NH musher Sally Manikian has become a voice telling the stories of women in their isolated sportBy MELANIE PLENDA
Special to the Sunday News
November 25. 2016 5:20PM
Sally Manikian was a cat person. She didn't even like dogs, really. Until she met her first dog.
"I grew up with only cats; I had no dogs in my life as a kid," said Manikian, owner and musher for the Shady Pines sled dog team in Shelburne, the White Mountains town east of Gorham. "When I did meet a dog they barked at me, they jumped at me. I just didn't understand them.
"And then I met my first sled dog. And it made sense. It just made sense."
She fell in love with their attitudes, their work ethic and their unyielding loyalty to the team. When it came to racing, she fell in love with the solitude, the freedom and the work of it all.
Since starting her dog sled team in 2011, Manikian has risen to be one of New England's top competitive distance mushers. In recent years, she's placed fourth out of 17 teams in the 2016 Mahoosuc 100-mile race, a race she also started and organized; third out of eight in the 2015 Wilderness 70-mile race; fourth out of 11 in the 2015 Eagle Lake 100-mile race; sixth out of 15 in the 2016 Can Am Crown 250-mile race; second out of 6 in the 2015 Great NorthWoods Sleddog Challenge (Stage Stop Race) Sprint Class; and eighth in the 2016 UP200 (Upper Peninsula, Michigan).
She is also a woman. And while that fact matters not to her dogs or how she performs on the trail, Manikian is also well aware that it's still worthy of note, especially to other women.
"Women in the sport, we don't think about gender in that way," she said. "But I think most women will understand why it's important to other people watching, that they're women. I think that's the part that's really important to us in the sport. And it is about training a racing dog team. It's one of the few sports where men and women can be considered equally."
Manikian started her work with sled dogs nearly a decade ago when she worked as a guide for a local tour company for three years. In 2011, Manikian decided it was time to build her own team. She started with six dogs and has since built her team up to 15 dogs with experience ranging from, as Manikian writes in her biography, veterans to emerging rockstars to rookies.
While she said she gets help in myriad ways, when it comes to training and working with the dogs it's a solo gig.
"In an average year we cover 2,000 miles together," Manikian said. "I think there is a mentality among the dogs to work, but how you set that up is how you create the kind of way that comes out."
She also works full time for The Conservation Fund as the Vermont and New Hampshire representative. She is also the guardian and caregiver of her two disabled siblings, who live at home with her. She is a freelance writer, a former Plymouth State University adjunct professor, and a former long-time employee of the Appalachian Mountain Club's Trails Department.
And most recently she was asked to be a voice of sorts for all female mushers - a label she chafes at, by the way, preferring just to be known as a musher. To that end she developed an oral history of women in the sport titled "She's the Top Dog: Stories of Women and Their Dog Teams," which is a collection of stories from mushers from various disciplines and experience.
"I was asked first by the Museum of the White Mountains, and then by Amy Dugan for the Sled Dog Trade Fair and Seminars, to present on women and dog teams," Manikian wrote on her blog. "As I chewed on what that meant, I landed on what I felt was the bigger story, and the bigger question: What ARE the stories of women and their dog teams? I suddenly wanted to know."
She wrote that she wanted to know when they see and feel on the trail, what they learn from teammates and, yes, also what they thought about their gender.
"There is something wonderfully important about the stories told from women and their dog teams," she wrote. "The presence of women in certain roles in the world is becoming less rare and more ordinary, and in the transition from rare to ordinary I have become fascinated with the opportunity to raise up all these voices. I see the raising up as I chart the rise in signups in my local race, the Can Am 250, from zero women to 50 percent. And, I absolutely love the diversity of voices that have been showing up in this process. It has become a powerful celebration of life."
Lakes Region-based musher Jaye Foucher, president of North Country Mushers and co-founder and race director of New Hampshire's only stage race, the Great North Woods Sled Dog Challenge, told Manikian for the project that one of the intriguing things to her about the sport - and distance mushing in particular - is that so many factors go into winning, including the dogs, the training they've had, the musher's sled-handling skills, the musher's coaching and planning abilities, and the run-rest race strategy.
"Particularly in a distance race, strategy is huge," she is quoted as saying. "Then throw into that mix any of the obstacles Mother Nature can and will throw at you and it's anyone's bet as to who comes out on top. Those are the things that win or lose a sled dog race, not whether or not you're male or female."
Musher Kristin Knight Pace, of Healy, Alaska, who in 2015 finished 15th in the Yukon Quest (a 1,000-mile run), told Manikian for the project that, "What matters is how good of a dog driver you are. How you handle yourself when you get wet and cold. How good you are at building a fire and dealing with the unexpected. Nobody cares if you have boobs."
And yet, it does matter, Manikian acknowledges. She said that after the Can Am 250 in 2015, a woman whose post on Facebook about Manikian's arrival at the halfway point said, "Sally Manikian is the first woman to Camp Syl-Ver."
"For her, it mattered that I was a woman," Manikian wrote in her blog and reiterated in an interview with the Sunday News. "For me, it mattered that I was arriving in the afternoon and Martin Massicotte (the eventual winner) was still there and there was still 12 dogs on the team, and that I would be starting down the trail in daylight. When I finished the race it mattered to my friend Shannon that I was a woman, as she shared the video of my finish and said that she was so happy her daughter had so many women to look at for role models. There is a constantly shifting force at work here."
To follow Sally Manikian's adventures and learn more about her dog team, visit shadypinessleddogs.com.