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Dogsledding in Maine

Twenty-three Yukon huskies are frantically barking and jumping up and down and sideways, their born-to-run bodies eager to pull the dog sleds that are hitched behind them.
Sled dog Nellie leads a team driven by Danielle Walter of Bayonne, N.J., on a day-trip across Umbagog Lake on the Maine and New Hampshire border, Jan. 21, 2004. Before hitting the trail, clients learn simple mushing commands to make the dogs start, stop, and turn left or right.Robert F. Bukaty / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Twenty-three Yukon huskies are frantically barking and jumping up and down and sideways, their born-to-run bodies eager to pull the dog sleds that are hitched behind them.

But the barking comes to a halt - almost as if somebody turned a switch to off - when the musher releases the sled's brake and issues the gentle commands of "tighten up" and "let's go."

The sled pulls forward and the yelping is replaced with the whoosh of the cold wind and the swish of the sled carving the snow. The dogs have happy grins and their tongues flop crazily as they pant from the exertion of pulling a 10-foot sled with two people standing on its back runners.

Hardly a word is spoken among the people on this mushing day trip at the end of last winter as four sleds are whisked across frozen, snow-covered Umbagog Lake on the Maine-New Hampshire border. The mountains of the Mahoosuc Range loom to the east. Coyotes, fox, deer, mink and otters might show themselves on any given day.

If a day isn't long enough, Mahoosuc Guide Service in Newry also has overnight trips where customers camp in shelters in the woods. For the hard core, Polly Mahoney and Kevin Slater, who own the guide company, will take people on mushing adventures of up to 11 days in northern Quebec with Cree Indian guides.

Mushing may conjure up images of Alaska's Iditarod sled-dog race, or Robert Peary - minus eight toes lost to frostbite from an earlier trip - crossing the Arctic to reach the North Pole.

These days, however, mushing is as much for the tourist as it is for the racer or adventurer. Dogsled tourism has risen as an industry all its own, offering getaways for those looking for a change from the usual winter sports such as downhill or cross-country skiing, snowshoeing or snowmobiling.

Karen Pritchard of Little Falls, New Jersey, took a day to go mushing during a vacation at nearby Sunday River ski resort with two friends from New Jersey. She had been considering mushing for several years since first discovering Mahoosuc Guide Service on the Internet.

"I had to do it while I was here," said Pritchard, who works for a company that prepares retirement plans. "Dogs and being outside in the winter are things I love."

Mushing used to be associated with the frontier wilderness, and "only nut cases and desperate people" did it, said Deirdre Helfferich, managing editor of Mushing magazine in Ester, Alaska. "But now it's much more of a mainstream sport."

Nobody knows for sure, but it's thought there are scores if not hundreds of dogsled operators in at least 20 states. Not surprisingly, Alaska has the most; the town of Ely, Minnesota, which has a dozen commercial mushing operations with fewer than 4,000 residents, bills itself as "Sled Dog Capital of the U.S."

Mushing excursions range from under an hour to more than two weeks. They can cost from under $25 for a simple 20-minute jaunt to more than $6,000 for a trip to northern Greenland. Day trips generally cost $150 to $300 and overnights are typically priced at $250 to $500.

Mahoosuc Guide Service offers day trips for $200 and two-and three-night outings for $425 to $500, from December into March. Its 11-day guided Quebec trek costs $2,300.

For a day trip on a bright sunny morning, Mahoney, Slater and two mushing apprentices who work with them are taking five visitors - three women and two men - out on a day trip.

We load the huskies into cages on the back of pickup trucks for the 10-mile drive to Umbagog Lake. Once at the lake, the dogs - long-legged, friendly, strong and intelligent - are hitched to the sleds, and Mahoney preps everybody on mushing basics.

Always keep an eye on the dog and be prepared to step on the brake at a moment's notice, she says. Basic orders to the dogs include "tighten up," "let's go," "whoa," "haw" (left turn) and "gee" (right turn).

Mahoney and Slater provide heavy parkas, boots and other warm clothing for customers, and trips go out in nearly all weather conditions - even when the temperatures drop well below zero.

When the sleds take off, the wind stings my skin as we move across the lake at 5 mph to 9 mph. The remoteness and the eeriness of the snow drifts, shifting winds and the coyote tracks in the snow make me wonder if this is what the moon is like. I am sure Antarctica feels something like this, minus the penguins.

We ride for about six miles and come to shore where we unhitch the dogs and prepare for lunch. Here, in an opening in the woods, are three oversized canvas tents, each with a wood-burning stove, where groups camp on overnight trips.

For lunch, Slater starts a fire on the foot-thick ice to heat up pea soup and give warmth. We eat the soup, bagels with cream cheese, crackers, granola bars and dried fruit, and share stories with each other.

Mahoney, who once lived in the Yukon Territory bush mushing dogs and wrangling horses, says her customers come in all ages, sometimes come in family groups and have a variety of backgrounds.

"The one thing in common is they love dogs and are looking for outdoor adventure," she says.

Judy Allen, of Bar Harbor, Maine, is here on her first sled ride and compares it to sailing. It's nothing like snowmobiling, which is more like power-boating.

"It was just so quiet and so beautiful," Allen said.

Becca Follansbee, a student at Bowdoin College who has taken the day off from classes, adds: "It's a lot better than school."

Dogsled racing decades ago was better-known than downhill skiing, and was even covered regularly as a sport by The New York Times, according to Tim White, president of the International Federation of Sled Dog Sports. It was a demonstration sport at the 1932 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York.

White, who lives in Grand Marais, Minnesota, said he is in the process of trying to make dogsled racing an official Olympic sport, possibly by 2010. If that happens, he said dogsled tourism should become even more popular.

Paul Schurke was one of the first people to open a commercial dogsledding company when he started Wintergreen Dog Sled Lodge in Ely, Minnesota, in 1979. He says mushing has grown so because people - dog lovers in particular - have come to realize that it allows them to be in the winter wilderness.

All of Wintergreen's trips are booked far ahead of time, including the annual spring trip Schurke leads to northwest Greenland, where mushers sled through polar Eskimo villages and travel and live with the natives.

"We could offer twice as many trips as time allows and fill them all," he said.

On Umbagog Lake, the dogs again bark wildly and jump this way and that as we hitch them to their sleds. And again they turn silent as they pull their sleds across the lake.

Slater's sled leads the way, pulled by Ossien, Fergus, Cathal, Cara, Finn, Brendan and Donal. Between them, Slater and Mahoney own 42 dogs, which are like family.

We will have traveled about a dozen miles when the trip is done. But we also journeyed another world away.

If you go:

MAHOOSUC GUIDE SERVICE: Located in Newry, Maine, a half-hour from the New Hampshire border, about 175 miles from Boston; or (207) 824-2073. Trips begin Dec. 26 but could start sooner if there is enough snow. Day trips are $200; two- and three-night outings, $425 to $500. Quebec trek, where people sled with Cree Indian guides, costs $2,300.

WINTERGREEN DOG SLED LODGE: Located in Ely, Minnesota, about 250 miles from Minneapolis; or (218) 365-6022. Three-night trips sledding from lodge to lodge begin at $750; five-night camping trips begin at $600.