Ed’s been dogsledding a long time. Since 1975, he’s kept a kennel of dogs, travelling with them, running with them, exploring with them. As he repeats time and again, “it’s easy for the dogs to take over your whole life.” So the fact that he has had the same creaky, broken sled since he got his first dog all those years ago is astounding. Currently missing one side of the basket and made up of a variety of mismatched colors, Ed’s sled is tended to with a fierce determination, despite the multitudes of technological advances that have occurred in sleds since his was built. He regularly restrings the rawhide and carves new frames out of only the strongest trees. When I ask him why he so values this outdated equipment, he replies that the traditional method is a connection to the deep history that underlies the practice of mushing.
This history begins with the ancient Mongolians, as they migrated over the Arctic thousands of years ago, to North America. Dogs were a highly effective method of travel, especially in the deep snow. From there, the practice spread, to the Inuits, to Canadian trappers, and to Arctic explorers among others. They raced across thousands of miles, in sleds lashed with rawhide, runners sometimes made of frozen fish, carrying hundreds of pounds worth of supplies. These dogs were not prized for their speed, as they’re primarily used for today, but rather for their endurance and strength. Ed looks for dogs with those characteristics, dogs he can take for days on end through the woods. He’s taken them up through Quebec, run them to his friend’s house in Maine, and trekked with them across Labrador. He emulates those early explorers, embracing the solitude and risk.
For Ed, dogsledding is a mode of transportation just like it once was, and yet it is so much more. As he tells me, “the world looks different from a dogsled.” He describes his increased sense of awareness for the world around him, the dogs’ glances and sniffs tipping him off to the life surrounding him out in the snow. He tells me of the partnership he has cultivated with his dogs, working with them in perfect harmony on the trail. With one word, a simple “haw” to turn left or “gee” to turn right, Ed can direct the entire team. This partnership has been years in the making, a result of careful training and constant companionship. Today, dogs have no real use in the snow, snowmobiles stealing their place. Their legs cannot keep up with the constant rumble of an engine. Invented in the 1950s, snowmobiles quickly became the method of choice for all transportation in the Arctic and Antarctic. When Ed mushed through northern Labrador, one of the traditional homes of dogsledding, children raced after their sled, gaping at the mystery of the movement. Ed and his friend were peppered with questions by kids who had never seen dogs pulling sleds before. Snowmobiles were all they knew. Still, dogsledding persists, in races across Alaska, Montana, and Canada, in the tourist expeditions, and in the few remaining men and women like Ed, who simply love it.
Ed rarely races, but he once dreamed of picking up everything and moving to Alaska to try his luck at “the Last Great Race on Earth,” the Iditarod. The Iditarod began as a celebration of a great journey across Alaska, tracing the route of the “Great Race of Mercy.” In 1925, mushers raced to Nome, Alaska carrying diphtheria antitoxin, saving the town from an epidemic in the nick of time. These days, hundreds of mushers try their luck once a year at winning a bit of money and a whole lot of pride. They race for 1000 miles from Anchorage to Nome, driving teams of 16 dogs in peak physical condition, finishing in less than two weeks. Ed never got the chance to be one of these elite, since life got in the way and he was forced to stay in Vermont. Life in Vermont has brought him a lot of blessings, however. It was in Vermont that he met his wife.
There’s obvious affection in his voice when he describes their first meeting.
“I was in my mom’s tiny Honda Accord with four dogs climbing all over me, she couldn’t even see my face!”
Nettie still took a chance on him and they began dating soon after. They hit a few hurdles at the beginning of their relationship when he learned she was mildly afraid of dogs. Ed couldn’t be with someone who didn’t love his dogs the way he did. So, of course, he just had to convince her that the dogs were worth loving. And he did. He took her dog sledding for nine days, running to Maine and then back again. By the time they got back, Nettie was convinced. Now, Nettie goes out sledding on her own whenever she gets a chance.
They live together in a house on Snake Mountain, at the end of a long, winding driveway. Their house is devoid of all technology, except an old computer that regularly breaks and a landline for emergencies. Cans of different vegetables are stacked in the basement, next to a basket overflowing with potatoes. It’s just them and the dogs out there. Every day, they follow the same routine, getting up, feeding the dogs and leaving for work, Nettie heading off to Burlington to teach sixth graders and Ed to Middlebury Union High School to coach the track team.
As Ed says, “Teenagers are a lot like dogs, they don’t clean up after themselves, they need a lot of attention, and they each have individual personalities you need to cater to.”
Seemingly incongruous with his life outdoors, Ed has worked for years at the local high school. It started as an experiment of sorts, as he explored career options, but the next thing he knew, he had been working there for 20 years.
