Meagan Neal

Puppy Love: A Non-Animal-Person’s Guide to Dogsledding

Meagan Neal

Paws on my chest, paws on my back, paws on my shoulders.  Hot breath, steaming from panting jaws, condenses on my cheeks in crisp December air.  Twelve sled dogs circle around my legs, barking deep-throated and full.  Twelve sets of teeth and claws flail in excitement.  New person!  New person!  They’re adorable, all sweet faces and big Husky noses and doggy kisses.  But I am acutely aware that one moment off balance, one set of paws that catches me off guard and knocks me to the ground, and I am done for.

“Most mushers out west keep their dogs all tied to individual stakes,” Lissy had told me a few minutes prior in the kitchen.  Her gray eyes scanned my face, trying to gauge my level of discomfort with a pen of dogs as tall as my waist.  “But I just thought that was so sad.  I couldn’t do that.  So— well, you’ll see— I let them run around.”

Lissy Hemingway, 43, of tangled dirty-blond hair and worn flannel shirts, lives with her husband Bill and three children in the wooden, solar-powered home they built themselves in Shoreham, Vermont.  The house is quintessentially Vermont, complete with a wood stove, big windows overlooking the snow-draped fields, and homemade refrigerator drawings and paper mobiles dangling from the ceiling.  Lissy has been dogsledding since her first year out of college, and when I called her up to ask if she’d be willing to teach me, she was full of enthusiasm.  Even over the phone, her voice was palpably warm.

And let the dogs run around she does.   Little Bear, Mokey, Uma, and nine others whose names I forget as soon as Lissy lists them, are currently running all over me.  For the first few minutes, they are unrestrainable in their excitement.  As they slowly adjust to the smell of me, I try to shuffle through the mass of fur.  “Guess which four aren’t part of the same family?” Lissy shouts over the din of barking, barely audible.  I study the twelve dogs, weaving around me so quickly I can’t keep my eyes on one: there is always another set of paws landing on my chest to address.  I point at a white-eared dog questioningly.  Lissy shakes her head, smiling.

“What breed are they?” I ask.  Little Bear, one of the biggest, nuzzles his droopy black ears against my legs.  In the midst of all the howling, he alone is quiet.  I scratch behind his ears and he looks up at me with wide chestnut eyes.  I can’t help melting a little.

“I’m not really a purebred kind of gal,” Lissy says.  She grins in the mischievous way, laugh lines wrinkling around her un-made-up eyes, that I will soon come to know as typical Lissy.  “I got most of them from a breeder in Maine.  They’re basically a bit of every type of Husky you can think of.”  I nod as if I know anything about Huskies beyond my five-year-old self’s interpretation of Balto.

After my older brother’s asthma attacks sent him to the emergency room at midnight and my guinea pigs packing, animals were my childhood pipe dream.  So when, in my second year at Middlebury College, a thousand miles removed from my Indiana home, a professor mentioned a local dogsledder, I jumped at the chance to meet her.  My fingers had not forgotten clutching, when they were very small, my well-worn book about the Iditarod.  I’d read and reread it until the spine separated, daydreaming about the serendipitous combination of several of my favorite things, none of which were within my reach in the suburb of Carmel, Indiana:  Mountains.  Snow.  Adventure.  And big, fluffy puppies.

Today, Lissy’s backyard has been warped into a massive mud field by lack of snow and trampling paws.  Every canine lunge sends a new splatter of brown across my body.  My favorite flannel shirt, however, is safe behind the full-body mudsuit Lissy has thoughtfully lent me.  I’d laughed as I stepped into it, then her husband’s rainboots, two sizes too big.  Lissy laughed at the sight of me.  “Ready for anything,” I said.  I struck a pose.

“You want to see the sled?” Lissy shouts after we’ve been in the pen a while.  I nod eagerly.  I follow her out to a shed a few yards away, the dogs whimpering at the loss of their new friend.  She points.

The sled is wooden, perhaps two feet wide, seven feet long, and filled with ropes and harnesses.  I’d expected some significant departure from the olden days of dogsledding as a means of transport—perhaps a more condensed frame, perhaps some high-tech synthetic materials.  Instead, thin rope lashes slender wooden boards together.  It is much more frail-looking than I had imagined.  Standing over it, I can practically feel the howls of the Yukon wind lapping at my feet.

