A canine cacophony of yips, barks, and howls rings out beneath a cold, blue winter sky. A few dozen dogs of various hues strain against their harnesses, antsy to pull the three sleds hooked up behind them.
The dogs left behind, at least for this run, prance in energetic circles and leap against the leads tethering them to their kennels. Even blind old Ray Charles, one of the retired sled dogs nearby, sprints in spirited laps around his fenced enclosure.
These dogs want to run.
I’m at Muddy Paw Sled Dog Kennel in Jefferson on a day when the temperature barely nudges above zero. Smoke from a wood-fired furnace mingles with the chill in the air. The impressive peaks of mounts Madison, Adams, and Jefferson rise beyond the kennel. The Israel River, beneath a thick blanket of snow, meanders alongside the trail the dogs and sleds will follow. Occasionally, snowmobilers pass by on the multi-use trail.
“I was just running dogs recreationally, having fun,” kennel owner Neil Beaulieu recalls about his years in Alaska. “That’s where I got into this crazy habit.”
A native of Maine, Beaulieu returned East in 2004 with 11 sled dogs. Over time he’s acquired several more: malamutes, Siberian huskies, Alaskan huskies, and mixes of these and various other breeds. They all share one thing — they love to run. Although Beaulieu did some short races years ago, since 2007 this has been a touring kennel, offering recreational dog-powered adventures for paying customers.
Muddy Paw’s collection of sled dogs has come from various places, often from other mushers who retire or can no longer afford to maintain their kennels. (Beaulieu’s job teaching physical sciences at Berlin High School and a summer rafting business both contribute to covering costs at the kennel; Muddy Paw spends upward of $100,000 each year just to feed and care for the dogs.) Occasionally, Beaulieu will breed a litter of pups.
A Muddy Paw dog is guaranteed a home for life, even when they hang up their sled dog booties, either at the kennel or adopted out to a worthy human.
“If they want to be a sled dog, and that makes them happy, that’s what they do,” Beaulieu said. “If they don’t want to be a sled dog, or they’re no longer able to do it, we adopt them out.”
How can he tell which dogs love to run and which are ready to call it quits? Watching the three mushers — Brianna Boisselle, Wesley Guerin, and Andrew Griffin — hook up the dogs for a tour, it’s clear these pups love what they do. When a dog is no longer enthusiastic about being harnessed for a run, the mushers know it’s probably time for that dog to retire.
Beaulieu and his crew start training dogs as young as nine months, and he’s had dogs happily work into their senior years. He guesses the average age of sled dog retirement is around 10 years.
Some retired dogs end up with the mushers. Neil currently has Hugger and Guinness living part-time in the house (they still love to spend most days outside), and the other mushers have four retired sled dogs at home. Over the past five years, Muddy Paw — through its partner nonprofit, NH Sled Dog Rescue, History & Education Center — has found homes for about 140 retired sled dogs.
(For more information about Muddy Paw tours and NH Sled Dog Rescue, visit www.dogslednh.com.)
The 80 working dogs outside, however, all seem to be raring to go. Their names range from famous Iditarod mushers (Seavey and King) and Alaskan towns (Juneau and Shaktoolik) to the whimsical (Pickles and Popcorn) and country music legends (Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline).
The dogs come out from their kennels when the mushers or guests approach, all wagging tails and wiggling energy, hoping for ear scratches and belly rubs. As the mushers start harnessing dogs and hitching them to the sleds, the others seem to be barking out, “Pick me. Pick me!”
The afternoon I visited the kennel, a family group mingled with the dogs, then bundled under blankets in the sleds for the pup-powered ride.
“Hike! Hike!” called the mushers, and the dogs were off, gee-ing to the right or haw-ing to the left on command, charging over the trail through a forest of snow-frosted trees, around powdery corners, up and down hills.
These dogs were born to run.
Winter Notes is published on Fridays during ski season. Contact Meghan McCarthy McPhaul at firstname.lastname@example.org.