It’s roughly 10 degrees on Saturday morning at the Mahoosuc Inn in Milan and about 200 sled dogs are yowling and barking, making it clear it is time to race.
There are 17 teams entered in the Mahoosuc 100 and each has 12 incredibly impatient, excited dogs.
The mushers move among them. There are hugs and licks.
The dogs throw themselves against their harnesses and are so eager to go that an ATV is hooked to the back of each sled to hold the dogs back as they approach the starting line.
They leave – at two-minute intervals – heading out on a 48-mile loop that mostly follows snow mobile trails.
With the dogs underway, the barking is over. Most of the time there’s just the sound of 48 paws on snow and the whiz of runners of the sled carrying mushers like Sally Manikian of Shelburne.
“It’s actually a wonderful moment not to think about anything at all. I usually think about very little. I am just watching the dogs move. I’m watching the snow fall,” she says.
And she rarely speaks to the dogs.
“I want them to listen when I have something to say,” she says.
That is most likely “haw” for a left turn and “gee” for a right.
Ideally this audio remote control works and the lead dog complies, taking the others and the sled tidily through the turn.
Faith Kimball of West Dummer says a good lead dog will usually do what its told and mushers come to expect that. But still, each time it happens "it is the most wonderful thing," she says.
The dog race is an addition to the Nansen-Milan Winter Festival, which the Nansen Ski Club began about six years ago with a cross-country ski race. Later vendors selling locally made crafts and food were added.
But the North Country has a history of dog-sled racing going back about 90 years, says Odette LeClerc of the Berlin & Coos County Historical Society.
A program from Berlin’s 1923 winter carnival notes Arthur Walden won the 1922 race going from Berlin through the Dixville Notch, Colebrook and Lancaster and back to Berlin. It was run over three days and took him fifteen hours and thirty-six minutes.
After one 48-mile lap, the teams are back at the Mahoosuc Inn where the dogs are examined by vets and must have a four-hour rest.
“This really isn’t very stressful to them. They are designed to do this,” says Robert Gillette, a vet from New Jersey who specializes in sports medicine. “They are designed so much different than a human or even a horse to run long distances.”
Nevertheless the mushers spread hay for beds and wrap the dogs in blankets. There are more hugs and licks and big bowls of food and an effort to get the dogs to rest. Faced with a dog that insists on standing and looking around one musher plops down on the straw. Then, she gently pulls him down and cuddles for a few minutes.
And there’s time for some reflection on the first lap. Musher Ashley Patterson of Maine says her surprise was a moose, which have been known to attack sled dogs.
“A big 1,200 pound cow that stood right in the trail. I swear she started to show ears as in she was pissy,” she says. “Thankfully I was in a good spot to set a snow hook and wait for her to get off the trail.”
After dark the teams are back on the trail – with single-digit temperatures and a full moon.
Their headlamps can be seen gliding quietly through the woods, with the fastest teams traveling as much as 12 – 15 miles per hour and a bit more downhill.
A few teams have trouble with a 90-degree right turn quickly followed by a 90-left turn. It’s a tricky maneuver for anything moving quickly, much less 12 dogs pulling a sled.
At least one flips and the dogs drag it along amid shouts of “whoa” and an expletive from the musher. But volunteers stationed at the turns grab the dogs, the sled is righted on the team is on its way.
Just after midnight the first teams are crossing the finish line. Canadian men take first and second with winner Martin Massicotte of Quebec covering almost 100 miles in eight hours and 37 minutes. Third is New Hampshire’s Christine Richardson followed by Sally Manikian in fourth.
Seven of the 17 teams are from Canada and the interest in dog sled racing in the North Country is encouraging economic news, says Mark Peabody, the owner of the Mahoosuc Lodge.
“It’s just nice to diversify what we are doing up here,” he says.
At the end of February, there’s a four-day race starting with competition starting at the Omni Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods, Colebrook, Pittsburg and finally the Mahoosuc Inn in Milan.
It’s the third year for that event, the Great North Woods Sled Dog Challenge.
Local festivals such as the Nansen-Milan Winter Festival have become increasingly popular with towns looking for even a small economic boost as well as for tourists looking for local, authentic experiences, says Mark Okrant, a former professor of tourism at Plymouth State and the founder of OakLee Consulting.
The Nansen-Milan Winter Festival is tiny compared to more established events such as Colebrook’s Moose Festival each summer.
But Okrant says over the long term every festival is important if a happy visitor goes home and encourages friends to visit.