Chip Embury makes his money dealing horses around Upperville, Va., and loses it racing his sled-dogs in the frozen north.
Almost 30 years old, with his ruddy face, tweed cap and faded orange slicker, a cheap cigar clinched in his teeth and a slightly bow-legged walk, he cultivates the image of a self-styled wildman.
His dogs are trained at night, pulling a wheeled "gig" over back roads and unfinished super-highways. Spotting his wolf-like pack in your headlights is not something you'd like to do twice.
But he's not the only person from Virginia who races sled-dogs. There's a Mason-Dixon club. And there's one friend of Embury's in particular, Bob Kurinsky ("Now there's a real wild man," Embury will say). who drives with him all over the country to whatever sled-dog race seems right.
Last week it was the New England Championships in Pittsfield, N.H., 700 miles away. For both of them it would be the first unlimited race of the season. "The big boys are all out in Kalcaska, Mich. This weekend," Embury edplained. He could run his full team of 10, maybe even 12 dogs. The purse being offered wouldn't attract much serious competition, and he might just clean up.
It was afternoon on Friday when Embury arrived at Kurinsky's ramshackle Virginia property to start the drive up to New Hampshire. They are taking two trucks loaded with 27 dogs.
In fields near the driveway, blue-eyed huskies were tethered to car anles driven deep into the ground; they'd beaten perfect circles of dirt around their little houses. A puppy playfully carried around the dismembered foreleg of a horse in its teeth. Skulls and jawbones and other per pieces of livestock were littered around. "You gotta do it," said Embury. "That sissy food don't work."
Late the next morning, when Embury and Kurinsky arrived, the parking lot of Pittsfield's supermarket was filled with people and beasts, all of them milling about - the people at least - and talking of breeding and buying.
This New England Sled-Dog Club was a vast collection of sled-dog racing families, and the competition suddenly looked pretty stiff. There were 50 five-dog teams signed up, and more than a dozen unlimited. Embury started to talk about just giving his dogs a good workout, putting more mileage on them.
As the one-and three-and five-dog teams went out, a wave of howling and moaning and baying like the sing-song of a wolf pack rolled over the parking lot. Huskies, when they aren't running, lead lives of noisy desperation.
Counting down "five, four, three" - a pair of burly men hold embury's team steady at the starting line. "Ready!" he shouts and the dogs hit a new pitch of excitement - "two, one, go!" He yells "Hike! Hike!" and they're away - suddenly silent.
The dogs are frighteningly quiet as they run. Out on the trail, except for the voice of the driver, there's no sound but the dogs' breathing and the glistening noise of the runners through the packed snow.
The drivers shout "gee" to make the team turn tight and "haw" for a left turn. But if the team should suddenlu decide to gee when it's about to haw, not much can be done about it.
The best lead dogs usually respond to the commands, but don't really need to because they're able to sniff out the trail. The worst leaders don't listen and don't sniff either; they can take the driver some place he'd rather not go; down driveways, into cars, onto interstates and after cattle.
The only way to make them stop is to throw an down an anchor, a snow hook," run forward and haul them around in the direction they're supposed to go, then run back, pull up the hook and take off.
If someone is standing near the trail you can ask him to hold the sled. If he doesn't you can get very angry - which is what happened with Kurinsky the first day and why he used language that brought him an official reprimand.
The trail for unlimited teams leads out over fields and through forests, up and down the New Hampshire hillsides. Embury's dogs are moving well. He only has to throw in the hook a couple of times: once when his double leaders decide to take different directions around a tree. After a 9 of the 14.4 miles on the course, over a frozen lake and down a long country road, Embury thinks he is in a top position.
Down into the town of Barnstead, past a pristine white church and through the middle of the common, past a dark wood barn with ice cascading from its eaves, over a bridge, along a path between a railroad track and a frozen river - Embury is congratulating himself and his dogs.
A voice behind him: "Give trail!" Someone is shouting. "Oh hell," says Embury. It's a woman's voice - no, a girl's. "Give trail." Embury starts to slow his team, but even before they can stop, the others surge past. "You must have one hell of a team," he shouts, but the girl has disappeared over the top of the hill.
He arrives back in the supermarket parking lot looking like a gamble who lost a bet he can't cover. His dogs are still driving so hard they dreag him and two helpers halfway through the lot before they can be stopped and turned.
He checks the times. These races are against the clock. The girl, Terri Killam, had beat him in the first day's running by nearly 15 minutes.
Embury started asking around about just who this girl was, and what he found out after a time was that she's the darling of the NESDC.
Twenty years old, she's been racing since she was 8, first without much support from her family, and finally with their unquestioning devotion to her cause. She seemed gusty, modest and straightforward, with confidence but not arrogance. Her clean angular features, soft gray-blue eyes and long tawny hair tied back in a pony tail made her look like the kind of girl you'd like to have as a babysitter for your kids.
Embury sipped on his fast-freezing beer and lit up a White Owl. "She must have one hell of a team," he said.
That night, Embury and Kurinsky went looking for a little action. "Yeah, let's go rowdy," Kurinsky said. But there didn't seem to be good place to do that in Pittsfield, N.H. The Lions were throwing a "Musher's Ball" at the local high school, but nobody went. There was just the band, the geriatric security guard and a 3-foot dwarf taking tickets at the door.
They bought more beer and wine and took it to Terri Killam's camper parked in the dark and empty supermarket lot. But you can only talk about dog food and cross-breeding for so long, and Killam and her friend, Emily Groves, who won the five-dog race, didn't really want to talk about anything else. Embury and Kurinsky went back to their sleazy motel and fell asleep in $12 accommodations that smelled like something between a kennel and a locker room.
Sunday the trail was faster and Embury's dogs ran better, but so did Killam's. Embury finally had to settle for 6th place and $40, which would pay for about to two of the eight tanks of gas he'd used getting there and back. Kurinsky, who was also in the race, came in last. He stopped on the trail and changed his lead dogs around 10 times, and then, just as he was entering the home stretch, his team decided to plunge into someone's garage.
Terri Killam had trouble carrying the huge trophy she was awarded as her admirers made muffled applause with their gloves. Her fans were telling each other Terri would have been even faster if she hadn't stopped to pet her dogs along the way.
Kurinsky disappeared for awhile with a sled-dog groupie (yes, there do appear to be such people), and Embury was left alone in the darkening IGA parking lot feeding and watering his dogs.
The children and "HUSKY" license plates, the sleds and team were gone. He folded up the checks and put it in his wallet, thinking about the drive ahead.
Next year, he thought, he might be able to clean up.