Mark Twain once said “Climate is what we expect, weather is what we get.” Of course any vacation dependent on weather will not go according to plan. Our dogsledding experience was no exception. But amor fati! “Fate leads the willing and drags along the reluctant.” We went willingly through the changes and had an amazing weekend with the Mahoosuc Guide Service.
Dog sledding needs snow, right? Riding on a pond needs cold to freeze the water, right? It seems you can get too much of each for an arctic vacation. Deep snow that isn’t packed well can hinder the little dog legs and create enough pressure on lake ice to break it, cause slush, and make conditions unsafe. Sadly we weren’t able to camp in sub zero temperatures. But we did dog sled, ski, and snowshoe in temps well below freezing! In fact we weathered the biggest Maine storm in decades when over a foot of the white stuff dropped on us. Are we sad we didn’t rough it? Of course! But are we happy we got to sleep in a cabin warmed by a wood stove while being served great food by amazing people? You’d have to be stupid not to be happy. Let me introduce these great folks.
The co-owner and mastermind of the operation is Polly. She has Bob Ross’s calming voice, Mr. Rogers’s warmth and concern, my mentor Jan’s sharpness and wit, and looks a bit like Glenn Close. She’s an expert horse rider, has driven dogs in Alaska and from Norway to Sweden, and can pretty much do anything. She’s lived all over the states but has been at this ranch for over 30 years, long enough to build two lodges and a solid business. She’s been the subject of many articles in newspapers and magazines including The New York Times.
Kevin is the other owner and Polly’s long time partner. They met while Kevin was running an Outward Bound program and was trying to hire a dogsled instructor. He reminds me of Scrooge McDuck in the Disney Christmas Carol after the ghosts change his attitude but before he reveals that to the Cratchets. He’s sweet, nice and understanding inside a rough exterior. He takes a good 20 seconds to respond to any question as if he needs to think of the perfect answer. He looks like the illegitimate child of Ernest Hemmingway and Orson Welles. Here he is dropping some wisdom on Jen.
Kevin is also an amazing woodworker. He built a good portion of the lodges, made our sleds, and makes the canoes they take on their summer guide trips. He also gives lessons on how to make these canoes. He reminds me a lot of a grumpy, high school Social Studies teacher that is everyone’s favorite.
There was a wonderful woman named Becca who cooked many of our meals and shared dog chores but I failed to get a picture of her. I did get a few of Auden though, the guide service apprentice. He studied wildlife biology in college and is passionate about nature, especially wolves and coyotes. They typically employ 3 apprentices to do all of the work but unfortunately for Auden he was by himself. He cooked, cleaned, ran the trails, got everything ready…for a guy who weighs maybe a buck twenty, he’s a work horse. I’m positive he’ll end up saving a species someday.
On our first day we were able to have very warm showers before a breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, and incredible pumpkin muffins. Then we bundled up in our thousand layers including borrowed Mickey Mouse boots, gaiters, and parkas. I was wearing long underwear, ski pants, wool sweater, snow pants, fleece zip up, mittens, and the parka. I wasn’t ever cold on this trip.
Dr. Jen was similarly outfitted. She runs hot so she actually had to lose layers throughout our adventure.
Let me talk about Mickey Mouse boots for a second. Of course “mouse” boot is a nickname given for their appearance. They are the best and worst footwear I’ve ever had. They are super comfortable and ultra warm. My feet were never cold and never hurt even in thigh deep snow drifts. These particular army surplus models were from the Korean war. Many had air valves as they were worn by gunners in unpressurized planes. This kept the boot from constricting or expanding too much. So what’s bad about them? They are heavy. Not just a little heavy, I’m talking cement shoes heavy. Each boot (not pair) weighed over 5lbs. Add the weight of snowshoes and the snow kicked up from the foot-deep piles and you have leg pains. Massive, massive leg pains. Here is a picture of them next to the warm Docs I wore on my cattle drive.
After we were prepped for the cold, our first and most important piece of business was meeting the dogs! They are well cared for and it shows. They are sweet and surprisingly calm in their pens. Though we shouldn’t have favorites, everyone does. One special dog was Jiminy Cricket. He was bullied by his sister Erin when they were pups and as such was the shyest. We were told to approach him last. Where many of the other dogs relished being pet and kept hitting us with paws to keep us with them, Jiminy avoided us a bit.
The size difference between the males and females made them look like separate breeds. Jiminy was one of the larger males. Winning him over felt like such a rewarding victory.
Amber was another that I would love to steal. She was so majestic and relaxed. She loved attention but didn’t beg for it like others. With her coloring, posture, and demeanor, she reminded me of Swift from David the Gnome. She was the alpha female of the pack. The first day of sledding she was left behind to rest since she’s on the older side. Apparently she howled the entire time we were gone. These dogs love to work and she was upset she didn’t get to go.
The alpha male was Teslin and he was perhaps the most handsome dog I’ve ever seen. Like Amber, he loves attention, but doesn’t beg for it. He was the first dog I saw approaching the kennel and I was hit hard by the dignity he showed.
One of our guides told me he was a goof but I couldn’t believe that. I was proved wrong on our ride when he buried his head in the snow and started to roll around like a maniac.
One of my best buddies in life is named Brandon (code name: Beez Nutz) so I had to get a photo with one of my new best buddies.
Olga was one of the hardest workers and one of the sweetest in the pack!
I didn’t get pictures of all the 20+ dogs but I want to show Shawnee. She was trained by Amber and was the lead dog on our second ride. She is extremely obedient and strong.
