Dog Sledding With Braeburn Siberians: Go For a Ride
Dec 08, 2011 01:29PM
● By Erin Frisch
The Best View in the WorldIt’s not easy keeping up with Katharine Bennett and her husband Alex MacLennan, let alone their team of Siberian huskies. It’s a perfect winter morning, and we’re on top of a mountain along Vermont and New Hampshire’s shared border. On today’s two-hour dogsled ride, Kathy says we’ll cross through a nature preserve, traveling a series of forested trails that open into a meadow.
Kathy is unabashed about her love for her dogs—and for the outdoors. “There are so many different kinds of snow conditions,” Kathy explains. “If you’re running on a packed trail with two to four inches of cold, fresh, untracked powder—close your eyes. All you can hear is the breathing of the dogs, and the quiet hiss of the runners in the snow.” “It’s a little bit like sailing,” Alex adds, “and hearing the lapping of the waves and the creaking of the boat.” They both agree it’s even better at night, with or without a moon.
I try to imagine how spectacular this already beautiful place would be at night, but the dogs bring me back to the present. Their excitement is contagious, and I don’t put up any resistance. As Kathy and Alex harness the dogs and hook them into the team, the dogs are turning back and looking, pawing, rolling in the snow, sitting, jumping, standing, climbing on one another, playing, and shaking their coats and their heads.
They are spectacular animals. Their thick, heavy winter coats range in color from white to light honey to caramel to every shade of gray and black. Their markings, especially on their faces, read like a cross between war paint and the carefully applied makeup of a young starlet. A sea of blue eyes sizes me up, but there are plenty of brown eyes, too, and a couple of dogs have the distinctive blue-eye, brown-eye pairing. “The Siberian husky has a magical, even mystical and primitive quality that is captivating,” Kathy says. Someone once told her that “a Siberian husky is like a potato chip. You can’t have just one.”
How It Started
For Kathy and Alex, it all began when Kathy’s daughter Elizabeth, who was a fourth grader at the time, wanted to learn how to dogsled. Elizabeth convinced her mother of her commitment to this idea and they found a mentor and sled dogs she could learn from. Elizabeth dove in, doing everything from cleaning kennels to grooming to driving. Kathy was impressed by her daughter’s hard work and devotion to the dogs. “In the summer of 2004 we adopted two trained Siberian husky leaders so they could train us—literally.” They soon acquired three more dogs and Elizabeth began racing. Braeburn Siberians was born. The name comes from the Scottish words “brae” and “burn,” for the hill and stream next to the kennel—in recognition of Kathy and Alex’s Scottish heritage, and after the checkpoint “Braeburn” in the great Yukon Quest 1,200-mile dog sled race. The race holds special meaning for Alex and Kathy; it was run by their initial mentors, Ann and George Cook of Alka’siber Siberians.
Kathy became the handler, the pit crew, and cheerleader. After that first winter, they acquired enough dogs so they both could race. “It was a mother-daughter team, “ Kathy says, “but we couldn’t have done it without Alex.” On her birthday in March 2006, Kathy raced for the first time. “And I was smitten,” she says. “It was one of the top 10 highs of my life.” By then, they were up to a dozen dogs. “I was addicted,” Kathy says, laughing.
They began breeding to build their team, selling some puppies to approved homes. Alex provided critical backup support and then began running the dogs in 2008-09. “Initially I started going along for the ride,” Alex says. “But you begin to develop a connection. They become a part of your life; you become a part of theirs.”
Hold On Tight
This morning, Kathy and Alex move among the dogs, making adjustments to the lines, talking, coaxing, encouraging, and disciplining. “There is an interdependent relationship with the dogs,” Kathy says. “It’s very essential,” Alex says. “Imagine a 2 am training run and you’re 20 miles from civilization. It doesn’t get more basic than that.”
They never raise their voices to the dogs; the human team delivers a quiet confidence, creating calm in the midst of controlled pandemonium. I listen in on their patter, hearing the dogs called by name: Alec, Asia, Blaze, Jasper, Rain, Skye . . . It’s like listening to Santa on Christmas Eve calling to the reindeer.
