CONTOOCOOK, N.H. — The region’s first measurable snowfall is likely weeks away, but the upcoming mushing season kicked off last weekend with the 14th annual Northern New England Sled Dog Trade Fair and Seminars.
Organized by a trio of Maine mushers, the event drew close to 500 sled dog racers, enthusiasts and fans to the Hopkinton Fairgrounds in New Hampshire in a driving rainstorm to hear talks by 2009 Yukon Quest champion Sebastian Schnuelle, 2009 Can Am Crown 250 champion Matt Carstens, nationally renowned race veterinarian Dr. Jerry Vanek and World Cup dryland racer Johnn Molburg.
“The whole weekend was just awesome,” said Amy Dugan of Mountain Ridge Equipment in Shirley. “It couldn’t have gone better, [and] in spite of the rain we had a great turnout.”
Dugan, together with Lucille Murphy of Maine Made Dog Sleds in Vassalboro and Faye Krause of Pinetree Knits in Lebanon, plan all year for the two-day event.
“We do this for the love of dogs, and we all know what it was like when we were the newcomers to the sport,” Murphy said. “Back then there were no exhibitions or any kind of venue besides racing where you could pick other mushers’ brains or get information on equipment.”
Dugan agreed, saying when she and her husband John Osmond began mushing, they were alone and knew of no one else in the sport or how to get hold of any reliable information.
“That’s the problem, mushers are so isolated anyway and we are so spread out,” Dugan said. “It’s a wonderful idea to hold an event like this.”
The original idea for the trade fair came from Krause, who organized the first event in 1995.
“This is just sheer dog insanity,” Krause said with a wide grin as she watched mushers file into the trade fair, many walking sled dogs on leashes. “This is such a great opportunity for mushers to learn something new and to interact with other mushers.”
Among the big draws this year was the presence of Schnuelle and his talk on training to run distance races like the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod, in which he placed second in 2009.
“I enjoy very much the social aspect of events like this,” Schnuelle said. “It doesn’t matter if a person runs the Iditarod or a 30-mile race, it all makes for a good story at the end of the day.”
Schnuelle, who took time to speak to dozens of mushers informally, said he’s happy to share his own perspectives on training and the sport, but ultimately each dog driver has to determine what works best for them.
“This is what is so good about a show like this,” he said. “There is a lot of networking and opportunity to see new gear and equipment.”
Schnuelle currently has 38 huskies in his Whitehorse, Yukon, kennel and is training 24 for the upcoming race season.
Among the exhibitors this year was Gary Chapman of Critterwoods in Corinth with his steel snow hooks he said are designed to turn and dig into the snow even without the musher’s help.
“This hook always wants to land feet first and dig in,” Chapman said. “It will hold in almost anything.”
Chapman said it’s the camaraderie shared among mushers that keeps him coming to the trade fair.
“They get to come to one place under one roof and see new equipment and get new ideas,” he said. “Mushing is such a great sport, [and] it’s an exercise thing that gets you and your dog outside staying healthy — what’s better than that?”
Across the aisle Bruce Swan of Kingdom Bound Kennels in Springfield was chatting with mushers about his specially formulated fishmeal supplement.
“I come every year,” Swan said. “I just like hanging around people who like to mush.”
Over the years the trade fair has afforded Swan the opportunity to meet top mushers like Dee Dee Jonrowe, Lance Mackey and now Schnuelle.
“That’s pretty cool,” he said. “When I started in this sport I felt like I was all alone, so this type of event gives us all the opportunity to learn from each other.”
Organizers said it’s the volunteer help they receive from people that really makes the annual event possible — including the many speakers who waive their regular speaker’s fee.
“I feel very appreciative of the generosity of all speakers we’ve had over the years who have given their time over the years,” Dugan said. “It’s amazing.”
Over at the Mountain Ridge booth, a steady stream of mushers was quizzing Dugan and John Osmond about their harnesses, gang lines, booties and other gear.
Makenna Harris, 13, was attempting to harness Jumar, a Border collie owned by Liz Graves.
“She is looking to buy a harness, and Jumar needs some more experience having harnesses put on him,” Graves said as the young dog stood stoically for the fitting.
Other exhibits included everything from cutting edge carbon fiber sleds to headlamps to clothing to wheeled carts for offseason training.
Mushers congregated outside in the heavy rain to admire puppies and different configurations for hauling dogs and gear on trucks.
“It’s just a joy to talk dogs for 48 hours,” Murphy said.