Two-time winner Keith Bryar from Moultonboro starts the open class race during the annual World Championship Sled Dog Derby in Laconia on Saturday. (Thomas Roy/Union Leader)
LACONIA -- Scattered barking and an occasional howl ringing throughout the starting area at Laconia's annual sled dog derby gradually swelled to a constant clatter as the starting time approached Saturday.
The canine chorus ceased once the race was on, replaced by the muffled sounds of dozens of paws thumping along the snow while pulling the sled and driver along at a steady pace.
"This is still my favorite race," said Mike Green, a veteran musher who spent 17 years racing dog sleds in Alaska before retiring and returning to New England last year. "It's the camaraderie. A lot of memories. A lot of old-time mushers and friends you meet. This race has been going on for 85 years now. It's just special."
Green now lives in Wolcott, Vt., and wasn't about to miss getting back to Laconia for the first time since 2008. He was one of the volunteers helping mushers hitch up the teams during Laconia World Championship Sled Dog Derby, an event that dates back to 1929.
It's like the winter version of Laconia's annual Bike Week, which attracts motorcycle enthusiasts from across North America for a week of riding and celebrations.
The derby opened Friday on the trail carved out of the deep snow north of downtown, where the event used to be held. Hundreds of fans huddled along the course and cheered on the dog teams and mushers as they glided across the snow, which was packed and slick Saturday after a full day of racing and cold overnight temperatures.
A light but steady snow fell Saturday, making conditions ideal for the dogs, mushers and bundled up fans who spent the time between races interacting with the team owners and the dogs themselves at the trucks and trailers parked near to the starting zone.
"This doesn't happen at all the races. This is a novelty to have this many people coming to your truck," said musher Fran Plaisted of Orford.
Plaisted raced earlier in the day during the six-dog class and was back at her truck with a pair of six-month-old pups that aren't quite ready for racing yet but very energetic.
"Pepper," a German-shorthair pointer and huskie mix, stood on his hind legs during an extended hug with Mya Trainer, who was celebrating her 8th birthday by petting just about every dog she could.
"You know what I like a lot? Pepper. He likes me a lot," she said. "And I like the huskies because I've never seen one before."
Maria Trainer, the girl's mother, grew up in Belmont and brought her three children from Rochester, N.Y., for a family visit and their first sled dog race.
"I remember coming out with my dad when I was little with my cup of hot cocoa, watching the dogs come through and petting them," Maria Trainer said.
The competition is based on cumulative times from the three days of racing, which conclude today.
Beth LaPointe of Gilford was volunteering along with Green on Saturday. She said she's been coming to the derby for about 20 years, then learned there is always a need for people to help. She doesn't race, but loves dogs and the derby.
"There's a lot of history here and a lot of mushers will say there's a lot of dog spirit here," she said. "This is a really prideful thing for Laconia."