I’m wary of big dogs, especially those that look like wolves. So when Stephen Madera asks me to help Teddy, a 50-pound Siberian husky, get down from the kennel on the back of his truck, I’m nervous.
“He might like to use your shoulder,” Madera says. I hook a hand under Teddy’s collar and he peers down at me. His eyes are different colors, one blue, one brown, and his thick gray coat makes him look even larger than he is. He stretches his giant front paws down to my shoulder and leaps to the ground.
Following Madera’s instructions, I ease a harness over Teddy’s head. Then I guide his powerful front legs through the straps. We sprint over to a sled and I clip him in.
Madera, a local guide, has sketched out a 13-mile route for the day. Starting here, at the western edge of AMC’s Maine Woods property near Greenville, we will follow unplowed roads to Little Lyford Lodge then return along a series of ski trails. Madera often runs his dogs here, in part because most of AMC’s 80 miles of winter trails are designated for non-motorized use.
Next I help Dove #2 out of the kennel and slide her harness on. She has a pure white coat and bright blue eyes that gaze up at me as I clip her in. Suddenly she licks my cheek. My wariness of these dogs evaporates. They are gentle, if excitable, and their enthusiasm for this adventure enhances the entire experience.
Soon we have two teams harnessed—four dogs on Madera’s sled and six on the sled I’ll share with my colleague and photographer, Ryan Smith. The sled is a simple structure, like a shopping cart on wooden runners. Smith climbs into the front where he’ll start the ride enveloped in the sled’s canvas basket. Two stanchions rise behind him to support the driver’s handlebar.
Madera gives us a quick tutorial. Until now he has spoken in a soft, thoughtful tone; now, for the first and only time, he sounds anxious. The dogs yelp and howl, eager to run. He wants to get them moving. He explains the four commands. “Ready? Go!” to start and “Whoa!” to slow the team. “Gee” and “Haw” mean right and left. But before my mind absorbs this information, Madera jumps on his sled and vanishes down the opening hill.
Two steel snow hooks, roped to the sled like anchors, keep my team from following him. My heart pounding, I lean down and yank each hook from the ground and hang them from the back of the sled. I step on, one boot atop each runner, and grasp the handlebar. “Ready?” I yell. The dogs take off. We jerk forward and the crunch and squeak of the runners on the snow drown the rest of my command.
My job is simple: By commanding the dogs, pushing with my feet, and braking, I need to keep the orange main line, which connects the sled to the team, straight and taut. This will help the dogs share the load and prevent them from getting tangled in the ropes.
Teddy and Dove #1 lead the charge, followed by Digger and Ravon, then North and Dove #2. We plummet downhill. In the moment, the only instruction I can recall is the most important: Don’t run over the dogs with the sled. I slam one of my big winter boots onto the foot brake between the runners. It cuts into the snow and checks our momentum. Beyond that, I’m failing already. Teddy and Dove #1 drift right and the rest of the team follows.
“Ryan, what’s ‘Left’?”
But I can’t hear him over the rush of wind and clatter of the brake. I keep my foot pressed down. Now Digger and Ravon pull alongside the lead dogs and the main line droops between them.
“Haw! HAW!” Smith yells.
Our sled arcs right and plunges into a snow bank. We slow to a stop in the deep snow. I take a deep breath and try to relax my grip on the handlebar. Then, with a little more confidence I call out “Ready? Let’s go!” The dogs lurch forward, yanking the sled back onto the trail.
Madera, 61, has a scraggly black beard flecked with gray. The weathered creases radiating out from his eyes turn upward with every smile. He speaks lovingly about his dogs and handles them likewise. Yet he didn’t seek this career. Since arriving in Maine in 1987 he has worked with children, taught a batterer intervention course, and restored canvas canoes. He began dogsledding as an instructor with Outward Bound. Then, in 1996, a local doctor who was moving away offered his dogs and equipment to Madera. He decided to launch Song in the Woods. The name refers to the way the dogs serenade him at dinnertime.
