Radio Field Trip: Dog Sledding Without Snow

May 16, 2018

For this week’s Radio Field Trip, Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley is introducing you to some truly spectacular athletes.

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(Editor's note: we highly recommend listening to this story.)

It’s a beautiful spring morning in Jefferson, New Hampshire. I can see the mountains in the distance, and I’m about to go dog sledding.

“That’s a pretty foreign thought – dog sledding in the spring, in any time of the year when there’s no snow,” musher Wes Guerin says. Wes works at the Muddy Paw Sled Dog Kennel.

Yes, dog sledding season is in the winter, but mushers still take the dogs for runs in the spring for training and to keep them in shape.

There are about 70 dogs here today.

Rows and rows of dog houses line a field all painted with names like Mudd, Popcorn and Pickles. But I can tell right away these are not your average house dogs.

They’re technically mutts, but you can tell they have Alaskan blood. The dogs are trim with long, lanky limbs, but they consume an average of 5,000 calories a day in the winter.

“They have an athlete’s body,” Wes says. “So they’re going to be a little more leaner than your typical house dog. It’s just like us if we sit in an office all day, versus comparing our bodies to Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps, they’re going to be in incredible shape compared to us.”

Wes says a lot of the pups here are sled dogs who didn’t perform well during the winter season.

“So we get a lot of inquiries from mushers or people that own a husky that don’t have the time for them,” Wes says.

So the kennel takes them in, and Wes and the other mushers work with the dogs and train them. They don’t compete, but they become good enough runners to give tours.

People travel from all over the region to go for a ride with them.

“Everyone watches the shows on Netflix, you know all the Alaska shows on discovery, and they think we’ve got to do that,” Wes says.

On this beautiful spring day, Wes brings out a small, two-seater cart with wheels.

He picks 10 dogs for the run, and hooks them up in harnesses that are connected with rope. The dogs will run in two lines, each with a partner.

And they are certainly ready to go, pulling at the cart, waiting for Wes to give them the command to start.

“Do you guys like roller coasters?” Wes shouts over the barking dogs. “This is just like a roller coaster. If you don’t like roller coasters, this is nothing like a roller coaster.”

And then we’re off.

The dogs take us along an old rail trail. They pull us up and down small hills, twist around tight turns without missing a step. It’s a bumpy ride, but we’re in good paws.

Watch the dogs in action:

I’m amazed at how they fall right into line. I can see them communicating and working together as a team.

“If you have a chance to watch their body language, you’ll see them push and pull each other, tug each other to the side, and give them a shoulder here and there,” Wes says.

About halfway we stop for a drink. But it’s not long before Swiper, the lead dog on this run, gets restless. She barks and pulls at the cart.

“Yeah, she’s ready of course,” Wes says. “Swiper’s always the first one ready to go. It doesn’t matter if she’s up front, in the back, who she’s next to.”

Pretty soon Swiper gets her wish and we’re back on the trail.

It’s clear that Wes really loves working with these dogs.

“These guys, they’re truly incredible,” Wes says. “They’re truly wonderful. I have a hard time putting it into words, just how fortunate I am to be a part of their lives really, and I was lucky to just kind of fall into it. It’s insane.”

As we circle back toward the kennel we can hear the other dogs excited to great us.

“It’s the welcoming committee,” Wes says.