A Tale of Two Mushers
“You know, most of our guests normally use a mic when they speak because, well, the residents tend to have some hearing issues,” Helen Viens, the Events Coordinator at Eastview Retirement Home suggests in a sweet but hesitant way.
“That won’t be necessary,” Ed responds, “I talk really loud.”
Ed Blechner stands over 6 feet tall with the shoulders of a bull, looking like he takes up a lot more space than he actually does. His dark rubber boots crawl up his legs until they reach his knees, and he sports a coat so bulky that you wouldn’t be surprised at anything he withdrew from it. His face looks weathered with gray stubble-covered cheeks that have battled decades of cold wind. Dark glassy marbles sit in his eye sockets, positioned in my direction at the back of the room, but with the feeling that they are focused on something much farther away.
The retirees do not look anything like the rugged grizzly bear that stands before them with his Alaskan Husky. Walkers, wheel chairs, some painfully bright wool sweaters, and an oxygen tank or two fill the newly redone Events Room of Eastview. Silver heads stare at Ed’s presentation about a trip he took last March to Labrador, a slideshow of the crispy white Canadian wilderness he traversed with a close friend and 14 Alaskan Huskies. Others sit staring open-mouthed, either in awe or for other reasons, as Ed explains how he, in his mid-sixties, slept in snow-covered tents by night and was pulled across Arctic tundra by man’s best friend by day.
After Ed answers some questions at the end, the two of us find ourselves in the parking lot making small talk. We had had various exchanges on the phone (and just one brief chat by e-mail due to the fact that Ed is “not enamored by all this new technology”) but this is the first time we are talking face-to-face. Ed is going to teach me about dogsledding as part of the Adventure Writing class that I am taking for the month of January.
“The problem with kids today is that they do too much. They don’t have the time they need to really dedicate themselves to something.” Ed expresses his grievances about the throwers whom he coaches on the Middlebury Union High School track and field team.
“In some ways, I connect more with the people at Eastview than I do with these kids at the high school. I mean, I am 66 years old.”
Loading his white Alaskan Husky named Mercury into the traveling kennel that sits in the back of his truck, the two of us were able to get to know each other a little better. Track and field came up because I told him I was heading back to campus for practice and there was a slight ripple that cracked his stern face. “I didn’t know you were a runner. Good. This gives us something we can actually talk about.”
I’m excited to hear his acceptance despite our vast differences.
“I have to take this guy to the vet,” Ed says, pointing to a black-and-chestnut-colored Husky whose sunken eyes peered out from a cage in his trunk contraption. “He’s got a urinary tract infection or something that we gotta clear up. It’s always tough having dogs. My wife is going to have a hard time when this group of 12 we have now starts to go.”
Not expecting such a towering, stoic figure to reflect on touchy things like death only a few minutes after really meeting each other, I am slightly taken aback.
“I want to take you out next week if the weather permits. Just depends on the snow,” Ed tells me, locking up the metal latch on the kennel gate.
“They just get so frustrated all cooped up when it’s icy like this. But I can’t have them out in it.” I feel like he is having a conversation more with himself than with me, weighing his options of what he can do with me but still work within the dogs’ limits. He scratches his head and then drops his hand down to his hip. “Call me this weekend and we’ll see what we’re gonna do. Oh and thank you.” Again, slight surprise at the genuine feelings coming out of this rusty alpha male. We part ways, driving our respective vehicles off into the weakly glowing Vermont winter sunset.
I am crunching through the inch of snow caking Lissy Heminway’s backyard. Lissy, a dogsledder, mother, educator, and hockey star leads me towards the general direction of a synchronized barking. I duck under several snow-covered pine branches and find myself in a Narnia-like clearing staring at 13 magical creatures taking turns jumping up on the kennel fence to try and get a look at the new stranger.
“They’re a big happy family. Most of them are related. You can probably tell just looking at ‘em.” Lissy’s right. Despite their varying coat colors, from deep amber to silver-gray, all the dogs have the same round face and immense fluffiness. Lissy has two Alaskan Huskies, two Inuit dogs, and nine others that she refers to as Yukon Huskies, which are part Malamute. Lissy’s Yukon Huskies embody the image of dogsledding that I have always had courtesy of the animated movie Balto: big, furry, and smiling.
It’s fairly obvious which two are the Inuit dogs. Petra and Ziggy are shorter than the others, but that certainly does not make them small. They assert their presence with loud shrieks and forceful jumping. Inuit dogs are normally seen as sled dogs instead of racing dogs due to their brute strength. They also tend to be more aggressive because their ancestors were used to fighting off predatory creatures like polar bears in the Arctic. Lissy points out a noticeable amount of scarring on Petra’s face from fights she has picked with some of the other dogs.
