Island Pond, Vt. --Standing in the starting gate, the dogs spring as high as your waist.
They want to go. They have wanted to go since summer, when they pulled a three-wheeled rig, or since autumn, when they trained over the first snowfall. So they jump up and over the harness lines, land on each other, square themselves away. Handlers squat around them as the timekeeper counts down slowly. At the "2" count, the driver steps onto the sled runners and nods to the handlers. At 1, the handlers step away. Then the driver yells, "Go," or "Hike," but never "mush." The dogs take off like a grass fire.
It's January and it's 3-below-zero here in Island Pond, and the New England Sled Dog Club is in the heart of its racing season.
"All that noise, that barking, that disappears as soon as they start to run," says Meg Mizzoni, a driver who, with her daughter, Jackie, brings at least 20 dogs from Boston every weekend to race. "What I love about this sport is the quiet. The deep forest trails and the silence."
"And it's fast," says Jackie, 14. "Sprint racing is different from long-distance racing, the Iditarod kind of racing."
Sprint racing is fast. Alaskan sled dogs, easily the most popular breed at the New England Sled Dog Club events, are long-legged and thin as porch railings. People often expect big-chested malamutes or Samoyeds, dogs with Arctic coats, to be set out along the gangline. But Alaskan sled dogs, their bloodlines infused with hound crosses, are built for speed. They pull sprint sleds that weigh less than 20 pounds, and in bursts that can reach 30 miles per hour. They love chasing other teams, and they rarely stop, even if the driver falls.
"When you're traveling around 20 miles per hour, standing on two small runners, and you need to pass another team, and you're depending on dogs to be sensible," says Bob Noyes, a Vermont native who, with his wife, Julie, has run dogs for more than a decade, "it's like driving a car with the accelerator stuck."
The dogs and drivers are grouped in divisions according to team size and training level. They follow trails marked across lakes or through forests, often carved out by local snowmobile clubs. Depending on conditions, the open classes, teams of unlimited numbers of dogs, can run 15 to 20 miles. The six- and four-dog teams usually run 4 to 8 miles. Races last 30 minutes to an hour or two. Pro teams compete for a modest purse, while sportsmen teams run for fun. At best, the purse helps defray the cost of keeping as many as 50 dogs at some large kennels. Most of the teams are family operations, an activity that unites generations.
"We raised four kids dogsledding," says Martha Heckman, who has been dog sledding with her husband for 39 years, "and we've never not had dogs. It's simply a part of our life. . . . This was our way to teach responsibility.
Her husband, Bob, is 61 and had a hip replacement recently. He waves his hand at the small village of approximately 100 dog trucks scattered around the plowed cornfield that is home base for the weekend.
"The nicest people on earth," he says. "The beauty of this sport is that it cuts across all walks of life and brings everyone together. We've made some wonderful friends through dogsledding. We've traveled to Germany with dogsledding friends, to Alaska, too."
"And," his wife adds, "kids and adults compete and interact on an even plane. Men and women, too. You can't say that about too many sports. It's a great leveler."
The New England Sled Dog Club was founded in 1924 at Wonalancet Farm in New Hampshire. According to club archives, Wonalancet was home to Arthur Walden and his wife. Walden had been to gold rush country and admired the dog teams he observed there. After acquiring his own dogs, he and his wife ran the Wonalancet Farm Inn, with dogsled rides as an attraction. In the 1920s, Walden challenged two Canadian teams to a race in Berlin, N.H. The teams averaged 39 miles a day, and Walden, with his lead dog, Chinook, won. The resulting publicity brought a wave of admirers to Wonalancet Farm and gave birth to the club.
The club sponsored races throughout the 1920s, then faded temporarily when Walden traveled with Admiral Richard Evelyn Byrd to the South Pole. During World War II, many dog owners either sold or donated their teams to the Air Sea Rescue unit of the war effort, where the dogs were trained to rescue the crews of downed aircraft in northern theaters. Not until 1947 did the New England Sled Dog Club resume its racing schedule.
The club (at www.nesdc.org) has grown over the last decade, and so has the popularity of the sport. Many drivers talk of their dream of adding dog sledding as a Winter Olympic Games event. Nearly every Northern state hosts a sled dog club. Skijoring -- a ski sport in which a one- or two-dog team is hitched to the belt of a human competitor -- has become a regularly scheduled feature of any race day. Skijor athletes follow a 4- to 6-mile course and use skate skis without metal edges.
At Island Pond, a race sponsored by Eagle Pack Dog Food, close to 500 dogs invaded Vermont. The dogs arrived in dog trucks, pickups with dog boxes on back. The box usually has 10-20 cubbyholes where the dogs rest in straw and comfort between races. Periodically throughout the day, the dogs are "dropped," meaning they are "lined out," or let out, on chains around the truck to eat, drink, and do what dogs do. They make a wonderful commotion that sometimes turns into a haunting chorus of howls.
"It gets you out in the winter," Pam Lacombe-Connell says of dogsled racing. Her son, Jayce, 10, runs in the one-dog junior division. "It teaches cooperation with animals. It's a wonderful sport."
Vince Buoniello, president of the club, has been running dogs for 40 years. He lives on Long Island and travels to the races every winter weekend. Standing in an orange jumpsuit, he watches a team cross the finish line, their muzzles covered with frost. The dogs dangle their tongues and smile as only sled dogs do.
"I raised my kids with dogs," Buoniello says, hurrying to help the finishing team make it back to their truck. "Now the kids are gone and I'm still running them. It gets in your blood."The World Championship, run by the Laconia Sled Dog Club, is held on Valentine's Day weekend in Laconia, N.H., the largest sprint race in the lower 48 states. Drivers from around the world compete for three days for a $15,000 purse. Teams start on Main Street in the center of town and head out across Lake Opeechee. Spectators can stand in coffee shops to watch, or roam and visit with the teams. The entire weekend is given over to dogs. In nearby Sandwich, N.H., distance teams run 30-60 miles in an endurance-style race. Many of the distance teams return in darkness, the driver a single dot of light on the back of the sled.
"Running dogs," says Martha Heckman, looking on as drivers harness a team of dogs nearby, "has always been a touchstone. When our kids went off to college, and if they didn't quite know what to do with themselves some weekend, they could always find a sled dog race. They volunteered for trail maintenance or helped out around the starting line. The dogs are always there, always waiting. That's what dog running teaches you."
Joseph Monninger is a New Hampshire fishing guide. His Web address is firstname.lastname@example.org.