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Born to pull

1/22/2010

PUNDERSON STATE PARK, Ohio — With all due respect to Al Gore and his home movie, North America is in the grips of the coldest winter in recent memory.

Yet a certain group of superb athletes couldn't be happier about the chilling temperatures: sled dogs. And whenever they're happy, their owners/drivers are ecstatic.

"These are nearly perfect conditions for dog-sledding," said Don Pizmoht of Chardon, Ohio. He was referring to the two feet of lake-effect snow, temperature in the teens, and wind chill near zero January 9-10 at Punderson State Park, located about 20 miles south of Lake Erie and 30 miles east of Cleveland.

Sponsored by the Siberian Husky Club of Greater Cleveland, Pizmoht and some 60 other sled-dog teams from various states were at the park, competing in the Punderson Classic Sled Dog Race.

The winning teams split $1,000 in prize money, but the weekend seemed more about the dogs, camaraderie with fellow mushers, and the just plain thrill of dog-sledding rather than serious competition. After all, a few hundred dollars doesn't go very far these days when racing and maintaining a kennel full of sled dogs.

"We do it for fun," said Pizmoht, who has raised and raced huskies for the past dozen years with his wife, Phyllis.
Together, the couple maintains eight dogs at their Husky Hobbies kennel, racing six of them, the other two dogs being retired.

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"We're more recreational dog-sledders than serious competitors," the Pizmohts said. "We're just out here to have a good time."

One musher who was serious about competing was young John Michael Munro, age 16, of Hartsgrove, Ohio. A musher for the past three years, this was only Munro's third organized race, and he won the four-dog open class.
Asked what he likes about the sport, he grinned and said, "It's fun ... because you go fast!"

How fast? A competition sled-dog team in top shape can reach sustained speeds approaching 20 mph.

Ohio is on the southern fringe of dog-sledding country in the U. S., but two competitors showed up at the race from even farther south, Virginia. Because of a dearth of snow in the Old Dominion State, friends Ron Gagne and Frank Wright train their huskies by having them pull a wheeled, dry-land rig instead of a sled, the device looking something like a large tricycle.

However, the pair can't get in as much training as the more northern mushers because temperatures must be below 50 degrees before they can begin conditioning their huskies in the fall. Otherwise, it's just too hard on the dogs; the heavily-furred canines overheat.

"These dogs are basically athletes, marathon runners," Gagne said. "So after a summer layoff you have to gradually work them back into shape by putting miles on them to build up their legs and their pulling muscles again. If you don't, it would be like you or me trying to run a marathon after sitting on the couch all summer."

Surprisingly, the word "Mush," when referring to dog-sledding, is more a Hollywood term than reality. When drivers today want to signal their teams to begin pulling, they use the word "Hike," repeated several times, very excitedly: "Hike! Hike! Hike! Hike … !"

Once on the trail, drivers speak to their teams occasionally, offering words of encouragement. "Come on, Shasta. Pick it up, Charlie … "

The race was open to all sled-dog breeds, not just Siberian huskies. Many dogs at the race were Alaskan huskies, which are Siberians crossbred with greyhounds or other breeds to lengthen their legs and increase their running ability and speed.

One unusual breed competing was a team of four Airedales, large, curly-haired, brown and black terriers. A woman musher, Sally Dawson of Burton, Ohio, is their owner and driver.

"I got into dog-sledding seven years ago because I had a pet Airedale who really needed a job to do," Dawson said. "It's unusual to have Airedales pulling a dog sled, but I'm not the first to own mushing Airedales. They're intelligent, high-energy dogs that need a lot of exercise. They don't mind the cold, and we have a lot of fun together."

Sled-dog racing is not a cheap sport. Modern-day dog sleds can cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars to more than a thousand dollars, depending upon their features, weight, and construction. But by the time you raise or buy dogs, figure in veterinarian bills, pay for dog food, equipment, and travel expenses, etc., you'll likely be well in the hole compared to what you might win in prize money.

For those who participate in the sport, however, they're paid back with the unconditional love they receive from their dogs and the beauty and solitude of a snowy winter trail. For them, dog-sledding is as much a lifestyle as it is a hobby.

Someone who has made mushing his lifestyle since 1991is Cliff Maxfield, maintaining some 40 sled dogs in Wisconsin and Ohio kennels.

"I took my first sled-dog ride at age seven and was hooked," Maxfield said.

Being the veteran he is, Maxfield recounted several stories, including a humorous tale about dog-sledding in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of northern Minnesota, a region famous for heavy snows.

"There was about nine feet of light, fluffy snow on the ground and as much as 13 feet piled up in the drifts," Maxfield said. "When it gets that deep, you have to pack down the snow and break trail for the dogs by wearing snowshoes.

"Anyway, one of my dogs needed attention, so I stepped off the trail to attend to him — forgetting that I didn't have my snowshoes on at the time — and sank into snow over my shoulders. By the time I stopped sinking I was actually looking up at my dog, the husky reaching down to lick my face," Maxfield said. "But that's what dog-sledding is really all about — spending time in the winter woods with a team of your best friends."

W. H. "Chip" Gross is a professional outdoors writer and photographer from Fredericktown, Ohio, and frequent contributor to ESPNoutdoors.com. He can be reached for comment about this story through his Web site: www.chipgross.com.