Already charged with adrenaline, I’m prepared for the rush of euphoria that accompanies our first leaps across the ice, but I wasn’t expecting the silence. One moment, it’s orchestrated chaos accompanied by nose-to-the-sky howls; the next, it’s utterly hushed except for the crunch of snow beneath the runners.
Details: Maine dog-sledding
It’s a moment that Pauline Mahoney, co-owner of Mahoosuc Guide Service, never tires of, despite 32 years of mushing dogs in the Yukon, northern Canada and Maine. A soft-spoken woman, Pauline radiates a calm energy that transmits palpably to her dogs, which visibly adore her. I try to synchronize my movements with hers as we lean into turns and she calls out commands: “Gee!” (go right) and “Haw!” (left).
But I’d underestimated the balance necessary to stand on one runner of a sled moving at up to 12 mph. It’s challenging, particularly as one boot floats above the snow brake, poised to punch its metal teeth into the ice in case of a tangle. Much as in horseback riding, fighting the motion is tiring.
We traverse Maine’s frozen Umbagog Lake, skirting ice-fishing camps, then leaving civilization behind as we go deeper into the 26-million-acre Northern Forest. Tails waving and tongues lolling, the huskies settle into a steady pace behind our lead dog, Jarvis. I feel myself slip into a similar rhythm.
I’m not the first writer to be wooed by the sound of sled runners over ice; Jack London and Gary Paulsen subscribed to this method of travel long before me, and I have to admit that it’s partly their fault (combined with my own romantic imagination) that I’m here in the first place.
I’m not the only one who carries a torch for dog sledding, though. The sport has enjoyed a surge of popularity in the past 10 years, with many ski resorts offering mushing as another winter pastime. It’s not hard to find an outfitter offering half- and full-day trips in my neck of the woods in northern Vermont, either. But I read too many young-adult novels about the Iditarod as a child to be excited about a run around the pasture with a few dogs: I wanted the real deal.
I found it at Mahoosuc Guide Service, based in Newry, Maine, where Pauline and her longtime partner, Kevin Slater, guide dog-sledding trips from December through April. (And once all the customers go home for the season, they frequently pack up their dogs for month-long excursions in northern Canada that serve as their “holidays.”)
Did I mention that Pauline’s dogs also starred in the 1983 Disney adaptation of Farley Mowat’s autobiography, “Never Cry Wolf,” and that Pauline stood in for Inuit shaman Ootek for the movie’s mushing scenes? Or that Kevin makes all of his own sleds using knowledge gleaned from old-timer sled maker Ed Moody, who accompanied Admiral Byrd on his 1925 excursion to Antarctica as chief dog handler?