After meeting the dogs we had a decision to make. The trails were too deep for the dogs so we could try cross country skiing or snowshoeing. Dr. J’s first experience with skiing wasn’t positive and neither of us had shoed before, so we went with that.
She liked it a lot more than skiing and is eager to do it again. I hated it. I was so sore after climbing up to Step Falls that for the rest of the trip, while wearing the mouse boots, I had to use my arms to lift my legs into vehicles. I was a good sport and agreed to some nice pictures by the falls. Of course it just looked like a snowy field as the stream was frozen and covered in a foot of the white stuff.
Check out how deep this was as we walked back to the barn. Damn that was hard stuff. Damn I’m out of shape.
That night we watched a movie and found out our guide Polly is a movie star! The movie Never Cry Wolf used her dogs in the sledding scenes and she was the stunt double driving the team at the start of that scene. She never made it into the credits. I demand Disney change this! Make it right, Disney!
Saturday fell on National Ice Cream For Breakfast day. We had intended to be at camp that day, so Jen made ice cream arrangements. She made snow ice cream!
It came out great and had a fantastic vanilla ice cream taste and texture.
It went perfect with our blueberry ploye breakfast! What a great way to start the day!
After lunch, Kevin went to check the lake and trail to see if we could sled it and still have one night camping. Polly offered us a short ski or snowshoeing trip. As I mentioned, I do not like snowshoeing, at least not in mouse boots. So we enjoyed a nice morning skiing a nearby trail.
I’m so much better at that than snowshoeing. You just glide along, it takes little effort, and I hardly ever fall. Dr. J liked skiing a bit more this time as it was better conditions and a more supportive environment. Polly is the G.O.A.T.
After lunch we learned we wouldn’t be camping out. The lake wasn’t safe to drive on. Fortunately the other trail that we were just skiing on was in decent condition. The dogs hadn’t been out for 2 days and were stir crazy. When we started loading them up, they bolted to the trucks!
Hamish was Kevin’s strongest dog. Little Erin lead his train and was the hardest for me to control, but Hamish was the anchor. He was calm, large, and all muscle.
He doesn’t move as fast as the other dogs, but to paraphrase Scorsese, “Hamish may have moved slow, but it was only because Hamish didn’t have to move for anybody.” Both sleds tipped at one nasty bend on our first ride, it was Hamish that pulled mine out.
The dogs nestled into their respective spots in the truck and most calmed down a bit. They were obviously excited but willing to wait a little longer.
Erin and Rory are Kevin’s two trouble makers. As I said, little Erin nearly pulled me down each time I had her leash. She’s also the one that picked on poor Jiminy when they were pups. You can tell these two are trouble.
It’s hard to be angry with them when they’re so happy though.
It’s even harder when they’re cute from being worn out after a run. Same dogs in the same spot a few hours later:
What could make these dogs so tired? Shooting off into the winter wonderland like mentos in a Diet Coke!
You can see the dogs slow down from time to time. Occasionally a dog would run a bit weird or a tail might go up and we have to stop for a potty break. What do the other dogs do? To cool down they bury themselves in the snow and eat as much of it as possible.
Our last day we got a longer ride. We took the same trail but went out a lot further. Before turning around to head back we made a lunch camp. First the dogs were put onto lines in little trenches off the trail where they could cool off and rest. Once tied in, they let us know they were very hungry!
Each got a delicious egg for lunch! After the pups ate and got some “business” done, Polly and Auden went around with the “poop shovel” and cleaned the place up. Then Kevin and I sprinkled around hay for the dogs to nest in. God I love Amber!
Auden made us some great soup over a fire he started.
They taught us how to toast bagels on a fire. Mine actually came out really well except for the small bit that caught fire. I think Jen had more success.
It was really windy and hard to keep the fire going but it was a fun little lunch. Eventually we had to go back to the lodge. We broke camp, rode back, and began to say our goodbyes. We already miss Polly, Kevin, Auden, Becca, and the dogs. Polly’s hug goodbye and telling us we’re part of the family was heartwarming. We’re hoping that we can go on their next cultural trip in Canada once the pandemic is over.
For those that think these folks don’t love their dogs, I have two things for you. First they’re told by their accountant that their retirement village is a bad investment. Yep, when the dogs can’t pull anymore or are just too old, they retire to an indoor area beneath their house to live out the remainder of their lives. They’re brought out to the yard a few times a day but mostly get to lounge around. They could adopt the dogs out but Polly says it would be like kicking out family that helped her run the business.
Second please look at their “Memorial garden.”
Over the years dogs pass away but they are never forgotten. They walk or drive past this area multiple times a day. They have family trees of the dogs in the office and these wonderful signs out back.
A thank you shout-out to our four-legged friends in no particular order:
Amber, Teslin, Rory, Erin, Shawnee, Bjorn, Brandon, Jiminy Cricket, Olga, Oona, Moya, Layla, Shioban, Turlough, Hamish, and Seamus…forgive me if anyone got left out! I never met the retirees.
To end on a high note, we did have a few stops on the way home. We saw the World’s Largest Candy Counter…through the window of the closed store. It looked very nice though. We also saw the location of one of the first and most documented alien abductions! Barney and Betty Hill were taken by some space dudes and I got to see the gas station that now memorializes their probing (my words, not theirs).
Hopefully tomorrow I can get all of today’s adventures out. We’ll see what happens, lots of driving…tired..yadda yadda