There are many kinds of sled dogs—including malamutes, Samoyeds, Alaskan huskies, and Siberian huskies. We have five Siberians and one Alaskan, Digger, on our sled. Three of the four dogs pulling Madera are Yukon huskies. They’re not an official breed but descend from the dogs once used by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to patrol the remote northern reaches of Canada. They’re taller than the Siberians and have longer hair. Madera appreciates their more relaxed demeanor.
Though many people associate sled dogs with racing, Madera and his team do not compete. “For me it’s more about being out with the dogs and seeing nature and working as a team member,” he says. “I think rushing for deadlines—there’s enough of that in the world.”
Following our harrowing descent, the hard work begins. If the dogs slow on an uphill, I hop off and run beside the sled. On the flats I balance on one leg and push with the other. The sun overhead warms the air and softens the trail. My lungs begin to burn. But I’m also getting the hang of it. I lean out of each curve to keep the sled upright and work the brake to keep the main line taut.
Occasionally a dog gets tangled in the line and Smith jumps out to help realign the team. Eventually he joins me at the back of the sled. We take turns running alongside, and on the downhills we each balance on a runner and catch our breath.
Gradually, the dogs’ individual quirks emerge. Digger scans the forest, perhaps searching for wildlife. Dove #2 continues to endear herself to me. After each rest, she reacts to my “Ready?” command by leaping straight up. Like the Looney Tunes’ Road Runner, she starts running while in the air and hits the ground in a full sprint. Only the cartoon bird’s trademark “MEEP! MEEP!” is missing. North, the biggest of the team at 75 pounds, is stoic. His broad shoulders and haunches sway back and forth like pendulums with each wide stride.
Despite all the progress I’ve made, the dogs still won’t obey my “Haw!” or “Gee!” commands. Fortunately the team follows Madera around the sharp final turn into Little Lyford Lodge, where we’re eating lunch. We ease to a stop and chain the dogs up between trees. They look at us eagerly, and we try to give each some attention. Madera feeds them biscuits, which they devour. With their giant tongues hanging from open mouths, the dogs look like they’re smiling.
After lunch we re-harness the teams. They urge us on like your own dog might at dinnertime: first they whimper, then they bark. Except for Dove #2. Instead of accepting the harness, she rolls over in the snow and squirms playfully. “She’s crazy. I should’ve told you that,” Madera says later. The dogs clearly love the snow. Every time they roll in the powder or plunge a snout into a snowbank to get a mouthful, I laugh.
Back on the sleds, we run the dogs through camp, past the cabins, and onto the winding Lodge to Lodge Trail that connects Little Lyford to Gorman Chairback. A group of skiers stops and snaps our photo.
There’s no margin for error on the narrow trail. The West Branch of the Pleasant River flows alongside us, at the bottom of a bank to our left. We throw our bodies into each turn and through some unknown combination of lifting and pulling and pushing the sled stays on course. Everything feels faster with trees whipping by on either side. One low-hanging branch sends Smith diving from the sled. He jogs to catch up and hops back onto his runner. We’re winded from the effort but laughing.
Madera had warned us that the dogs look back if they’re unhappy with their driver. In the morning I was happy they didn’t look back in annoyance at my lack of confidence. Now I’m thrilled they’re not calling me out for my laziness. Already exhausted from the day’s effort, I’m staying on the sled farther into each uphill.
The sinking sun turns the light flat and the air cold. I feel a chill for the first time since the morning. I’m ready to kick my boots off and sip a hot drink. Even the dogs appear to be tiring.
On the final climb back to Madera’s truck, Smith points to a hole in the snowbank to our left. It’s where we ran off the trail six hours ago, a reminder of how much we’ve learned since then.
We stop at the top of the hill and begin to unfasten the dogs. I’m sad to see them vanish back into the truck. They welcomed Smith and me—two rookie dogsledders—onto their team and only complained if we asked them to stop running.
Hours later, I finally sink into bed. Everything aches—my hands from gripping the handlebar, my legs from plodding uphill through the soft snow. I close my eyes and find a familiar scene running through my mind. It’s the view I had all day, from the back of the sled: the dogs, three pairs fastened to the orange main line, trot ahead, leading me down the trail.