“You let a pack of dogs pull you on this?” I say.

Lissy grins.  “That,” she says.  “A pack of dogs is going to pull you on that.”

————————–

Here is the embarrassing truth: when I was young, I was obsessed with cats.  Dogs were not on my radar.  Everything was cats, cats, cats.  I insisted that my patchwork Beanie Baby kitten, Chip, be included in my kindergarten school picture.  I thought it would be swell if, instead of boring Meagan (which no one would pronounce right anyway), people would call me “Meowgan.”  Last summer, frustrated and exhausted from hours of packing for my return to college, my mom and I popped in a few dusty VCR home videos.  What we found, in each one, was my young self relentlessly parading my stuffed cats around my house, around my yard, around Paris, around Indonesia, chanting “meowmeowmeowmeowmeow.”

My brother’s allergies meant that cats were out of the question, a fact for which my childhood self held a long grudge.  The result was that, although I loved animals in theory, in practice I never really learned how to work with them.  I always felt a little awkward, knowing I was supposed to be enthusiastic about puppies but unsure what to do with my hands.  Adorable pictures were one thing; a living, drooling animal, who needed to be scratched in certain places and played with in certain ways, was another thing entirely.

So, despite my childhood fascination with the Iditarod, my dog phase came much later.  As in, now.

—————————————-

“It started in first grade,” Lissy says.  “My teacher handed me a book on working dogs, and I thought it was the best book I’d ever seen.  You know, it showed pictures of golden retrievers retrieving, hounds hunting, all that… but then I got to the page on sled dogs.  And I said, that is what I want to do.  There is no doubt in my mind.  That’s it.  Right there.”

We’re sipping green tea and munching homemade popcorn in her kitchen around a wooden picnic table, the wood stove casting a comforting glow.  Eager to learn from this woman, who emits such an air of warmth and wisdom and earthiness, I’d asked how she got into dogsledding.

“But I mean, no one knew anything about dogsledding in Connecticut.  It was absurd.  So my family had five dogs and I decided, okay, I’m going to train them to be sled dogs.  When I was seven I started getting really into cross-country skiing, and I would take them out with me, all five, and I thought, okay, let’s pretend I’m in the Arctic, and they’re my wolf pack… but it wasn’t the real thing.

“Then, when I was sixteen, I finally made it to Alaska.  And I was hiking, and all of a sudden I came across these old, run-down, broken dogsleds.  In the middle of nowhere!  I mean, I thought I was the only person who’d ever walked that one spot, but there were these dogsleds… And I thought, oh gosh.  This has not gone away.  At all.”

I laugh, loving how these pieces all seem to fit together, loving how, every once in a while— certainly not in mine— someone’s life can seem so clearly destined.

“Then I found the Siberian Husky in my car during my freshman year at Evergreen,” Lissy says.

I take too large a sip of tea.  I almost spit it out reflexively but have to hold it in my mouth, trying unsuccessfully to swallow, the leaves burning slow and spicy in my throat.  I tilt my head to its side.

“She’d climbed in through the half-open window.  No joke.  And I thought, you know, I’m a freshman in college, this is insane, I can’t keep this dog.  But I’d dreamed of sled dogs ever since I was a little girl.  And that husky, she didn’t go away.  We tried so hard to find her owners.  So finally I decided it was just fate, and anyway she didn’t have a home, so I made it work.”

“Were you in a dorm room?” I ask, gawking, thinking of the tiny 11’ x 17’ room I’d shared with Jena last year.  A husky would have taken up nearly the entire space between our two beds.

“Oh God, no,” Lissy says, laughing.  “I was in a house, and for some reason they had a dog kennel on campus where you could keep your dog during class.  I don’t know why.  I’m pretty sure I was the only one who ever used it.”

“So she was your first sled dog?”

“Not really…  What happened was, I trained her to pull me on my bike.”  She drums her short nails on the table, as if this is the most logical conclusion in the world.  Owen, her middle child, is home sick from school and flops on the couch, staring at us wide-eyed.  He traces spirals on the fabric.  Lissy throws him a smile.

“She’d pull me to class, and then I’d leave her in the kennel, and then she’d pull me back.  We did that for a couple years, until I thought, well, one just isn’t quite enough…  So I got another husky.  And at that point, I started to realize, I’m in pretty deep here.

