the only way to stop is to let yourself fall down and hope the dog gets the message,” Ed acquiesced.

Ed found himself with a sixteen-month-old Alaskan malamute when an old friend from high school was looking for a home for him.  The dog was Ari. At that point Ed had seven years of winter camping experience and adventuring, and Ari naturally came into that part of his life.  Ed got his second dog, Kona soon after.  He had never grown up around dogs, but had always been excited by the fantasy of dog sledding.

Soon after Ed and Ari came together, sledding avalanched into a central component of his life.  He started a business selling equipment, and he quickly paired that endeavor with leading winter camping trips for novices with his dogs.  Ed’s strong passion for education quickly came into his work as well, and his business continued to grow rapidly.

“I would take a four- or five-day trip to Maine and do two or three presentations at schools on the way back,” Ed recalled.  “I did some crazy stuff.  When you’re younger you have more energy.”  The whole time Ed ran his own business without any help, but he has since slowed down, only embarking on an occasional personal excursion.

For someone who developed a thirty-seven-year-long career in dog sledding, Ed had never been attracted to racing.  He had only competed in two races, much because he’s never had a team of dogs ready for serious competition.  Many of the racing teams come from kennels of up to 100 dogs, where only the best are selected to compete.

The whole time I said little more than an occasional interjection of “wow” or “reeeally?”  Before I met Ed and took the first step in becoming a musher extraordinaire, I couldn’t have differentiated the Iditarod and a toboggan, so Ed now patiently filled me in on some of the missing gaps.

“What’s the Iditarod?” I interrupted at one point, lost in Ed’s words on dog sledding.

“What’s the Iditarod?! Wow, you really aren’t from around here,” Ed replied.  Not that the Iditarod is anywhere near Vermont, but there is a much stronger cultural connection than I’m used to in Arizona.  I discovered that the Iditarod was in fact a 1049-mile race across Alaska, from Anchorage to Nome.  In its entirety, the race generally takes between nine and fifteen days to complete and contenders regularly sled through blizzards of sub-zero temperatures and icy winds.  The racecourse is made up of many trails historically followed by Inuits as well as trading posts during Alaska’s early development, and serves as a symbolic link to the legacy of dog mushing.  It is considered to be the most popular sporting event in Alaska, and merits significant attention far beyond its host state.

Ed also explained to me the difference between types of races.  In a race like the Iditarod, sledding teams start with twelve to sixteen dogs, and are allowed to take dogs off the team at the rest stations.  In contrast, sprint races have four or six dogs on a team.  The breed of dog also depends on the type of event.  Sprinters are bred for strength and speed, while sturdier breeds like the Alaskan malamute and Siberian husky are best for their endurance.

Dog sledding has gone on far longer than any racing.  Archeological evidence shows dog sledding in North America and Siberia dating back 4000 years, and anthropologists believe survival in northern Canada would not have been possible without sled dogs.  The joint effort between man and beast bridges northern cultures as Scandinavians too depended on sled dogs for protection, hunting, and transportation. Eventually sled dogs were used by trappers and the Canadian Mounties.  Although dog sleds have been replaced by snowmobiles for the most part, some trappers and travelers find dog sleds to be more dependable in extreme weather environments.

Ed passed me a couple of sledding magazines and told me of the Slædepatruljen Sirius, an elite division of the Danish Navy fully dependent on dog sledding to patrol the northern part of Greenland where conditions could not allow for any other option.  The Sirius division is the ultimate utilitarian example of modern dog sledding beyond sport.

Sirius is made up of the manliest of men.  Men who, without pause, disregard a knife wound as if it were a paper cut and continue a perpetual trudge in a land full of snow and empty of sunbeams.  Such an anecdote was offhandedly depicted in the National Geographic profile of such a man and his the daily life.

The division accepts no more than six dauntless candidates each year after a grueling six-month training routine to test their limits for isolated stretches in the Arctic Circle.  Those who make it are paired into six dogsled teams of two men and up to fifteen dogs and deployed to pioneer across Northern and Eastern Greenland to patrol the largest national park in the world, stretching across 8,699 miles of Northeast Greenland’s coastline.  The second part of their mission is long-range reconnaissance patrolling and enforcement of Danish sovereignty.

