Yelps! Barks! Toboggans are cutting across the white horizon of a frozen and snow-buried Umbagog Lake. It’s Winter, the long sleds are loaded, and the huskies are ready to pull.
It snowed again last night.
In the valley the wind whips and the dogs howldozens of huskies crying in chorus. The sound is other- worldly, echoing to the sky. In this part of western Maine, no one is bothered. Were far out into the freedom of space and winter and wildness. We slept here last night in a post-and-beam lodge, kept warm by a woodstove in the central kitchen, and when I looked up at the sky after midnight it was lit with stars, but black as slate. Cold.
Were visiting a farm off of Route 26, north and west of Bethel, thats the headquarters of the Mahoosuc Guide Service. The Bear River, Grafton Notch State Park, and the jumble of rock and water at Screw Auger Falls is around here somewhere under the snow. Old Speck and the rest of the mountains of the Mahoosuc Range line the horizon. Im new to the world of sled dogs, but Id say this is sled-dog country and sled-dog weather.
The brightness of a clear, 25-degree morning gives us focus. (And makes me squint and blink.) Weve had a breakfast of coffee, heaping plates of blueberry pancakes, bacon, and oranges, and photographer Peter Frank Edwards and I have already pulled on our layerslong underwear and snow pants and double jackets and hats. The boots are borrowed from the gear room. Mickey Mouse boots is what were calling them because of how they lookblack and wide, clunky- bottomed boots with long laces. To wear them means youll walk a bit clumsily, but the insulating thickness of the boot keeps your foot well off the cold ground, were told. When we arrived yesterday, I learned that the outfitters, partners Polly Mahoney and Kevin Slater, will lend you just about anything you needhats, gloves, gaiters, mukluks, bootsfrom their 110-year-old barn and farmhouse.
About 10 of us are going out today, and everyones making their way from the gear room or the lodge toward the dogyard. A burly husky chomps at a tuft of snow. Another jumps excitedly and watches us. With fur colors in combinations of gray, black, white, and rust, each is tethered and has its own wooden house with a low roof thats bedded with hay and painted with a name: Hermes, Dougette, Aiden, Deidre, Vixen, Jarvis. I immediately see and sense that these canines are different from the hounds and retrievers Im used to, and distinct even from smaller, blue- eyed Siberian huskies. Slater explains the differencebecause of their direct bloodline to five sled dogs that Mahoney brought from the Yukon Territory of northwestern Canada, the Mahoosuc descendants are deemed Yukon huskies. Apparently, at least one of the original five was one-quarter wolf. On a wide sheet of paper at the farm, theyve mapped the names and relations of the hundreds of dogs theyve raised, and that lineage chart now spans several feet wide and more than eight feet long.
Powerful, long-legged, and non-aggressive, these are the working dogs that native peoples favored for long-haul travels and pulling toboggan sleds with heavy loads sometimes journeying out on hunting trips of a week or more to return with pounds and pounds of caribou. Here, the dogs are bred to carry people and gear on trips and expeditions around Maine and far into Canada. Were joining in on a couple days of dogsledding, and everyones eager to meet these special animals. (I want to pet one immediately, but I try to be cool and show reserve.) From their doghouse perches, separated from one another by just a few feet, each husky is alert and eyeing Slater, Mahoney, and all of us, to determine whether food or dogsledding is coming next.
Slater forms a ball of snow in one bare hand and looks at the sky as if considering the weather. Hes wearing a white jacket with a coyote fur trim, and when he pulls up the hood, he reminds me of an Arctic explorer. (He has, in fact, traveled in Alaska and the Arctic regions of northern Quebec and the Hudson Bay by dogsled.) We follow him into his workshop in the barn. Under rafters hung with boats and snowshoes is where hes made canoes, sleds of ash and birch, and paddles of mapleMahoosuc also offers canoe trips. A Maine Master Guide, he was working with Outward Bound in Newry in the 1980s when he bought the place. Hed adopted seven dogs from Alaska and wanted to start a sled dog course, so he advertised for an instructor. Mahoney, whos originally from South China (Maine) and had been living in the Yukon Territory for a decade, applied for the job. Could she bring her five huskies with her? One look at her dogs and it was love at first sight, Slater recalls. They hit it off immediately. He had a 1903 farmhouse and barn, and I was cute, says Mahoney. They had plenty in common, including that both dreamed of having a guide service. The two have been together ever since.
