Mush!

Mar. 30th, 2015 09:21 pm
gilana: (half)
[personal profile] gilana
[livejournal.com profile] lillibet got Aaron and myself gift certificates for a mushing lesson with Hilltown Wilderness Adventures as a Chanukah present, and we finally managed to schedule that for this weekend.We got up at 7am -- painful for poor Aaron who had Donkey Show the night before and got in around 2am. We drove out to the DAR State Forest in Goshen, MA, with a Dunkie's stop on the way, arriving just before the 11am start time. It was a great day for mushing; there had been a nice little covering of fresh snow the day before, and it was warm and sunny and above freezing while we were there.  There were about 13 of us there for the lesson.  Marla, the owner of Hilltown, arrived a little late, driving up in a dog truck lined with crates along the sides with the dogs barking up a storm.

First she brought out all 18 dogs, one by one, and told us a little about Alaskan Huskies, which have some hound bred in for speed. She introduced us to each dog, telling us a little about each one -- which litter they were from, their personality, what you could see about their breeding in them (like a little husky or greyhound), etc. Most of them were from 4 litters, bred from Iditarod champions. Then we all went around and spent a few minutes meeting each dog on our own, petting them and getting to know them, before choosing a dog to work with for the rest of the session.  I went with Tundra, a very friendly light gold 3-year-old female. She's apparently a notorious glove thief; I caught her trying to pick my coat picket for my gloves a few times, but I'm used to that from Stitch and managed to move in time.  Aaron bonded with Runt, a 7-year-old butterscotch-colored male who had been the runt of the litter, but grew to be one of the largest dogs in the pack. He was very jealous of Aaron's attention, poking him insistently any time he tried to ignored Runt too long to pet another dog.

Then Marla gathered us around 3 sleds and showed us all of the parts of the sled and harness, and taught us the voice commands that the dogs use.  There's "hike!" to start running (not that they need any encouragement), "gee" for right, "haw" for left, "on by" to pass a distraction, and "whoa" to stop.  Then we were each given a harness and put it on "our" dog. Tundra started shaking as soon as I got it on her, so excited because she knew what was coming next.

The handlers (3 of them, mostly pre-teens, but all with a surprising number of years of experience) brought the sleds over to a snow-covered path near the parking lot, then had us bring over our dog and hitch them up. They then drove the sleds about a 10 minute walk down the path to a nice clear loop, while we hiked along behind. We could tell we were almost there long before they were in sight by the excited barking of 18 dogs.  They couldn't wait to get going; we had to be stationed by our dogs, trying to keep them calm and from getting tangled in the harness.

We were divided into 3 groups for each of the 3 sleds.  Aaron and I were in the same group, and were the last two to ride. As the rest of our group took their rides, we all had jobs to do -- catching the dogs as they came in, leading them around to the starting point again, and setting and releasing the snub line and snow anchor that kept the dogs from running away with the sleds. Of the 18 dogs, there were usually 8 running on Marla's sled, which had a seat so that she rode along with the musher, and 3 or 4 on each of the other sleds, with dogs being rotated in and out as they tired. I ended up with 4 dogs on my sled, including with Tundra and Runt.

I was nervous but excited as I got ready to go.  I had to stand with all of my weight on the brake bar for quite a while as all three teams were prepared to go, and then finally we were off!  Riding a sled is a little trickier than I had imagined.  You stand one the runners behind the sled, but most of the time you have one foot on the runner and the other keeping a little weight on the drag pad, a rubber pad that drags along the snow, keeping the dogs from running *too* fast, especially downhill and around turns (as Aaron found out when he took a turn too fast and flipped the sled. Luckily, the snow anchor is designed to pop out of its holder and stop the sled if that happens, and it worked perfectly, so he managed to get himself and the sled up and running again pretty quickly.) The ride was probably only around 5-7 minutes, but it definitely felt a lot faster driving the dog team than it did standing around waiting for a team to come in!  I got the team stopped at the end of the track, handed off the sled to a trainer, and lavishly petted and praised each dog for doing a good job (which is a required part of the ride.)

Then the handlers took the sleds back and we walked back to the truck -- funny how the walk was uphill both ways, and we were definitely feeling the exertion of the day by then.  We got back, unharnessed our dogs and gave them a good back scratch to ruffle up the fur that had been under the harnesses, then gave each of them a nice turkey back as a snack.

After that the dogs were packed up, and we headed off to Worcester for dinner with some friends at Armsby Abbey, a great little place they recommended.  I had a really nice mac and cheese made from some of the farmhouse cheese they offer, and Aaron had a pulled pork sandwich with fries. We left around 7:30 and drove back to Assonet to pick up Stitch from Aaron's parents, then home around 10 at which point I pretty much fell directly into bed.

And if you've made it this far and are *really* interested, here are a few photos of me mushing.  (I have a video, too, but I can't seem to get it to post.  That might have to go on facebook.)









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