Lissy picks up a mangled grayish-yellow tennis ball and tosses it past a few of the dogs to try and get them to scatter a bit. Tinder, a massive white-and-brown-speckled Alaskan Husky chases the ball, reaches it, and then is distracted by a movement elsewhere in the yard and forgets about it. “They don’t retrieve. Not their thing. Well we sort of taught them too, but genetically that’s really for Golden Retrievers and Labs. Alaskan Huskies are normally bred for racing.”
Neither Ed nor Lissy use their sled dogs for racing. Both mushers have, in the past, given tours with their dogs to tourists and families but now they use them primarily for more educational purposes. Ed travels to various community locations such as schools and retirement homes, like Eastview, as a way to inform people about his lifelong passion. Lissy teams up with schools in the Middlebury area to bring special needs students to her home to learn in a “hands-on” way by interacting with her dogs, cows and horses.
Lissy looks towards her eight-year-old light blonde son:, “Ok so take him over there Pet-.“ She stops. “I was going to say Petra, but I meant to say Elliot.”
“Mom, why do you always mix me up with the dogs?” I laugh and reflect on the fact that when I was Elliot’s age, I had this exact conversation with my mother. Elliot takes Petra and Ziggy by the rope at the neckline and leads them to the far side of the yard as I accompany them on the sled.
“It’s good for the boys because they like to show off,” Lissy whispers to me with a smile as both of her sons, Owen and Elliot, run in front of the dogs to signal them to start moving. I hop on the sled ride as it starts to slide and half-run, half-ride to get the momentum going. It only takes a second before I am fully positioned on the kiddie-sled and gliding across the yard with the wind slapping my eyes so hard they tear. I am still able to make out the two black and grey blobs thrusting eagerly in front of me.
“Ahhh that’s AWESOME!!!” Lissy yells after me with the enthusiasm of a little girl on a rollercoaster for the first time.
We get to the end of the yard and I press on the thin metal footbrake. It stabs into the frozen earth and the dogs come to a stop. I dismount and turn around to reciprocate Lissy’s excitement. Consumed in my world of unwarranted self-pride, I am oblivious to Ziggy taking off behind me, clearly fed up with this gangly, heavy clown riding the kid’s sled. Elliott, much more responsive than me, throws his body onto the sled with the grace equal to that of a flying squirrel and slams down the brake into the snow-dusted layer of ice. I express my thanks to my new elementary school-hero and we all decide to start migrating towards the guaranteed warmth of Lissy’s house.
“Mom maybe you should tell da pheasant avenshur”, Elliot suggests as he sips his orange sports drink and pulls a kitchen chair up by the fire.
“I think Chris’s gotten enough of an adventure today,” Lissy laughs heartily, her cheeks curling into the pre-set grooves established over time. She must do this often.
“Ziggy and Petra are my beginner dogs because they’re little. They’re also older…so they’re gonna be responsible in some sort of manner. Like, I trust that they’d go home instead of wandering off for two days with the children attached.” I nod understandingly, not being able to picture either of those Inuit dogs kidnapping Elliot or Owen on a whim.
There’s a pause in the conversation. Lissy tells me how she got started.
As a college student in Washington, Lissy began her life with dogs in a peculiar way. After having been out hiking for the day, she returned to her truck to find a husky in the front seat. She had left the window open, and this dog had made himself at home. After numerous attempts to try and find the owner, Lissy decided that she was going to keep the husky. The dog pulled Lissy on her bike to commute to and from class that year, and Lissy’s interest in dogs grew from there.
Lissy hunted down the only book on dog sledding in her college library and sped through it, soaking in everything there was to know about her budding passion. In the back of the book, she found Ed Blechner’s name listed. Tempted by the allure of dogs and the New England landscape that the Connecticut-born Lissy was craving, she contacted Ed about an internship and was shortly en route across the country to go and work with him.
After a couple of months that she describes as “full of poop cleanup”, Ed deemed Lissy ready to run her own team and she was off. Today, Ed and Lissy are still very close and share equipment as well as tips about trails with one another.
“Some people have kennels with fifty…a hundred…even a hundred and fifty dogs in ‘em. But quantity isn’t quality. Having all those dogs doesn’t make them faster. You just need a few good ones.”
