“Gee” means turn right, “haw” means turn left, and “woah” means stop — in dog sledding language, that is. These commands are just a few of the things I learned during my visit at Heywood Kennel Sled Dog Adventures at 25 Church Hill Road in Augusta.
The kennel gives educational programs, sort of a “Mushing 101,” but I was there for another reason — to interview someone for a story. Therefore, all that I learned about dog sledding that day was simply through observation, not from any formal lesson.
Nevertheless, I left the kennel with a better understanding of what dog sledding is like in Maine. For example, did you know that there’s pretty much a dog sled race (if not two) scheduled for every weekend during snow season? Most of the races are clumped into February, and in March, the race season typically starts to die down (unless lack of snow has postponed a number of earlier races). Then there’s a big finale — the Can-Am Crown International Sled Dog Races in Fort Kent, scheduled this year to start on March 1.
Instead of competing in the long-distance races of the Can-Am, Heywood Kennel sled dog teams will be headed to the Farmington sprint races, formally known as the Farmington Frolic Sprint Sled Dog Races, a series of shorter races scheduled for March 1 and 2 at Sandy River Farm.
Heywood Kennel is currently home to about 35 dogs, which maybe doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you actually see that many dogs, each with their own individual dog house — believe me, it’s a lot. And when they get excited about something and start howling and barking and yipping and whining — believe me, it’s a loud.
“It’s a full-time job,” said Kevin Quist, musher at Heywood Kennels, as I stood beside him, staring in wonderment at the dogs’ enclosure — a fenced-in area sheltered by towering pines.
While the dogs have the ability to be quite loud, what amazed me most was how silent they usually were. It must be because they’re used to living together, so they aren’t constantly barking like unacquainted dogs tend to do at kennel shops and animal shelters.
The sled dogs only start “singing” for two reasons: food or mushing. If they get the idea that it’s time for either of those things, they get excited. And each dog has it’s own sound. Some dogs bark, others howl, and a select few make unearthly noises that you’d never associate with a dog. And then, all of a sudden, it dies down to silence once more.
One thing became crystal clear to me as I watched a number of mushers select dogs for practice: The dogs love mushing. Lucky for them, they get many opportunities to do just that. Not only does the kennel compete in a number of races throughout the winter, they offer sled dog rides year round. In the summer, they simply use wheels.
During my visit, Linda Howe, owner of Heywood Kennel, offered me a sled dog ride with her son Colby Briggs, who has been mushing for several years. I sat in the bed of the sled on a thick cushion covered by a fleece blanket. When I was comfortably settled, Colby pried the snow hook (which anchors the sled in place) out of the ground, released the sled’s foot brake, and the four four Alaskan huskies lunged forward. My back pressed against the back of the sled as the dogs pulled us across frozen field.
Flint, the lead dog, responded to Colby’s commands — “gee” and “haw” — at each trail intersection, always taking the correct path. We sped up down hill and slowed down as the dogs labored uphill, their muscles straining against the harnesses that are custom-made to fit each dog perfectly. In bumpy areas and corners, I could feel my muscles tighten with a nervous excitement. In juxtaposition, on straightaways, when all was smooth sailing, I felt a deep relaxation. It was just us, the dogs and a snow-covered field.
About 10 minutes into the ride, I watched one of the dogs bend his head down and gobble up some snow.
“We call that ‘snow dipping,’” Colby said.
To end the ride, Colby yelled, “Bring it home!” And the dogs instantly sped up for a final sprint back to the kennel. Their paws kicked back chunks of hardened snow, forcing me to shield my eyes with a mitten. The cold air stung my face. Linda came into view, a camera raised, and I thought to myself, “I think I’m smiling, but I can’t feel my face.”
“They’re always excited to get back,” Colby said. “But then they want to turn around and go back out again.”