“So when I graduated I said to myself, okay, I’ll take a year.  I’ll get it out of my system.  And that’ll be it.”  Lissy smiles with the corners of her mouth and gives her head a small shake.  “That’s when I went to work for Ed back in the Northeast.  I ran dogs with him for years.  Clearly,” she says, gesturing to the pen outside, “it never got out of my system.”

Born and raised on a farm in Connecticut, Lissy was the lone member of her family to venture far from home.  But out at Evergreen State College, she loved the dramatic rise of the Cascades against the Washington sky, loved the freedom.  After college, she wrestled with the possibility of Alaska but happened on a job opportunity in Middlebury, Vermont, where her sister had gone to college.  It felt right.  She worked for Ed Bleckner, the only dogsledder in Vermont at the time, for a season, learning the ropes of dogsledding and running trips.

“And at that point, I said, okay, this is all making sense to me.  I need to take this passion and start to make a living, because it’s not going away.  I need to somehow combine my passion for dogsledding with my passion for education.”

Lissy began building her own dog team until she owned twelve sled dogs.  Eventually, she started her own business, Vermont Dogsledding, running short trips.  It was booming, she tells me.  And as awkward as it sometimes felt to be people’s half-day diversion from their ski vacation, it was the best thing imaginable to support herself by means of her lifelong obsession.

She gave up the business three years ago, when the combination of trips, animal upkeep, and three kids became too much to handle.  But she kept the dogs—volunteering with special needs students through the local high school and running the dogs on an ATV when the snow cover is missing— and watching her talk about them, it’s easy to see why.  She leans forward, her shoulders full of enthusiasm, her eyes smiling.

————————————

“I have a very important question,” I say.  “Do you actually say mush?”

It’s the day of my first jaunt on a real dogsled.  We’re driving in Lissy’s Ford pickup along a winding Green Mountain road, tracing a snowy river, towing two sled dogs in the backseat and three more in a trailer.  It’s a cold, clear January morning, sunlight spilling through the windshield and warming my lap.  Lissy throws her head back and laughs, lifting her hands from the wheel for a second.  “Great question,” she says.  “No.”

I confess I feel a little betrayed.  I try to rearrange the pieces of my Balto fantasy in my head.  “Oh.  So what do you say?”

“Um.  Usually just let’s go!  Or something like that.”  Lissy fiddles with the radio, finally settling on a talk station.  She tilts her head, considering.  “This isn’t one of my favorite shows.  I have three that I listen to all the time.  My guilty pleasure.”

Outside the pickup, the country store of Ripton, Vermont blurs.  Ripton is one of those miniature mountain towns, so prevalent in this state, that passes so quickly in a car you could blink and miss it.  Within a minute, your window goes from woods to country store, gas station, idyllic white-steepled church, right back to woods.

Fidgeting in the carpeted passenger seat, I think about the disconnect in language between my expectations of this ancient sport and its reality in modern-day Vermont.  Dogsledding, which originated around 2000 B.C. in Siberia and arctic North America, is one of the oldest forms of transportation known to man.  As a student of the Russian language, I’m trying to channel my inner Siberian.  Clothed in Smartwool and quick-dry synthetic fabrics, it’s not really working.

“I should probably warn you,” Lissy says as we pull into the trailhead parking lot, “we won’t really be able to talk.  So I’ll show you how to harness the dogs and everything, but it’ll be a lot of hand gestures.”

“What do you mean?” I ask, bewildered, but we’re already spilling out of the car.  Lissy opens the trailer door.  And then the barking begins.

“Ah,” I say.  “I see.”

Lissy doesn’t turn.  She doesn’t hear my comment.  This is very understandable, because I can’t hear anything myself.  The howls and barks, the clawing at the trailer walls, drown everything out.

Another navy pickup, this one lugging a trailer with silhouettes of racing dogs stenciled on the sides, turns into the parking lot.  “That’s Ed!” Lissy shouts, pointing.  Ed Bleckner dismounts from his driver’s seat, and I see what Lissy had meant when she said he was traditional.  He is clad in spotted animal skins, a fur hat, and hide boots.  His gray, scraggly hair brushes his shoulders and his cheeks are rough with stubble.  Around six foot three even with a hunched stance, he towers over me and Lissy.  He gives Lissy— his student, coworker, and friend of many years— a curt greeting.  He does not acknowledge me.  When I introduce myself and offer a firm handshake, though, his crooked teeth stretch into a smile.