That’s where I come in. I met Ed on a cold winter day in December, driving up to his house to be greeted by nine barking Huskies. I had emailed with Ed briefly, but considering his lack of love for his broken computer, our emails were short and to the point. Dogsledding had always been a vague dream of mine, an idea of something cool to try one day, if I ever had the chance. My family would joke about turning my silly, clumsy labradoodle into a sled dog. But in snowless DC, where I grew up, the city landscape severely hindered my ability to get out on a sled. And then, this January term, the chance finally came.
The day the snow comes an injury of Ed’s prevents him from mushing. Ed’s wife, Nettie takes me out to a trail up in the Green Mountain National Forest. We take the dogs out of the truck and hook them up to the center gang line, a tug line connected to their butts and a neck line at their collars. Wrangle and Scuppy are the lead dogs, their reliability making them perfect leaders for the rest of the team. Boomer runs by himself today, the only team dog on the line. Buddy and Bravo round out the crew as the wheel dogs. Closest to the sled, they’re agile and quick. We check the equipment one last time and then go stand on the runners at the back of the sled.
The howls of the dogs get louder and louder. Their voices join together in shared anticipation and excitement. Nettie murmurs a few words, but I can’t make out what she’s saying over their cacophony.
Finally, we run.
The world flashes around me. The only sounds now are whoosh of the runners over the snow and the rustles of anonymous animals hidden in the woods. The wind bites at my face and the cold freezes my fingers, but I can’t help but smile at the lean bodies of the dogs, straining at their halters, dying to go faster. Nettie holds them back, saving their energy for the upcoming hills. Wrangle pulls left, already anticipating the next turn. “Haw, Haw,” yells Nettie, wisps of her wild hair escaping from under her hat. Bravo, a lean brown Alaskan Husky, is so lathered up that his head is almost invisible under a coat of saliva. After what feels like only a couple minutes, we pull back up to the truck. The dogs, now exhausted from pulling us for six miles, slurp up their water and lie down. Nettie rubs each of their heads. “A good run,” she says simply, echoing her husband’s brevity.
In dog sledding, the dogs play the roles of little machines, pulling hundreds of pounds for hundreds of miles, often given away after a couple years when they aren’t as fast or as strong. In the big races, like the Iditarod or the Yukon Quest, the dogs who can’t keep up are periodically dropped from the team at checkpoints along the way. The large racing kennels have over 50 dogs at a time, rotating the dogs in and out of the racing lineup from week to week. The dogs are simply a means to an end, prized for their strength and youth.
Ed is unique, however, in his treatment of the animals. All of his dogs are older, dropped from young racing teams that have left them behind. Queenie, a beautiful black-and-white Alaskan Husky, raced in the pinnacle of dog sledding races in her youth, the Iditarod. Now she limps around his yard, too sick to pull the sled, but still loved nonetheless. Ace, a blind Husky, constantly has brambles stuck to his tail from his explorations of the woods around Ed’s house. He was given to Ed for free, because he was unwanted at the racing kennel where he was born. These dogs are family to Ed.
I ask Ed once how he deals with death. He’s told me how Panda died, after a vicious dog fight that caused her gentle heart to give out. He’s told me how Mercury died, after slowly getting weaker and weaker, until Ed had no choice but to put him down. He’s told me how Mantle died, after the tumor grew bigger and the limp grew more pronounced. Their stories aren’t unique and yet each one of them created a new, different hole in Ed’s heart. “It’s rough,” he says, “you just have to keep moving forward. The dogs left behind help.”
The dogs have helped Ed through a lot over the years. As he says, “Treat them with a little dignity and respect, and they can make you the richest person on earth.” When loneliness and depression became too much to bear, the dogs were there. The same was true when his mom got sick. Their loving presence has been a constant in his life.
Luckily, too, Ed’s tough. It was immediately apparent to me when I met him, and our interactions only make it more obvious. Three days ago, I went out to his house to go sledding with him. When I pulled up, he informed me that he had fallen that morning and he believed that his kneecap was broken. I immediately offered to come back another day.
“The dogs need to go for a run, I’ll be fine,” he refused.
With his reassurance in mind, we headed out, me driving his truck just in case. The grimace on his face and his long exhales while he moved made it clear to me that his injury was hurting him more than he lets on. Still, he got on the rig and ran the dogs for six miles. At the end, he winced as he disembarked, but he didn’t say a word about his knee. We headed back to share a cup of tea.
The next day I get an email from him that he’s headed into surgery. He writes “Surgery’s the best sleep I’ll get in months!” I smile, unsurprised by his casual, upbeat attitude. That’s just who Ed is.