Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Mushing in the wilds of Maine

It's a true-north adventure dogsledding over lake and through forest

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The air is charged with the sound of 17 howling huskies, and the snow brake I'm standing on with both feet quivers as the brawny dogs in front of me strain against their harnesses.

It's not a moment for misgivings or second thoughts: Either you hold tight as you release the brake and the dogs snap forward, or you're left behind as the sled races toward the mountains in the distance. I choose to hold on.

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.

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, elsewhere in 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 19 km/h. 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 10.5-million-hectare 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 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 dogsledding, 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. 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 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?

The couple is hugely devoted to their dogs, which are descended from the last team used by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to patrol remote parts of the Yukon. The long-legged, broad-chested canines are nothing like the small, fast-moving dogs used in races such as the Iditarod, where 10 or more might pull a single sled. At Mahoosuc, Kevin and Pauline breed dogs solely for their own purposes, and a dog that is born on the property stays there until it dies.

The couple started Mahoosuc Guide Service 22 years ago, when Pauline applied for a job at a dog-sledding program that Kevin was starting up for an outfitter in northern Maine. "When someone from the Yukon Territory with five of her own dogs applies for a job, and you're starting a dog-sledding program, well, you're going to hire her," Kevin says.

And fall in love with her and then start your own dog-sledding business together, which they did in 1989. "We knew that no one else was doing extensive dogsledding in the Northeast," Kevin says, "so if you wanted to really learn about it and experience it, you had to go to Minnesota or Canada. And people were doing that. So we gave them the chance here in the Northeast."

For me, that opportunity was the two-day Mahoosuc Intro weekend, which includes mushing on the frozen Umbagog Lake and an overnight at a permanent camp, where we'd stay in canvas-sided (and wood-stove-heated, thank goodness) tents on the lakeshore.

Living in Vermont, I'm no stranger to cold weather and came prepared with all my winter camping gear, but a visitor from Florida could show up, be outfitted with all the appropriate parkas, mittens, mukluks, sleeping bags and space-age-looking insulated boots and have a great adventure with hardly a chill.

It wasn't always that way.

"When we first ran trips, we'd cut the poles for the tents, set them up, collect all of the boughs to line the floors and gather firewood, all with the clients," Pauline says. "Now it's all set up beforehand and it's pretty cush. But the permanent camps are imperative because we're getting older and people are getting softer. We've definitely noticed that people don't want to work as hard as they used to."

I'm intrigued by Kevin's tales of the rapidly disappearing dog-sledding culture of the indigenous Cree and Inuit people, with whom he has travelled extensively. "Once this last generation dies, it will be gone," he says. "You're never going to be able to go out with a traditional northern native who grew up in the bush and knows how to live off the land again, because now they grow up in villages."

Even though we aren't hunting caribou and taking ice readings during my trip, it still feels steeped in authenticity. There's no cellphone service, and while most trips now include a staff member on a snowmobile, a nighttime outing to the outdoor loo magnifies the solitude, particularly when the dogs greet you with an unearthly howl.

I share a tent with Karen Boss, a graduate student and communications manager at a Boston non-profit, and Christy Cunningham, an associate director in the careers centre at Stockton College of New Jersey. Boss is what Pauline laughingly calls "a Mahoosuc junkie" -- this is her third dog-sledding trip -- and she mushes her own five-dog team like a pro.

Mahoosuc trips are as hands-on as you want them to be, whether you want to mush your own team or would prefer to trust yourself to the capable hands of Pauline and her three young apprentices. It's hard to resist the novelty of camp chores, though, so when apprentice Joey Shaw grabs an ice chisel and several stainless-steel buckets and heads out onto the lake, I'm hot on his heels.

He chips away at the ice, finally breaking through to our water source for the next two days (don't worry, it's boiled first), and we fill up the fire-blackened buckets and head back to camp.

Lagging behind, I take a moment to look back at the snow-covered lake and the mountains in the dusk. In camp, I know Pauline is feeding and bedding down the dogs and the other guests are spreading fir boughs for our beds and collecting firewood.

But out here there's nothing but silence. And that's exactly what I came to hear.

-- Washington Post

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 15, 2012 D2

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