EDEN, Vt. -- Wobbly kneed, I am balanced on skinny cross-country skis and screaming across the countryside on the first leg of a wilderness tour at the mercy of two dogs.
Bear and Maple are huskies. I am about 6 feet astern, tethered to the canines like a skittish dinghy, but nevertheless thrilled by the ride behind this furry power engine.
About a half-mile into the woods, we hit the first uphill. The dogs lean into the pitch, while I continue taking in the view. What, me work? Maple turns around mid-stride to look me squarely in the eye. "Wassup with this?" his glare says. Five steps later, panting harder, he fires off another glare.
It's a punishing shot delivered with hazel-blues.
"Poorly trained," his eyes scold. "Gonna help out here? Or are you too old for new tricks?"
The sport is skijoring, and the Eden Mountain Lodge here just may be the best place in New England to learn a fast-growing recreation that invites you to career over miles and miles of groomed trails as a representative of dog's best friend.
"I am not sure there is activity that requires more teamwork and more sense of animal family than skijoring," says Jim Blair, owner of the lodge and the national skijoring champion. He is headed for the world championships in the Yukon this spring.
Eden Mountain Lodge is nestled at the end of a dead-end road some 25 miles from the Canadian border. While the property comprises more than 70 private acres, it is surrounded by conservation land in the same quirky snow pocket that keeps ski areas such as Jay Peak frequently blanketed.
"I guess I spent the better part of my life following the natural snow north" from his Connecticut roots, says Blair, 50. "Here I rest, living out a dream."
He created the facility five years ago, converting an existing pair of structures (including a cozy log cabin) into accommodations that can serve two groups of up to a half-dozen people each. The lodge is pet-friendly; visitors who don't bring their own should prepare for a welcome by any or all of the 25 dogs that live with Blair and assistant Molly Witters.
Eden Mountain started (and continues) as a dog sledding operation catering to tourists who want to ride and drive rigs over some of the 10 miles of trail that Blair, using rollers and snow machines, grooms daily. About two years ago, he added skijoring to the lodge's offerings.
Skijoring, or skikjring as its Norwegian founders call it, is a form of skiing where an external power source -- a horse, a dog, a snowmobile, a reindeer -- provides the tow. As a child, my introduction to the sport was a 1956 green Plymouth station wagon, behind which I would sparkle like a grinding wheel as the tender steel edges of my alpine skis scraped roads clear of new snow.
Of late, skijoring with dogs has become a burgeoning sport, according to David Steele, director of the International Sled Dog Racing Association that sanctions dog-powered competitions.
"While I have no hard data on hand, I can say that skijoring has become the fastest-growing segment within the ISDRA-sanctioned races," Steele said in e-mail correspondence. If there was a skijoring race in New England half a dozen years ago, three competitors might have shown up. This winter, almost a dozen races are scheduled, and typically 18 or 20 racers compete, usually entering one- or two-dog events.
Eden Mountain Lodge offers the aspiring skijorer two options. You can arrive with cross-country ski equipment and take one of Blair's dogs out for a guided spin. Or you can bring your own dog in the hope your pet will learn how to pull and understand the basic commands.
Neither option comes with a guarantee.
If Blair determines your skiing ability might be a threat to dog safety, he'll side with the dog and politely suggest you slide away to enjoy the scenery. And if you show up with a Fluffy or Boopsie exhibiting not the slightest inclination to work, you'll leave with a well-exercised pooch.
So what makes a good skijoring dog?
Blair prefers an animal that is at least a year old, weighs at least 35 pounds, and ideally has a genetic makeup that includes some husky (obsession to pull, thick coat, good feet) and pointer (desire to please, high endurance, speed). Typically, he will take the dog through three two-hour sessions pulling a sled with experienced teammates, the canine student progressively advancing to the front of the pack and lead position. Count on a three-day visit.
Last week, I gave the sport a try, and I chose Option One -- the free ride -- in part because I have a chocolate Labrador retriever afflicted with too many attention-deficit disorders to drop a ball on command. Demanding a left or right turn would stop her cold. So I donned my 30-year-old cross-country skis and Blair discreetly watched me thrash about. He concluded I was probably more a threat to myself than to his dogs. So he hooked me up to the dynamic husky duo of Bear and Maple.
With feigned authority, I took charge.
That's "go" in dog speak. "Mush" (derived from the French "marcher," to walk) went out with Sergeant Preston and his 1950s television series.
With an impressive yank, Bear and Maple leaped forward, motivated less by my verbal prowess than by the disappearance of Blair and his dogs just ahead.
Into the woods we zoomed, the feeling dreamlike as the dogs pulled me over flat sections of trail at speeds approaching 20 miles per hour. There was the snow-muffled patter of paws, the swoosh of skis, but otherwise we had entered a silent, balsam-scented world in which I was truly at the mercy of two animals attached to my navel with something resembling an umbilical cord.
"Good dogs!" I encouraged. That was human speak for "thanks for the free ride."
Now descending, our speed increased. Suddenly, two roads diverged in the woods and I chose the one to the right.
"Gee!" I shouted. The dogs turned right.
More descent, another fork, and I could see Blair's tracks leading left.
"Haw!" I barked. The dogs turned left. Either we were a masterful team or the dogs could smell their mates ahead.
Anyone skeptical that dogs and humans communicate with eye contact need only take Maple (or, more accurately, be taken by Maple) out for a spin and not pitch in. When we hit that first uphill and I declined to so much as double-pole, Maple started glowering at me with repeated glances back. The guilt trip was so effective that by the time we all reached the top, I was poling, striding, and grunting with a fury I sincerely wanted the dogs to appreciate.
That's when the novelty of the situation struck home. Here I was, out in the middle of nowhere trying to please a pair of dogs who ask nothing in return except a little effort, some kibbles, and an occasional good word or two.
Yes, I can be taught. Such is the human training at the Eden Mountain Lodge.
David Arnold can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.