On a beautiful late-winter weekend last March, the New England Sled Dog Club hosted its annual races in Tamworth, N.H., a tradition dating back to 1937. Against the backdrop of iconic Mount Chocorua, mushers guided their teams across Chocorua Lake and through the surrounding forests. Hundreds of enthusiastic spectators cheered competitors at the finish line and at viewpoints along the course, visiting the dogs and drivers in the paddock between events.
Despite the weekend’s success, some challenges were impossible to ignore. The event, held for the first time since 2015 due to weather-related cancellations, was the club’s only snow race during the 2019 winter season, compared to weekly races in the 1990s. A single entrant competed in the unlimited class, open to teams of 10 or more dogs, although smaller teams and ski racers were well-represented. And some participants talked of scaling back involvement in the face of unreliable weather and the sport’s many expenses.
These obstacles aren’t limited to New England but are emblematic of the changes shaping mushing worldwide—meaning the sport’s next era may look decidedly different than its past.
Primarily thought of as recreation today, dogsledding has been crucial to northern indigenous peoples’ ways of life for millennia. Siberian researchers recently unearthed evidence indicating that humans were breeding sled dogs as early as 9,000 years ago. In North America, the Inuit have been using dogs to travel to hunting grounds and to haul food and supplies for more than 1,000 years, with early French settlers and soldiers learning the craft by the 18th century. The English word “mushing” is derived from the French word “marche,” meaning walk—or “Go!”
America’s golden age of sledding began with the Alaska Gold Rush in the late 19th century, when dog teams were the only means of transporting prospectors and supplies. Several adventurers, including Tamworth resident Arthur Walden and Norway’s Leonhard Seppala, became key figures in sledding’s development as a sport. Early races, such as the 1908 All Alaska Sweepstakes and the American Dog Derby of Idaho (held annually since 1917), were covered by major newspapers, exposing mushing to the public outside of northern regions for the first time.
Dogsledding earned its spot among Northeastern recreational pursuits in the 1920s, due in large part to Arthur Walden’s efforts. The former gold prospector introduced his distinctive Chinook dog breed to the public at a New Hampshire winter carnival in 1920. Two years later, he spearheaded the region’s first significant race, a three-day, 123-miler along the Canadian border. His triumphant first-place finish gained him international fame and a front-page story in The New York Times. The New England Sled Dog Club, the oldest organization of its kind in North America, formed in the aftermath, in 1924, with several town-to-town races held in New Hampshire and Maine later in the decade. Walden completed the first sled dog ascent of Mount Washington in 1926 before joining Admiral Richard Byrd’s fabled Antarctic expedition of 1928.
The Great Serum Run of 1925, a landmark event in mushing history, further heightened public interest. Following a diphtheria outbreak in Nome, 20 teams and 150 dogs relayed urgently needed medication across 675 miles of interior Alaskan wilderness, braving blizzard conditions and windchills reaching -85 degrees Fahrenheit. Gunnar Kaasen and his dog Balto, who became one of the nation’s iconic canine celebrities, received worldwide acclaim for leading the final leg, but some historians believe Seppala, whose team traversed the longest and most hazardous segment, was the true hero. Seppala subsequently became part of New England’s racing community, winning the inaugural 1929 Laconia Championship Sled Dog Derby in New Hampshire.
By the 1932 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid, dogsledding had made it onto the docket as a demonstration sport. The two-day event, run under New England Sled Dog Club rules, took place on a 25-mile course starting at Olympic Stadium. Emile St. Goddard, the only musher inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, won the gold over his longtime rival Seppala in front of huge crowds.
Mushing underwent a subtle but significant cultural transformation as the 20th century progressed. With the advent of snowmobiles, aircraft, and improved roads, the need for working dogs decreased. Racing became largely a recreational endeavor, with fewer families keeping kennels and passing the tradition and knowledge to younger generations. In Greenland, where sled dogs have been pivotal for more than 4,000 years, the number of working animals has decreased from nearly 30,000 to fewer than 15,000 since 2002. Perhaps the most famous contemporary race, the fabled Iditarod was started in 1973 to revive public interest in traditional dogsledding.
From an economic standpoint, recent decades have proven even more challenging. According to a 2007 survey by the International Sled Dog Racing Association, some 40 percent of participants invest at least $20,000 annually in their teams. The common rule of thumb is that each dog requires about $1,000 in food and veterinary bills each year.
“Some New England mushers have had a hard time finding veterinarians who can work effectively with large kennels,” says long-distance racer Sally Manikian, the owner of Shady Pines Sled Dogs in Shelburne, N.H. “This is partly a result of increasing corporate ownership of offices, which can prevent vets from providing cost-effective health care solutions.” Other expenses include equipment, such as sleds and harnesses; transport vehicles and travel to races; kennel maintenance; and race entry fees. The 2007 recession further dented the budgets of many mushers and event sponsors alike.
Dale Monette, a race-winning musher from central Massachusetts, can pinpoint when he felt the shift. Now retired, he competed nearly every winter weekend from 1972 to 1985, racing at venues throughout the Northeast. “The costs of dog food and medications skyrocketed in the late 1970s, along with gas prices,” he says. “Many people got out of the sport during the 1980s, and rising expenses were often the overlying reason. I hated to give my dogs up.” He recalls racing against crowded fields of 10-plus-dog teams, a marked contrast to the single entry at the latest Tamworth race.
As with so much related to the outdoors, another factor goes hand-in-hand with economics: climate change. Documented effects include shorter winters; fewer subfreezing days of snow cover; earlier ice-out dates on lakes; and temperature fluctuations creating icy conditions. In recent years, many races have been canceled in the Northeast and elsewhere, including Canada, the Midwest, and Colorado, although some areas, such as northern Maine, have been less affected so far.
