MUSHING WITH MAHOOSUC

The ingredients for a luxurious spring mushing trip are numerous, varied, and – in our decadent opinion – all critical. First, take thirty amped sled dogs, add some experienced mushers, clear skies, and a Brazilian bikini model (this last ingredient is optional, but based on our experience, highly recommended). To this hearty stew, add the full spectrum of “necessities” for an extended arctic trip, and simmer in the April sun for four weeks. Indeed, for the month of April, the North Slope became our backyard, our dog yard, our hunting grounds, and our playground. The dogs’ enthusiasm was contagious, as they sensed that the long days cruising the spring crust would soon be the endless days of summer.The trip was borne out of the revelation that spring snow and light conditions in the arctic (and a lead dog named Silver) would allow for extensive off-trail exploration and late season training. Shallow snow, containing hard wind slabs capped by forthcoming melt crusts, made trail-breaking easier than in the Interior. The additional light made it possible to start runs late in the afternoon, or even during the brief “night.” Without any trees to hit, novices could ride the runners without having a life-threatening experience. This was important, as part of the function of the camp was to offer the wilderness mushing experience to supporters of Brent Sass and the Wild and Free Mushing kennel.Brent Sass, Thom Walker, and Mariana Pertel spent the first five days running dogs, shuttling massive cargo loads twelve miles from the road to camp. Once the gear was moved to the camp, Sass and Walker built dog shelters out of snow slabs, created a solarium out of ice blocks, constructed an outhouse throne with a staggering Brooks Range view, and erected four wall tents with woodstoves. Thirty cases of duralogs made the effective latitude inside the tents down around tropical. Mariana (the Brazilian) felt right at home. A flagpole made of ski poles and duct tape hoisted the Alaska flag over the newborn arctic base camp. That was the scene greeting me when I arrived at camp on skis in mid-April. But in fitting with the luxury mode, instead of making the distance from the Haul Road under my own power, I was pulled behind Sass and a 14-dog team, connected to them by 2 skijoring bungees and a harness. It was skijoring on steroids! It had been a couple years since we’d tried “ski-mushing,” as we called it. Back then, Sass and the dogs and I were pretty green (I had never even skijored), but we managed forty-plus miles per day in the White Mountains and off-trail in Denali. Behind 7 dogs and a musher that were just starting their careers, I got my share of exercise, and was thankful that the team wasn’t any stronger. Let’s just say that there were a few dramatic yard sales in my wake, particularly before the quick-release was standard equipment. Open stream crossings and steeply inclined frozen seepages come to mind.The improvement from the old dogteam and musher to the new was like the difference between March and April on the North Slope: night and day. The 14-dog team was seasoned from a winter of running recreationally and competitively, followed by several weeks of lengthy forays across the Slope. Being pulled behind the powerful team and musher, following caribou and mirages across an endless lunar landscape, it occurred to me that perhaps this event should be considered “The Real Arctic Man.”Back at camp, despite having the matriarch (Willow), 4 puppies, and a cat loose amongst 25 chained dogs, the general sense of order was astonishing. As spring marched on, caribou antlers slowly accumulated to decorate the solarium, and radiant warming soared during the day. Reclining beach chairs and suntan lotion appeared, dogs and humans turned lazy, and our skin – fish white from a Fairbanks winter – met the sun en force. Everyone in camp started to look like our token Brazilian, at least in skin color. It was no Rio de Janeiro; it was our Rio de Gelo (River of Ice). The snowy paradise – the beach vacation of the arctic – had been realized. Visitors to camp who braved the unpredictability of the Slope were rewarded with a choice between long runs behind the dogs and snoozing in the solarium covered in a blanket of puppies. Brent mushed almost every day of the trip, and his caribou harvests kept caribou stir fry, stroganoff, and fajitas on the cook-tent table, while dogs feasted on the bones. Thom’s assortment of