These men depend on a team of dogs that are more reliable than a snowmobile in severe weather and have strong senses to warn for polar bears or stop at the edge of a cliff despite orders to continue in a blinding blizzard.

Ed walked me out as he rushed off, late for an appointment. “I don’t know why you’d bother talk to me.  The dogs are so much more interesting.”

 

The day had finally come to try my hand at dog sledding.  Ed was taking advantage of this winter’s first and only pocket of snow, so he called me the night before and told me to bundle up and stay rested.  I knew Ed was doubtful that I would dress properly for the winter, but I was excited to prove myself with my winter boots and multiple layers.  All I was lacking were basic ski gloves.  I had to ask Ed to borrow a pair because I had discarded my previous pair a year ago in a futile vow to never let myself be cold enough to need them again.

His truck pulled up along College Street with six dogs barking in kennels on top.  I hopped in, and Ed shot me a quick glance.  “So we need to talk about dressing properly for the weather.”  Hadn’t he seen my boots?  I looked down at them and suddenly my ankle hiking boots seemed like sneakers next to Ed’s knee-high and fur-lined mukluks.   Ed had a rare way of avoiding condescension while explaining the should-be-obvious.  “Luckily I also brought an extra parka for you.  I had a feeling you might need it,” he muttered while passing me the biggest fur-lined mittens I had ever seen.

“The most important thing is that you have to tell me if your feet or hands get too cold.  None of this acting tough business.  This isn’t worth losing a finger or toe to frost bite,” Ed warned concluding his scientific explanation of body-heat and winter fabrics.

Ed nodded toward the truck kennels, “That’s Jimma.  On our trip to Maine last year he finally stopped barking halfway through New Hampshire.”  Jimma had been shouting throaty barks without pause since before I got in the truck.  We scaled mountain roads of snowy woods, at one point following a lethargic stream gliding over iced banks.  Jimma quieted once we rolled up to the trailhead, but the silence was immediately filled by Scuppy’s shrill squeaks, desperate for release from his kennel.

Ed prepared the chains and showed me how to hook up a dog before “dropping” them from their kennels.  He carried them down from their personal boxes one-by-one.  “Some people let their dogs jump down on their own, but I really don’t want them to be too hard on their legs.”

Once they were all freed and lined up in chains, the half dozen dogs competed for space to pee on the truck, and soon enough Ed told me to grab a shovel too.  All six bucked up and down chanting eagerly.  Amidst the clamor, Ed and I pulled down the sled from its secured position above the kennels.  Positions of ice-hooks and significances of feet positions flew past me as we examined the traditional sled waiting in the snow.  Ed showed me how to stand on the sled as a solo-rider, or in this case as a pair, and how to break.  He warned me that if he yanked me by the collar I should get off quickly and not take it personally.

Harnessing the dogs was easy.  They were all excited to run.  As we lead each one by the collar to the sled, their front feet moved so fast they lifted into the air.  The awkward stumble of their widowed hind legs was still forceful enough to pull me to the lines of the sled.

“Hike!” and we were off.

The sled jerked forward and a team of six dogs pulled two grown men up a snowy mountain slope.

“With the two of us on here and the sled, they’re carrying over 400 pounds.  Split between six dogs, that’s over seventy-five pounds each.  Uphill,” Ed calculated as he showed me how to peddle.  Peddling is a way to offset the weight of the sled by skating one foot to help push the sled up the snow.  The other option is to jog along and push the sled to remove all of our bodyweight from the dogs’ burden.  Ed qualified that the dogs would be able to carry us all the way without help, but because his is a team of older dogs and because he had worked them hard the previous day, he wanted to give them a break.

“Now I’ve got forty-two years on you so you better keep up,” Ed encouraged as he showed me how to optimize my peddling.

“Gee, Scuppy, GEE!” Ed shouted.  A command to veer right.

Scuppy swerved left, his attention caught by a squirrel darting in front of the sled.  He was one of the point dogs, alongside Queenie, and had the power to take us all off course with him.  Queenie is Ed’s most experienced lead dog and did not hesitate before shoving Scuppy back in line.