Dogsledding was once a means of survival, the most efficient way to traverse the great expanses of tundra in Alaska and Siberia.  In the early 20th century wave of Arctic exploration, it became the preferred method of expedition.  In the 1911 race to the South Pole, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen’s dog team led him to victory.  His competitor, the British Robert Falcon Scott, who used Siberian ponies, died in Antarctica from starvation, exhaustion, and cold.  Moral of the story?  Use sled dogs, obviously.  As snowmobiles grew more technologically advanced, however, they became the more popular form of transportation.  Sled dogs, although still used in the Arctic, were banned from Antarctica in 1994 due to the dramatic decimation of the seal population required to feed the dogs.

Dogsledding today has been almost entirely reduced to recreation.  In some way, I am comforted by Ed’s resilience in his traditional methods.  It’s not that I think animal skins and fur hats are necessary in order to have an enjoyable or “authentic” dogsledding experience.  But I find myself glad, on a gut level, that someone is preserving these traditions, even in seemingly-unrelated New England.

Within the category of “recreation”, dogsledders pursue a number of different angles.  Some are educational specialists, like Lissy, whose dogs are bigger, fluffier, and slower.  Some are racers, like Ed, whose dogs are smaller, scrappier, and faster.  Dogsledding businesses, running day trips, have soared in popularity over recent decades.  For those so inclined, there are a variety of sprint and long-distance dogsled races.  And there is, of course, the holy grail of dogsledding: the famous 1049-mile Iditarod, commemorating Balto’s famous 1925 diptheria antitoxin run to combat an outbreak of the disease.  The race stretches from Anchorage to Nome over some of the most beautiful and challenging terrain in the world.  Alaska is the Mecca of dogsledding, the definitive place to learn and the end goal for many.  Even though Lissy decided it wasn’t the life she wanted, she speaks of Alaska with reverence.

Lissy beckons me over as she holds a black-and-white spotted dog by the collar, struggling to slip on his harness.  Tinder, I remember.  One of her favorite lead dogs.  I kneel on the snow-covered gravel, my fingers slow and stupid with cold, and try to fit his front leg through the harness loop.  The main struggle of harnessing is quickly apparent: instead of successfully roping in Tinder, my face is mercilessly licked.

I don’t think it’s possible for these dogs to bark any louder.  I stand on the sled brake at the mouth of the forest as Lissy drags each one over, anchoring the thin metal with my weight so that the overexcited dogs don’t bolt off with the sled in tow.  But as we gradually get all five dogs—Tinder, Glassy, Iluq, Uma, and Mokey—harnessed and hooked to the ropes by which they pull the sled, the cacophony escalates and escalates.  The dogs hurl themselves against the tension of the rope, snarling, drool sputtering from their jaws and freezing into their fur.  Sensing how close they are to the trail, they are unbearably impatient to run.   The brake—simply a metal bar with two spikes that dig into the snow—wavers.  The dogs’ excitement is palpable.  I feel myself nearly straining along with them: I, too, am eager to run.  And the barking, the howling, the whining, the yelping builds and builds, until—

“Okay,” Lissy says.  We position ourselves so we each have one foot on one of the sled runners, the other on the brake in between.  “Ready?”  I nod.  We step off the brake.  Instantly, the dogs leap forward.

And suddenly, silence.

The dogs, energized by their new freedom, gallop over the snow.  Lissy throws her head back, laughing open-mouthed.  “They won’t keep this up,” she says, smiling.

But the silence is so perfect I want to bottle it, keep it in my pocket.  The only sounds: the padding of paws, our billowing breaths in winter air, and the traction of sled on snow.  Beside us, snow-covered maples blur.  My cheeks sting from the spray of snow kicked up by flailing paws.  Everything around us is sparkly snow, crisp air, bright blue sky breaking out of woods.  I clench my mittened hands around the wooden sled handle and breathe deep.