I stamp my feet to stay warm, watching these amazing dogs. This morning, one thing is clear: they can’t wait to run. The dogs are paired up in a particular order and the team leaders are in position. They know the drill. The yelping has turned into full-on barking. It’s not a quiet morning anymore.
I have the option of sitting in the sled, but decide instead to stand on the runners to get a vicarious feel for what it’s like to drive the team. Kathy and Alex have special tour sleds designed to carry one driver and two passengers. “Hold tight,” Kathy reminds me. “The sled can jerk when we start.”
She calls out, “Everybody ready?” The dogs get into position. “Let’s go!” And we’re off! The dogs leap forward and . . . the sudden silence leaves me breathless. It’s pure magic. We are running, picking up speed, moving in unison. I’m alert to the movements of the sled, looking ahead to bumps and curves as the team seems to literally fly over the terrain. The ssshhhh, ssshhhh, shooosh of the sled runners is the only sound. I prepare for a downhill turn, holding on as the sled curves. It was just as Kathy and Alex had described. “You have to be prepared and in control” at all times, even when you’re only a passenger.
Two hours later, I’m a little worried I might have gotten the Siberian bug too—I love these animals! Kathy reassures me that I can come visit their dogs any time. These days, Elizabeth is almost off to college and it’s just Kathy and Alex—and their 25 dogs. Kathy races two or three times a year, but it’s no longer the focus. “It’s not about the competition,” Alex says, “For us, it’s the camaraderie.” Their focus of activity has shifted to tours. Their main purpose is to have “a kennel of happy, well-trained dogs that work well with each other and work well with us,” Kathy says. “It’s really all about the dogs and the joy of sledding with them out in the countryside—and sharing the experience with others.”
If Kathy could have it her way, they’d do it year round. “Sometimes in the middle of the summer I put on a video. The best view in the world is watching 12 dogs in front of you.”
ToursDog sled touring with Braeburn Siberians can be two hours or a full day wilderness adventure. They’ve done tours for special events including an 80th birthday celebration, and one for a marriage proposal. Lots of older couples take tours . . . and lots of young couples, too. Families with children who are old enough to stand on the runners also enjoy the longer adventures. The children especially love bonding with the dogs. Many of their rides are for people who received a gift certificate for a new experience rather than another “thing.”
This year, in addition to their two- and four-hour excursions in the wilderness, they’re offering half-hour and hour-long tours along the Connecticut River through Great River Outfitters in Windsor, Vermont. Kathy says the shorter tours are particularly attractive to families with younger children.
If You Go:
- Dress warmly in layers, including hats, gloves, and proper boots.
- Bring a water bottle.
- Wear sunglasses.
- Don’t forget your camera!
Frequently Asked QuestionsAnswered by Katharine Bennett of Braeburn Siberians
How many dogs are needed to run sled?
- Four to 12. We typically run 8 to 14.
- Brown, blue, or amber. They can have two eyes with the same color, or each eye a different color (bi-eyed), or two colors in the same eye (part-eye). The dogs are typically in the 40-pound range.
- Nine to 12 months, although initial training begins at 4 to 6 months. They can run until they are about 10 to 14 years, although most will want to run forever—it’s their love in life!
- Like people, some dogs love to lead, some prefer to follow, and some have leader potential that needs to be drawn out. Leaders need to be problem solvers, decision makers, and good listeners. They need to be steady and tuned into the rest of the team, but prepared to make the final call alone. The team follows the leaders and the leaders work closely with the musher through voice command and a relationship built on mutual trust and respect. Most dogs in a team are a leader at some level; main/trail leader, command leader, or leader-in-training. Leaders can be male or female.
- By voice command and a working relationship between driver and leaders.
- A Siberian in good condition runs 5 to 15 miles per hour seemingly forever, depending on conditions and terrain, day or night with a preference for cooler temperatures (-10 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit). Temperatures can get too warm (above 50 degrees), but never too cold!