homemade baked goods (augmented by bagels and bread from Lu Lu’s Bakery in Fairbanks) was truly astounding, to the point that typical wilderness food fantasies became a thing of the past. For those of us who don’t regularly use dogs to access the wilderness, it is always a surprise to be replete.And so, let’s not forget the dogs. “Of the dogs, for the dogs, and by the dogs” is an appropriate phrase to describe our appreciation of their contribution. The camp was ultimately an opportunity for the dogs and mushers to maintain focus and fitness. A welcomed consequence was that the dogs transformed an otherwise bleak and cold trip into our comfortable home. Nestled in our warm tents, or basking in the solarium, we often raised our glasses to the dogs who made it all possible.An old girlfriend of mine gravitated toward the generic beach vacation, and on that point we actually agreed: beach vacations are easy and relaxing. But she wasn’t so interested in the psychological adventure – or patchwork hygiene – offered by the wilderness. This spring, the arctic bore witness to an excursion she would’ve enjoyed: A fusion of wilderness inspiration and beach decadence, at the Rio de Gelo headquarters. Next year, instead of your annual cruise in the Caribbean (because so many Mushing readers take Caribbean cruises), cruise the arctic in April…and don’t forget the Brazilian, or the quick release! The Tours:Mahoosuc Guide Service runs guided sled dog tours that range from 1 day to 5 day trips in northern Maine, to multi day wilderness mushing and camping adventures in Northern Quebec. Co-owner Kevin Slater and Polly Mahoney are licensed “Master Maine Guides” and have been guiding tours for over 25 years. Kevin and Polly tailor each outing to suit the client’s desired level of participation. “Our trips are very participatory, even our day trips. Sometimes we have clients driving their own sleds on their first time out!” Polly said. “After a thorough lesson about commands, positions of dogs, how to deal with tangles, sled handling, etc.” Kevin adds.One of the special points about a guided sled dog tour with Mahoosuc, is that each trip, is owner guided. Kevin and/or Polly are there for every outing. “When a client has their own team, either Kevin or I are ahead on the trail with our team in case the driver needs help.” Polly explains. The Dogs: Mahoosuc uses a type of sled dog they refer to as “Yukon Huskies.” Kevin explains that “some of our dogs’ bloodlines go back to Yukon dogs that were used by the Canadian RCMP in Northwest Canada, around the village of Old Crow. One of the male progenitors was a Mackenzie River Husky, a breed well know for size, fur and pulling strength.”Kevin says “The difference between these huskies and say, Iditarod racing dogs, is these are bigger, leggier and have more fur. They are closer to the old “trapline” dogs. We find it is more efficient to have teams of 4-5 bigger dogs, than a bigger team of smaller dogs. This size team can pull one or two people per sled and all the gear we need for winter camping. We usually go out with 5 teams total on each trip. All of our dogs were raised by us from puppies, and all of their ancestors were born in our yard going back about 30 years. They are mostly all one big family, but we bring in some new bloodlines once in a while to maintain genetic diversity.” The highlight of Mahoosuc’s winters are their trips in Northern Quebec where they employ local Cree and Inuit guides. Some of these trips are fly-in only, and the Inuit guides use their own dog teams. There is an opportunity for people to try “country” food such as caribou, moose, beaver and arctic char.“Partnering up with the natives became a real good idea, and evolved into a great mutual relationship. We work with just 4 native families, and by doing this we help them keep traditional skills alive,” Kevin says. “Some of the families have gone on to start their own guiding services after being introduced to the business by us. Guiding is one of the few wage jobs a native can do in the North that reinforces rather than erodes traditional cultural values. It also makes for a very rich cultural experience for our clients,” he adds.Polly and Kevin also tell me, “Every year we take on a couple people as apprentices who are interested and eager to learn about dog sledding, traditional style winter camping and running a small business.”

Mushing.com

PO Box 1394
Nome, Alaska 99762 USA

Phone: (907)434-1541

www.mushing.com