Ed reflects on the merits of having a smaller team of dogs as the two of us sit comfortably in his living room looking out into the vastness of the Adirondack Mountains. It’s a surprisingly warm day for January; just high enough above freezing to turn the icy wasteland we were experiencing into a swamp of cold mud. My jeans, after Ed’s Alaskan Huskies properly greeted me, were definitely evidence of this recent shift.
“You mind if we go down and feed ‘em?” Ed asks as he raises himself off of the sheet-covered sofa. I don’t protest and we descend down the basement stairs.
Ed’s basement is a dogsledder’s treasure chest. The walls are littered with sleds, harnesses, and snowshoes. The floor holds boxes and boxes of old mushing magazines, journals, and photographs. One box even contains a “Sled Dogs Work!” bumper sticker from the eighties that Ed gives to me as a souvenir. Ed shuffles over to a corner table and starts chopping up raw chicken. He divides it among twelve metal bowls. He then adds a scoop of dry food to each bowl except for a few on the left side of the table. He gets a dry food that is slightly lighter brown and tosses it into those bowls with a loud rattle. “Different food for the ones on a diet,” he remarks, not directly to me, but more so to the room.
Ed and I go out back where he has all the dogs attached to their own individual stake. Our presence causes a series of barks and squeals. I’m not sure whether it’s out of hunger or excitement, but even the calmest and oldest of the bunch are up and stirring.
Ed fills up each bowl with some water and then goes around serving his bloody–chicken-dog-food-stew. Every stake is paid a visit and the yelps are silenced.
Lissy is sporting the bright orange-red North Face jacket to which I have become accustomed. We walk across her backyard and pass the two large tee-pee-like structures that rise out of the snow. Lissy explains that her and her husband used to live in them when they were building their current home twenty years ago.
The chorus of animal sounds that seemed so loud and foreign last week has now become a familiar song that one can only hear in this yard. The harmonization of howling dogs, the low, long note of cows, the high shriek of the roosters, and the sincere laughs of two boys sledding, all come together as one melody.
Lissy enters the well-constructed pen in her backyard and is immediately mauled lovingly as all thirteen dogs compete for cheek-space to lick. She takes it like the experienced dogsledder she is: a brief moment of attention for all and then down to business.
“Hey puppies listen! We’re going out in two teams. The second team has to wait. Ok? Alright I’m going to set it up.”
Lissy takes out each of the five dogs individually and hooks them up to the rope sprawling off of the front bumper of her ATV. The dogs left in the pen howl in envy. After what I would deem a mild struggle, but for Lissy is nothing at all, every dog is connected and bouncing around, ready to run.
“Where’d you get the dogs?” I ask curiously.
”They come from a really good friend of mine in Maine. Mahoosuc Guide Services. They breed them for their own purposes and then she’ll call me when she has a few on the more mellow side. She likes placing them with me but I have a problem where I can’t really say no…so I think I have a few more than I need right now for my purposes…but that’s ok!” she chuckles as she adjusts the harness of one of the larger dogs, Little Bear.
The thunderous motor of the ATV cranks up and prevents most conversation from being clearly audible. “My trails here are a little tough for a sled because of the turns. It actually ends up being a really good workout for me because I have to constantly be shifting my weight for the sled to make it around the bends.”
Lissy doesn’t need to worry about that today because we are only running the dogs on the ATV due to lack of snow. The ATV accelerates slowly, and the dogs get the cue that they should start moving. All five work in unison, bobbing up and down on the line in a motion that mirrors the wheels of a train pumping around and around. With every shoulder-dip of the lead dog, we gain speed.
We get to an open field and Lissy turns the engine off now so that the dogs do all the pulling on their own. After no more than ten seconds of running on a flat stretch we are cruising at what Lissy’s ATV reports as thirteen miles per hour, but what my brain register’s as “really damn fast for a couple of dogs!”
We turn a corner and are exposed to a magnificent view of the Green mountains sprawling across the horizon. The field slops downward and the dogs run faster. The faster they go, the more in sync the five of them become. The remarkable Vermont view before my eyes combines with the realization that I am finally being pulled by a team of huskies. An uncontrollable smile cracks across my face as a result. The speed of riding downhill creates a freezing wind that weaves in between my teeth like ice-cold floss. It hurts, but I can’t stop the smile from staying. I get a “brain freeze”, as if I just inhaled an ice pop in the summer, but on the contrary, it’s just the single digit temperatures waging war on my exposed teeth. I look in front of me to see if there is any point coming up on the trail where we might slow down and break this polar free-fall, but all I see is Lissy, behind the wheel, with a mouth that mimics mine exactly.