“Good girl Queenie!  Good girl!  Good boy, Scuppy!” Ed coaxed.  “Scuppy’s still pretty young, so he gets distracted by things like squirrels pretty easily.”

Distractions are not a rare occurrence on the sled, and the crowd is even influenced by the trace scent of a moose and will run faster and harder with any indication of beast.  A moose might be the worst thing for Ed’s sled to fall upon—moose have been known to kill a pack dogs with a fatal kick.

Luckily he hasn’t come across a moose yet, but what Ed is more concerned about is keeping his dogs clear on the left side of the path in case of any encounter with another dog sled or snowmobile.

“Queenie’s the only female on the team, but she holds her own,” Ed praises.  In dog sledding, female dogs can be just as valuable runners as male dogs, and it is one of the only sports where women compete head to head with men.

We peddled our way up hills, ran alongside the sled up slopes, and balanced on the sled’s narrow runners as we sped down snowy hills.  Sometimes we would even have to break so the pack didn’t carry us faster than some of the dogs could handle.

Flatter sections of the trail and declines required much less effort, and gave Ed a chance to tell me more about how dog sledding came to be part of his life.  “I mostly learnt on my own but some people helped me out along the way,” he told me. “I never did much racing so I wasn’t part of the racing community, where a lot of people learn from others around.”

Most of Ed’s current pack of dogs already had sledding knowledge before coming to him, but he told me that so much of training a dog to sled is instinctual.  “The other dogs will keep a new one in check.  And they’ll be excited to learn.  He’ll see the other boys getting ready, and he’ll start barking and want to join in too.”

“They aren’t particularly enthused today,” Ed said in reference to the amount of work we were putting into the sled.  “And they’re older dogs, so I want to take it easy on them.  Especially because I just took them out yesterday too.  Yesterday was much steeper, and I hardly peddled at all.

“These are also only their first days on snow,” Ed said of the year’s unseasonably warm winter.  “We need to take advantage of this time while we can to get in some training.”

There was that word again.  Training.  It wasn’t hard to understand why dog sledding is such a central feature of Ed’s life, but for a team of dogs that doesn’t race and no longer goes on long excursions, I still wasn’t able grasp the aim of training.

“That’s a fair question,” Ed conceded, “it’s really training to get them in shape, to keep them in shape.  For everybody’s sanity.  If this had been a better winter, what we normally do is longer and longer runs; you want to build up mileage.”  I nodded, satisfied with the response.

“If you don’t do anything with them, it’s like having an unemployed teenager at home with you for the summer driving you nuts.”

But what it is really about is the joy of the sport.  The reason I surf, the reason I sail, the reason those braver than me jump off jagged cliffs into violent, tidal water.  Everyday Ed came out he is reminded why he lives in Vermont instead of New York, he feels a connection to the world and his life exists only on that sled.  Every day Boomer and Mantel came out they had the chance to do what they were born to do.  Work.  Run.  When Ed and he’s dogs go sledding, they work together.  Where the dogs go, Ed goes, and they all love it.

“Dog sledding is something I’m going to keep on doing as long as I can.  As long as I’m in good enough shape for those dogs to be able to depend on me when we’re out there.”

At times when we would stop the sled for a quick pause from running up a hill in the snow, Ed could anticipate precisely when Jimma would start barking his impatience.

“They want to run forever, don’t they?”

“They think they do.”

Ed admired his fleet of dogs before him and appreciated the long-awaited appearance of snow.  They like it better in the snow, although it was still too warm for them—their optimal temperature to run in is between zero and negative ten degrees.

Ed apologized that this was the only time we could go out.  In an optimistic prospect, he said if we go out again he’d put me on my own sled.  But it didn’t matter.  Sledding was an awesome new kind of rush, even just once, and I spent my winter hoping for snow for the first time instead of sun.

The beasts sprang forward on their route like a school of fish.  “You see why I don’t worry about Ace being blind now.”  We watched the hindquarters of the sightless dog as he bound forward in perfect line with the team.



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