As we twist along the snowmobiling trail, Lissy and I gradually adjust to each other’s weight on the sled, trying to strike the perfect balance.  Each of us, gripping the sled, leans away from each other.  I feel precarious, standing on this bar of wood, pulling my weight to the left and trusting that Lissy will balance me out.  She looks over at me, smiling at my tensed shoulders, how tightly I’m hanging on.  “This is great!” she says, her voice at a normal volume for the first time since we unloaded the dogs.  “Normally it’s all uneven when I take someone else on the sled, but I think our weights are, like, perfectly matched!”

Already I am forgetting that it’s only the second time I’ve met this woman.  As we careen through the woods, she regales me with stories of her early years dogsledding.  “You can’t be a seasoned musher until you’ve lost your team,” she says.

“Lost your team?”

She nods.  Losing your team, it turns out, is when the dogs take off with the sled (but not you) in tow.  And it’s not just an inconvenience, or the threat of your dogs wandering off:  It can be deadly.  “My comrade Doug had an accident with his dogs a couple years back,” Lissy says.  “It was so, so sad.  He had a twenty-two dog sprint team harnessed up with this new cable, attached to his pickup, and suddenly the cable just snapped.  So the dogs bolted.  Luckily, another musher was just down the road, and so she caught them a minute later.  But eight of them were already dead.”  I look at her, stunned.

“Strangled by their harnesses,” she explains.  “If they get tangled, they’re done for.  Especially in such a large group, the dogs get so enthusiastic in their running that they won’t stop for anything.  They won’t even notice that they’re dragging the carcass of their brother.”

One evening, Lissy tells me, she took the dogs out for a late run.  She had to duck under a bar serving as the gate to the trail, and her palms slipped from the handlebar for one second.  In that one second of reduced pressure, the dogs took off, leaving her stumbling backwards into deep snow.  Dusk settled on each thin, icy-fingered branch.  She called out— each name, over and over.  She ran.  She slogged through snow for half an hour, but half an hour as a human in foot-deep snow doesn’t get you too far.  She had no idea where the dogs were.  A mile out?  More?  Wrapped around each other in synthetic, lethal rope?  The moon was rising.  She started to panic.

Just as the last light was fading, she found them.  Or, more accurately, they found her.  They caught up behind her, all alive, all untangled, having run the entire nine-mile trail loop.  “Thank God I had Gilly in lead,” Lissy says.  “She was my best worker.  She wouldn’t get distracted by something off the trail, she wouldn’t stop because she was tired.  She would just run and run and run.  All nine miles, if that was the trail.  I was so lucky that day.”

As we navigate the turns of the woods, I learn how to hold on just tightly enough, how to absorb the bumps and jolts with a bend in my knees, how to lean a hard left— my body flung out to the side of the sled, seemingly suspended— when we’re edging around a hill.  Occasionally, when we approach a particularly tight turn or steep downhill, Lissy says she might take this one herself.  I step off, stumbling as the sled barrels downhill and Lissy takes over, more at ease with only her own weight to manage.  I sprint after the sled, clunky and flailing in my heavy winter boots.

On uphills, dogsledding turns out to involve less riding the sled and more pushing the sled yourself.  Lissy and I hop off, grunting up the hill, slow footsteps behind tired dogs.

And then it’s a lip downhill, a whoosh, and we break out of the forest to a blinding blend of blue sky and shimmering snow.  The sunlight bounces off the whiteness, playing out in little rainbows all across my vision.  On either side of us is a pure, flat, untracked expanse of white: a frozen lake, covered in crystallized snow.  I want to laugh.  It’s so perfect it feels absurd.  Our string of five sets of paws and two sled runners are some of the first tracks through the snow.  I try to keep my eyes from squinting.  I want to drink it in, from every last over-stimulated retina.

Okay, I think.  I can see how people get into this.

—————————–

The snow melts.  I get sick.  Lissy gets a cortisol shot in her back and can barely move for a week.  After the first three days—just enough to get me hooked—the actual act of dogsledding starts seeming like a long shot.  But I keep coming over anyway, glad for any excuse to escape my square mile of campus life for the flickering wood stove of Lissy’s kitchen.  It had been remarkably easy to fall in love with Lissy and her family.  And, for the first time in my life, I am in love with dogs.