In a 2014 interview, Dave Steele, the executive director of the International Sled Dog Racing Association, estimated that 40 percent of North American races had been impacted over the previous five years. The New England Sled Dog Club has hosted no more than two snow races in any season since 2012, a far cry from the busy schedules of winters past. Even Alaska has felt the effects: The Iditarod start line has been moved 350 miles north twice in the last five years due to weather, with an increasing number of U.S. races scrubbed entirely.
Northern Exposure Outfitters of Brookfield, Mass., once regularly held tours in central Massachusetts, drawing clients from greater Boston and Worcester. According to co-owner Briana Blomgren: “The weather has very much affected our business in recent years. With the warm temperatures and lack of snow, it has become impossible to book tours in Massachusetts, and we have had to move our base of operations for tours and training our dogs north, because it doesn’t get cool enough in the fall here anymore.”
The impacts on training extend into the off-season. Traditional northern dog breeds, such as huskies and malamutes, have little heat tolerance, and mushers generally won’t run at temperatures above 55 degrees Fahreneheit or when the combined temperature and relative humidity exceeds 120 degrees.
(The International Sled Dog Racing Association, which sanctions most races in the United States and Canada, requires mushers to adhere to a code that prioritizes animal welfare. In addition, regional clubs mandate ethical treatment as part of their bylaws. The Iditarod, which has come under fire from PETA and others, is an outlier among dogsledding, due to difficulty, time, and the vast distance covered, with no comparable races in the Northeast.)
“The window to train our dogs is becoming much shorter and more challenging,” says Emily Golumb, a veterinary medicine student entering her 11th year as a musher with Midnight Run Racing Kennel in Merrimack, N.H. “I remember years where we could start in late August or early September, but that hasn’t been possible recently. A lot of training is necessary for teams to be competitive, and I think fewer people are motivated to put in money and effort, if there are only going to be one or two races each year.”
While costs and temperatures have continued to rise, financial incentives to compete have fallen off, with event cancellations and an unpredictable economy adversely impacting sponsorships. Racing has always been a marginally profitable venture, at best, even for the most successful competitors. But at the prestigious Canadian Challenge in Saskatchewan, the winner’s purse dropped from $9,000 in 2001 to $4,500 in 2012. Decreased exposure has caused supporters to reduce or end involvement in the sport, resulting in smaller purses. Less prize money makes it harder to attract competitors and, in turn, smaller events are difficult to market to new sponsors and fans.
In the Northeast and other increasingly suburbanized locales, the development and fragmentation of wilderness areas and trail systems has also played a role. Long-distance races are especially susceptible, because they require contiguous stretches of more than 100 miles, “like charismatic megafauna impacted by habitat fragmentation,” as Manikian puts it. As a result, she sees fewer 250-milers in New England’s future: “I think there will be more 100-mile events, because they are easier to train for, don’t require a deep bench of dogs, and are more straightforward for race organizers.”
Even with its relatively short courses of 5 to 10 miles, the Tamworth competition was nearly canceled in 2018 when a landowner considered revoking trail access. Although land issues can be resolved, the increasingly frequent weather-related cancellations at Tamworth and elsewhere are beyond human control.
In spite of these challenges, many mushers are adapting to the circumstances, and, as the 2007 International Sled Dog Racing Association report concludes: “Dog sports are not diminishing, just changing.”
Many participants believe the future lies in downsized teams and simplified activities, requiring less financial commitment and training time. “People with smaller kennels are getting together to run, which makes it more affordable for many,” Blomgren says.
Skijoring (from the Norwegian for “ski driving”), or cross-country skiing with one to three harnessed dogs, is growing due to its simplicity and affordability. Most mid- to large-size dog breeds can participate, and equipment costs are low. Many competitions, including Tamworth and the International Can-Am Crown in Maine, have added skijoring races in recent years.
Dryland activities, so named because they take place on ground not covered by snow, are also on the rise. In place of sleds, dogs pull carts, mountain bikes, scooters, skateboards, or cross-country runners—known as “canicross.” Most races take the form of short sprints less than 5 miles in length. The snow-free format offers many benefits: Most healthy dogs can participate, regardless of breed or size; training is possible in parks and urban areas; and dogs can be kept in apartments or homes, without the commitment of a large kennel. And unlike today’s snow races, dryland events usually aren’t at the mercy of capricious weather.
“I personally think that, in order for this sport to stay alive, more dryland races are going to happen, based on the trends of our climate recently and what is projected for the future,” Golumb says. Likewise, Bromgren reports that Northern Exposure Outfitters is running more dryland tours in Massachusetts due to the lack of good snow.
Marla Brodsky, an award-winning dryland racer and the proprietor of Hilltown Sled Dogs in Chesterfield, Mass., who goes by the name Marla B.B., organized southern New England’s first canicross event at Notchview Reservation, in the Berkshires, in October 2018. She says canicross, already popular in Europe, is rapidly growing in the United States. Like many mushers, she regrets the effects of changing weather but has embraced dryland’s opportunities. “My business thrives during the warm months,” she says. “The tours, rides, and camps are a great way to connect young people with our huskies and to help send us to races, like the Dryland World Championships in Sweden and the Serum Run Expedition in Alaska.”
With the United States’ 2018 National Climate Assessment forecasting even milder Northeastern winters by the middle of the 21st century, there’s no sign of recent weather trends abating. But between a willingness to adapt and an undying enthusiasm, participants are determined to keep dog sports thriving.
As for the Tamworth race, organizers are tentatively looking at the last weekend in January as a potential date for 2020—“snow conditions permitting,” says Sheldon Perry, of the Tamworth Outing Club.