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Gone to the dogs

Discussion in 'Dog Discussion' started by Vicki, Feb 7, 2010.

  1. Vicki

    Vicki Administrator Staff Member

    Gone to the dogs

    Just say the right word and one of Jim Blair's teams will make your trip into the woods thrilling

    By Brian MacQuarrie, Globe Staff | February 7, 2010


    EDEN MILLS - With 12 degees showing on the thermometer and six sled dogs howling in a chorus before me, I carefully place my snow-covered boots on two rubber-topped runners, breathe deeply, and prepare to break into my best impersonation of a crusty veteran of the legendary Iditarod race.

    “Hike,’’ I bark, expecting to rocket from the chute as the dogs bolt frantically to race pace.

    Nothing. Bear and Mufasa, the side-by-side lead dogs, turn their heads and stare balefully at the novice standing where someone they respect should be.

    “Um, they like to hear: ‘Ready! Hike!’ ’’ whispers my tutor, Jim Blair, a champion driver who sits bundled in the sled, ready to guide me through my maiden run. OK, no problem.

    “Ready! Hike!’’ I snap louder, bending at the knees as I prepare once more for a jolting start. Again, nothing, and this time the dogs don’t even bother to turn around.

    In my mind, I can see Blair rolling his eyes. Then, in desperation, Blair quickly sounds an authoritative “READY! HIKE!’’ The dogs burst from the chute with an explosive start that forces me to grab the sled’s handles, hurriedly check my feet, and flash a frost-dappled grin as the team bounds for the forest line.

    The sled drive is on, and these mixed-breed dogs, bred to run, dash for a winter’s paradise in which freshly groomed trails, spectacular mountain scenery, and countless snow-cloaked trees await their churning legs, bobbing heads, and unflagging willingness to haul 300 pounds of human cargo up and down their Green Mountain home.

    This is the snow-globe domain of Eden Dog Sledding, a 75-acre retreat in the midst of 3,000 acres of Vermont conservation land. Here, Blair maintains 30 bounding, yapping, athletic dogs that carry visitors year-round on rollicking tours through pristine woodlands 25 miles from the Canadian border.

    The sensation is exhilarating, but also unnerving, as the sled accelerates from zero to 20 miles per hour. These dogs seem in complete control, I think, and I’m only the neophyte flatlander tagging along for a trip through the wilderness. Besides control, they also have intelligence. They barrel toward a fork in the trail, maintaining their pell-mell pace to the last instant, waiting for the driver to shout out the right direction.

    Those commands - “Gee’’ for right, “haw’’ for left, and not a hint of “mush’’ - bring an immediate reaction from the leaders, who don’t break stride as they charge toward the chosen path. I was wary as I pre pared for my first command, assuming the dogs would ignore me once again. Would they run straight ahead, crashing into a tree in the ungroomed snow? Would Blair and I be thrown from the sled, buried in thigh-deep snow because of my bumbling ineptitude?

    “Gee!’’ I order. Amazingly, the command works. Immediately, like an airplane banking instantly to the pilot’s control, Bear and Mufasa break to the right. The effect is both awesome and beautiful for dogs who nearly all are mixed-breed animals that Blair groups under the label “Alaskan.’’

    They are not big dogs, but they are strong. Their bodies, fortified by vitamin-rich diets and fresh meat, ripple with muscle under coats that seem impervious to the bitter cold. The bigger dogs are nearest the sled, where they bear the brunt of the load. The smarter ones, and those that take commands well, tend to be the leaders. All of them are placed in pairings that complement each other’s strengths and allow the dogs to learn from each other, Blair says.

    Technically, driving the sled is like riding a bicycle. The driver leans into a turn, just as a cyclist would. Balance is key and staying relaxed is a must. Locked knees won’t work on a fast track that is constantly rising, dipping, and changing direction. Often, to keep the sled on track, I lean far off the runner, one foot dangling over the snow as the team sprints around a bend.

    The driver’s best friend, besides the dogs, is the “drag,’’ a braking mat that touches the snow from the back of the sled. To vary the speed of the dogs, especially when rounding a tight turn or plunging downhill, the driver presses hard on the mat to slow the team down. Without this drag, the dogs would continue to do what they do best: running as fast as they can for as long as they can. The result might send the sled careering off the trail.

    Practicing over and over to gauge the effect on the dogs, I quickly become comfortable with the drag, pressing down with my right leg, early and often, to modulate the speed. While going uphill, as the dogs begin to labor, I hop off, run behind the sled while pushing, and jump back on when the team gains the crest and accelerates again.

    It’s quite the workout.

    Blair, 55, offers tours over the trails, as well as lessons for would-be drivers. He clearly enjoys his work, which also keeps him tuned for sled dog competition in the winter. And he clearly feels for his dogs, nearly all of whom have been raised on the property. Although they turn into baying, anxious athletes outside the barn where warmth and refreshments are available, they are docile, affectionate, people-friendly animals inside.

    “I got into this because I just love the dogs so much,’’ Blair says. “I’m one of those ‘dogs-are-a-man’s-best-friend’ kind of guy.’’ Often, as many as six dogs share his bed with him.

    Blair uses sleds with wheels during the snow-less months. In addition to the actual experience of driving or riding in a sled, Blair teaches visitors how to harness the dogs and immerses them in what he calls the cradle-to-retirement ethics of proper care. There are no chains here at Eden Mills, where Blair manages what he calls a “free-range’’ kennel that has fencing but few other restraints.

    Customers can assemble a package that includes a stay at one of two lodges on the property, and tours that range from $195 for two people for 30 minutes, to $495 for two people for 90 minutes. To learn to drive, a visitor is charged $395 for instruction with an expert guide. Blair says the prices reflect the cost of maintaining the dogs and planning for their lives after working on the sled teams.

    The experience is not cheap, but the environment is stellar. Moose tracks dot the snow beside the track, and the air is fresh and bracing in a place so remote that Blair advises his visitors to discard their GPS because the devices often send motorists up snowmobile trails where they become lost for hours.

    Up here, being lost for a few hours might not be the worst fate. In this unspoiled and beautiful place, the connection with nature and dozens of remarkable animals is a palpable and thrilling thing.

    On this frozen afternoon, rounding a wide, final turn for home, the dogs begin running faster than they have the entire tour. They know their labors are about to end. So, in a final straightaway, they pick up the pace even more, sprinting toward the fire-warmed comforts of the barn. Suddenly, I’m worried. Will they stop on their own? Or more to the point: Can they stop?

    “WHOA!’’ I cry.

    In an instant, with their tongues hanging slack and their eyes ablaze, the dogs are standing still.

    Gone to the dogs - The Boston Globe
  2. Rickf3

    Rickf3 Big Dog

    thanks for the good story.

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