THE LONG WEEKEND
Baby, They Were Born to Run
Sunday, February 24, 2008
I love the smell of wet dog in the wintertime.
At Husky Power Dogsledding, having a nose for eau de canine helps separate the mere sled riders from the real mushers. You can't steer a team of dogs while squeezing your nostrils.
Dog sledding is a popular pastime in such frosty lands as Canada, Alaska and Minnesota, but in Maryland, pups are more likely riding in cars than pulling their best friends on a toboggan. The four-year-old Husky Power operation, however, doesn't need an Arctic tundra to replicate the Iditarod experience. With its kennel of Northern breeds, authentic sleds, musher training and woodsy trails, you could very well be in Inuit territory. In addition, its Garrett County location boasts wintry weather (100 inches of snowfall per year), vast tracts of land (90,000 acres of parks, lakes and forestland) and hardy visitors eager to partake in the area's adventurous activities.
"This is a great little neck of the woods," said Linda Herdering, the kinetic 50-year-old who runs the company with her husband, Mike, a retired Marine colonel. "The microclimate creates all of this snow, and dog sledding is so unique here." (According to Herdering, the couple run the southernmost dog-sledding touring company in the country.)
Fortunately, the rides are not snow-dependent -- a good thing, since on my scheduled tour date, it was raining heavily and steadily and the ground was a muddy slop. When the conditions are Nordic, the Siberian huskies, malamutes and other pooches pull a six- or nine-foot sled; otherwise, they get hitched to a two-wheeled, German-made apparatus that resembles a streamlined dune buggy.
The two-person, 19-dog touring company sits in the hills, on the edge of the tiny town of Accident (don't scoff at the name or it'll come back to bite you -- trust me) and up the road from Wisp ski resort. The front yard is dominated by a fenced-in square containing the burly canines and their boxy dens, complete with nameplates. Behind the Herderings' home, which doubles as a gift shop and screening room where they show a DVD about dog sledding, is a six-acre loop for mini-excursions. For really wild rides, though, the dogs -- with passengers in tow -- must cross the road to open county land populated by black bears, deer and coyotes.
"It's not like going on an amusement park ride. It's not for the thrill of the ride," Linda explained during her pre-excursion talk, which covered such topics as the history of the sport, the dogs' genetic need to pull and the importance of stopping. "It's about watching the dogs work together and execute as a team."
Our 12-pack featured the furry lineup of Zsa Zsa and Gunny as lead dogs, followed by Charger, Indy, Colt, Buzz, Blackie, Denali, Frosty, Oreo, Iggy and Smokey, who was kind enough to put down his metal bowl long enough to join his pals. The animals were harnessed one by one, yapping and squirming like excited children as Mike and Linda frog-hopped them to their positions along the gangline. After the fourth dog, I was instructed to settle into the cushioned front seat, 53 feet from Zsa Zsa and Gunny and only a tail's length from Iggy and Smokey. Dave Most, a 51-year-old state trooper from Smithsburg, Md., who owns five Siberian huskies and one malamute, sat behind me. (Nice to have backup in blue.) After the last dog was hooked up, Linda took her place at the back, a grinning chariot driver in rain pants and a red cap with ear flaps.
"They bark manically, then shut up and focus on what they are doing," said Dave, a return guest who hopes to train his own dogs to pull a sled. "When they are thirsty, they turn their heads to scoop up snow, and they go to the bathroom on the run."
Seated in the front, I was hoping the pups had gone beforehand, but there was no time to ask. At the shout of "Ready, hike," we were off. Fur flying, the dogs barreled through a narrow tree-lined path, raced across the road (with Mike playing crossing guard), rambled over a dirt ledge and dashed onward, somewhere in the direction of Alaska, or maybe Deep Creek Lake's ski slopes.
"No barking, no playing," Linda whispered from her perch, as if we were observing rare woodland creatures. "As you can see, they are silent and running."
She was right. The dogs had their heads down, backs stretched flat, feet methodically pounding the wet earth. It was like watching a full-length stole in motion. The team also displayed perfect form. When instructed to go left ("haw" in dogspeak) or right ("gee"), they moved in synchronicity. At the command of "whoa," they stopped on a paw.
After completing a seven-minute mile, Linda handed me the reins. Her instruction was brief: Put hands here, feet there, brake hard when stopping, hang on. "Hang on" was an understatement; "duct tape your body to the frame" would've been better advice. As the dogs sprung forward, I flew backward, airborne with an oncoming soft, muddy landing. I knew these animals were powerful -- they were hauling 750 pounds, after all -- but no one told me they had the strength of an elephant herd. Linda was quick to grab the brakes as the cart whipped toward the trees and Dave's head narrowly missed a limb. Linda was amazed; passengers had fallen off, but no musher had ever been blown off the back. Was that the sound of dogs snickering?
My second and third efforts were slightly better: I stayed on but led the pack into a trough of icy water, then made a sharp right into a thicket. I wouldn't be surprised if, back at the kennel, they demanded retirement as lap dogs. However, on my final tries, along a bumpy lane crowned by red pines and blue spruces, I handled the dogs with ease, turning haw and gee, climbing up hillocks and coasting down gentle steeps. I felt like Santa with a new set of wheels.
Before we had departed for our 75-minute outing, Linda told us that, if left up to the dogs, they'd run all the way to China. With me at the controls, I was tempted to not say "whoa" until we hit the Great Wall.