Joey, Jack, Little Bear, Iluq, Uma, Mokey, Tinder, Glassy, Willow, Gilly, Petra, Ziggy, and Wiley.  It started simply enough.  Little Bear nuzzled against my leg until he was horizontal and I couldn’t help but give him a belly rub.  Tinder slipped between my legs as I was standing, worming his way in between so that I was practically riding him.  Joey stole one of my mittens and took off, running gleeful laps around the yard, increasingly delighted with every attempt I made to reclaim it.

Slowly, I begin to know each dog.  I learn that Mokey and Uma, alpha male and alpha female, a huge brother- sister pair from Maine, grey and white and fluffy like the huskies of every child’s dreams, are built for pure strength rather than extended speed, and will already be trotting a mile in.  Joey, a seamlessly white 2-year-old still in his puppy mindset, runs away on walks and will not return when you call— tackling may be necessary.  Gilly, retired after nearly 13 years of work, who lost her voice and now barks constantly with a raspy, wounded excuse for a bark, will still run Lissy’s entire 4-mile trail loop on her own and come right back home.  Petra (silver) and Ziggy (black and tan), the two sassiest puffballs of the clan, are purebred Inuit dogs—a breed that, for thousands of years, has been groomed through survival of the fittest in the most literal way possible:  In the summer, the Inuits stick all their dogs on an island.  Whichever ones are alive come autumn, they train.  In terms of Ziggy and Petra, it certainly explains a lot.

It’s my third week working with Lissy when she mentions her allergies.  I’m taking some film of the dogs and nearly drop my camera.  “What do you mean, your allergies?”

Lissy laughs, her hands up as if in defense.  “It’s not— I mean— okay, I do have mild allergies to cats and dogs.”

I double over, laughing.  “I get that reaction from a lot of people,” she says sheepishly.  “It’s worse with cats, more mild with dogs.  I didn’t find out until years after I already had three cats and a bunch of dogs.  I always thought I was just allergic to pollen.  When my doctor told me no, you’re actually allergic to animals, I was like, no way.  You can’t tell me that.  You have no idea who you’re talking to.”

She leans down and nuzzles Jack, totally nonchalant.  Through matted hair, mittens, and sniffles, her connection with the dogs is glaringly obvious.  It goes beyond love for animals, at least in the way I’d always experienced it.  It’s an incredible, intense two-sided relationship.

“When the dogs suffer, I suffer,” Lissy tells me later.  “It’s kind of crazy, but my emotional state is just so tied to them.  We both droop in the summer.  If they’re cooped up and don’t run, I get antsy, too.”

Helmer Hanssen, who was in charge of sled dog welfare on Roald Amundsen’s team, remarked post-journey: “Dogs like that, which share men’s hard times and strenuous work, cannot be looked upon merely as animals.  They are supporters and friends.  There is no such thing as making a pet out of a sledge dog; these animals are worth much more than that.”

I’d never gotten “animal people” before.  The deep connection some express with their pets was something I’d never experienced.  But here it is, right in front of my eyes.  Dogsledding, it seems, is less about flying through woods on a sled—although that’s pretty fun—and more about partnership in the extreme.  Each member of the team, humans and dogs alike, needs to be so incredibly in sync.

And the more I return to Lissy’s, the more natural I feel it becoming.  I stop fumbling with my hands when Little Bear stands on his hind legs, putting his paws on my shoulders and looking straight in my eyes, our noses—one small and red with cold, the other black and spotted with drool, both runny— level.  I learn where to scratch behind floppy ears, how to plant my feet so I don’t get knocked off balance (as often), how to hold onto my mittens.  The dogs, although always excited, don’t howl and jump when I enter the pen as much as the first time— a telltale sign that they know me.  It’s an exciting thing, being known.  They lick me calmly, with approval.

After several weeks, I can finally rattle off each name.  Joey, Jack, Little Bear, Iluq, Uma, Mokey, Tinder, Glassy, Willow, Gilly, Petra, Ziggy, and Wiley.  Backwards and forwards, black to white, young to old.

We never do get much more snow.  The browned Vermont fields prickle in sunlight, thirsty.  The comforting blanket of white returns sporadically, its transformation of the landscape tantalizingly short.  But in a pen with these gorgeous, goofy animals, laughing with Lissy as we chase my kidnapped mitten, I barely mind.  The snow, as it turns out, is somewhat irrelevant.  Snow or no snow, sled or ATV, I think it’s safe to say my dog phase is in full swing.

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