Mahoney is small but mighty. Many of the dogs stand on their hind legs before they jump into the truck, and when they do, they are taller than she is. Some huskies pull so tremendously that it can take two people with separate leads to hold them. Yet Mahoney can work with each one deftly. She has honed this skill over years of experience. Shes also a Master Maine Guide, and she lived a subsistence lifestyle in the Yukon using huskies for daily transportation. (Thats her with her sled dogs in the 1983 movie Never Cry Wolf.) Cofounding Mahoosuc Guide Service and developing the sled-dog teams is a ton of work, but worth it, she says. On the sled, she often feels a dream-like or Zen state: Its just the quiet, me, and the dogs.
These days Slater and Mahoney count more than 40 huskies between them, and they employ a few assistants to help with the dogs and the lodge. Zack Buckley from Freedom is boiling eggs by the tray- full when we first see him. Thats what these Yukon huskies eat out on the trail, something convenient and filling. Another assistant, Kate Orlofsky from Surry, explains that one of her recent duties is to sleep in the cabin thats directly adjacent to the dogyard. A perk to the overnight caretaking, she says, is that you can bring one dog inside at night for companionship. Their work looks tiring and specialized. Orlofsky tells me that on her first day she assumed you were supposed to peel the eggs. Not necessary, she soon found out. A hungry sled dog eats right through the shells.
Patience is whats needed here. By watching and pitching in where I can for a couple of days, it becomes clear that to go out on a toboggan pulled by dogs takes time, gear, strength, and an organized team effort. We arent leaving directly from the farm, so a shuttle is organized first. Mahoney and Slater have long pick-up trucks that are capped with individual wooden kennels for the dogs. Before a trip, they each choose the dog teams for the day, and one by one the huskies are led from the dogyard by leash to a truck, where each then leaps into its own shoulder-height kennel. Piling into cars or trucks, we all convoy several miles north and west to the frozen Umbagog Lake. When we regroup there, each dog is guided by leash from the kennel to its position as part of a six-husky team that will pull a load of gear and one or two people. Others in our party include a Scarborough veterinarian, a retiree from Boston, a dirt bike racer, a newspaper journalist, and a Blue Hill music teacher.
About two hours after we all first gathered at breakfast, we are standing on the shores of Umbagog watching spindrifts blowing on the opposite shore. After some instruction, two people are assigned to each sled. Finally, we are ready to start. The sleds are long toboggans made of wood and canvas and curved up in front. Slater tells us komatik is the Inuit word for the sleds, and Mahoney encourages us to speak as little as possible once were moving.
Then were off. The dogs no longer bark anxiously, just sporadically. They are charging ahead, pulling, and listening for direction. Im listening too, to the rushing sound of the sled across the snow. The sudden acceleration is incredible. Snow- laden trees along the shore fade to a blur. For other stretches, the huskies slow to a rhythmic, easy trot. Some glance backward from time to time. The overall feeling is of peacefulness. Im riding with Slater, and he uses Inuit commands of gee (hard g) for right and haw for left. One of the leads is a husky with an orange-tinged coat named Vixen. Another is Jarvis. Jarvis reads my mind sometimes, Mahoney tells us when we take a break along the wooded shoreline for lunch. All I do is think I might stop, and he stops.
The dogs take a break, too, devouring eggs and curling up to sleep in the snow. Our lunch on the long-frozen lake is cooked over a wood fire. The first day, Buckley and Slater build a fire outside and we all sit in the open air to drink hot tea and eat toasted bagels and steaming bowls of turkey soup. The second day we stop at one of the Mahoosuc Guides overnight winter campsites, a remote outpost that has large canvas tents outfitted with portable woodstoves. After the sleds are parked and dogs organized, I walk into the woods and watch the smoke rise from a distance.
Pine and spruce boughs carpet the floor. Once everyone gathers inside for lunch, it becomes so warm that were peeling off our gloves and jackets. Were miles from any road on a frozen lake, yet so toasty and cozy our faces are flushed.
Meanwhile, in a nearly white-out squall thats begun outside, the huskies sleep unfazed. Slater notes that theyre best suited to temperatures in the single digits. Theyll soon team up and eagerly pull our full sleds again for miles. Ive been watching the Mahoosuc dogs for two days, and they continue to amaze me. I keep thinking of something Mahoney mentionedthat once they are no longer pulling sleds, the older dogs live out their retirement years with indoor comforts at Slater and Mahoneys house. (Its just a few hundred yards from the dogyard and pastures.) And somehow,
I think this is understood by the younger huskiesthe vigorous, joy-radiating dogs on our trip are 7 months to 11 years old. It seems to me that these canine generations and the people are living a full life together here. Its a fascinating legacy to experience on a winter weekend. And damn, those huskies can fly across the snow.