(Host) When people think of sled dogs, they typically think of Alaska. But in Vermont, there are close to 100 dog mushers. Beginning in December, many of them will load up their custom-fitted dog trucks and make the rounds to nearly 30 races from Pennsylvania to Maine.
More than 200 mushers and fans braved ice, sleet and rain last weekend in Waitsfield for what turned out to be an abbreviated running of Vermonts largest race – the New England Regional Championship.
VPR’s Alexei Rubenstein reports:
(Sound of dogs howling.)
(Rubenstein) The muddy farm field off Route 100 is filled with dogs and trucks. Siberian huskies tied to bumpers, Alaskan huskies curled up in the straw, and the newest trendy sled dog – pointers.
While race organizers are offering a total purse of $5,000 for several events, no one is here just for the money. These mushers don’t just like dogs. They love dogs. Nancy and John Mulberg who are in their fifties, drove up from Central Pennsylvania with their dogs. They raced in Germany last weekend:
(Mulberg) “It’s just part of the circuit. Every weekend from December 15, we’ve been somewhere racing. We haven’t taken a weekend off till the middle of March. It’s our lifestyle. We’re nuts.”
(Rubenstein) Many mushers say they come for the close camaraderie the sport engenders. They love to talk with each other and their fans about their dogs. Joe Camino’s truck is surrounded on all sides by pointers – a spotted, houndish breed:
(Camino) “That brown one there is what you’d call an Alaska husky, primarily. There’s a little bit of pointer – about an eighth pointer – and that pointer would be German short hair and English pointer. Then starting here on this end here, this is a female. She’s a quarter English pointer, a quarter German short haired pointer and half Alaskan husky.”
(Rubenstein) All eyes are on Doug Butler, the 48 year-old two-time champ from New Haven, Vermont. Butler brought along 34 dogs for the weekend and, with his son Casey, plans to compete in most of the classes.
The open class, a 12.3-mile race with a maximum of 14 dogs, is Butler’s premier event. He dropped in the rankings at last weekend’s race in Laconia – the super bowl of the mushing season. He’s hoping for a better showing here. But with the rough trail conditions, he has his concerns:
(Butler) “This snow is like sugar snow and it has granules of ice balls in it and that’s hard on the dogs’ feet. We’re praying that snow comes in tonight and makes a smoother, nicer trail for the feet tomorrow. But there’s nothing we can do – just wait and see what happens.”
(Rubenstein) The ski jorers are the first to race. Skiers are attached by harness to one-to-three dogs and start at one minute intervals. Spectators line both sides of the starting chute to cheer. Janice Manning and her husband drove from Barre to watch:
(Manning) “Well we’ve just got very interested in dog sled racing. We have a friend that races and we’ve been over to New Hampshire at the races. And we met Jeff King’s wife up in Alaska when we were there, went to the sled dog exposition and I just think it’s real interesting.”
(Rubenstein) As the day progresses, the weather turns to sleet and rain. Keith Bryar of Moultonboro, New Hampshire captures the best time in the prized open division by beating the reigning champ, Doug Butler’s time, by over a minute.
(Bryar) “The dog team performed very well. We’ve had a great season again this year. We were surprised we won by the margin we did, because I knew there were a lot of good teams out there. We just had a super clean run and they really stoked it coming home.”
(Rubenstein) Sunday morning begins with rain and trail conditions the consistency of mashed potatoes. Doug Butler, who hoped to grab the lead in the open division with a better time, looks out at the driving rain.
(Butler) “These conditions are tough when it warms up like this, when we get rain and the trail gets soft. It’s real tough on the dogs. This changes the whole game – this race, I’m afraid, is in question whether we’re going to run this afternoon or not.”
(Rubenstein) With the rain becoming a downpour race official Craig Cousins makes the announcement that many had anticipated.
(Cousins) “All right people due to what we’ve seen in the first class we sent out. We’ve seen some bloody feet, we’ve seen some punching through, we’ve seen conditions that we deem that aren’t safe for the dogs, and that’s what were here for. So at this point, we’re going to cancel the remainder of today. We tried, but Mother Nature beat us today.”
(Rubenstein) Weather permitting, the mushers and their dogs will return for another try next year.
For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Alexei Rubenstein in Waitsfield.