If you could invent a perfect day on this planet, for me it would be dog mushing with Steve Madera of Song in the Woods and his twelve dogs (songinthewoods.com). I know all of their names now after only three days. He is a remarkable man which explains why he has such wonderful dogs. On our particular trip, we had a choice of leaving at dusk and mushing under a nearly full moon or leaving mid-morning under a cloudless blue sky. What a tough decision.
I ended up on the day trip, the next morning, circumnavigating Shaw Mountain. Heading north, we had spectacular views of Mt. Katahdin at the crest of a hill. I wasn't use to viewing Mount Katahdin from the West, but as the tallest peak in Maine, it's hard to mistake nonetheless. We stopped to take photos before an exhilarating ride downhill. As the break person, one has to be alert and pay attention to make sure the sled doesn't run into the dogs. The rope running out between the pairs of dogs needs to stay taut. At the bottom of the hill, swinging West around a sharp turn, we had our greatest adventure. My husband went flying off the back of the sled, as the sled nearly tipped over with my friend in the basket. I stumbled, but hung on and scrambled to regain control. Squatting on the break bar with both feet I reached for the emergency hook and planted it firmly into the snow as I had been instructed, never really expecting to use it. I remembered Steve saying the emergency claw is all you've got so just keep digging in. We eventually slowed, although not immediately. My husband caught up with us; he was fortunately fine, and we were off again. A short distance later, as we came up on sunlit icy patch, my husband decided we might go skiddering out of control. So, unannounced he stepped off the sled like stepping off a treadmill machine without first pushing the stop button. Our momentum sent him skittering across the ice on his back like a human sled. Again I employed the emergency break and we regrouped. When we eventually caught up with the first sled, which Steve our leader was mushing, we shared our escapades. He was glad we were enjoying ourselves so much. Coming around the north side of Shaw Mountain, we had unbelievable views of Big and Little Spencer Mountains and First Roach Pond spread out below us. I didn't want this day of exploration to end.
How did we come to be here? I'd known several dog mushers in Maine over the years since moving to the state in 1987. But I first became intrigued with sled dogs in the summer of 1984, when I stayed with folks near Knik, Alaska. They had sled dogs and told stories of running teams. Knik is a check point on the famous Iditarod Sled Dog Race. I realized how many dog mushers lived in the Knik area when the howling started on a far ridge and moved closer. As I would soon learn, a truck delivering fish heads to feed the dogs was making its rounds. Eventually the truck appeared on our road and the dogs around me joined the chorus. I was reminded of a scene from a Thousand and One Dalmatians when the dogs communicate, warning each other about impending events. It wasn't until I read Gary Paulson's WoodSong, that I vicariously connected with the thrill of traveling with a team of dogs through the winter landscape. Paulson describe mushing as “dancing with winter”.
When Selena Tardif, the Education Director of North Maine Woods, and I took a trip in the spring of 2006 to learn about another bioregional outdoor education program, she shared her enthusiasm after her first experience working with Steve Madera and kids and sleddogs. When Selena offered to help, I decided to have our book club read Gary Paulson's My Life In Dog Years and invite the group to go dog-sledding, When I moved to New Hampshire in the fall of 2004, my then 8 year old daughter and I started a mother/daughter book club to meet people in our new community and we're still going strong. So, you could say literature brought me back to the Greenville, ME area to experience the thrill of dog sledding firsthand.
Before we started dog mushing, Steve gathered our group of nine, and asked us to share what we each wanted to get out of the trip. Paul Jans, age 14, said he liked cats better than dogs, but was looking forward to the experience. We had no idea really of the richness that awaited us. As I learned with Steve, 'dog powered adventure' is just not the same as snowmobiling, snow shoeing or cross country skiing, (all of which I had done), because there are the dogs, special dogs with personalities. Steve Madera's philosophy is to share as much of the dog experience as possible with the folks on his trips. So, we unleashed the dogs and took them back and forth from their line to the truck. We put their harnesses on and helped hooked them to the sled. We made beds for the dogs, gave them their water, and even groomed them. We learned all their names and quirky traits. We connected with the dogs. As my daughter said when we arrived home back in Plymouth, New Hampshire, “I miss the dogs,” and I do too. Upon returning to Whiting Maine after the trip, Paul and his brother, Hangster made dog biscuits to send to Steve's dogs, so I guess Paul was as captivated by the dogs as the rest of us. As the adults on the trip agreed, if New England could provide more of its youth with sled dog experiences, there would be much less obesity, vandalism, and nature deficit disorder, to use Richard Louv's term from his new book, “Last Child in the Woods.” Dog sledding gets kids outside, providing plenty of fresh air and exercise. Dog sledding, at least the way Steve Madera offers the experience, gives kids a sense of responsibility. They rise to the occasion, with the confidence Steve instills, to take charge of a team of sled dogs. Kids also connect with the environment around them as they navigate the terrain over which the dogs travel, learning to read maps, and identify geographic features. There is a multitude of ways to meaningfully meet many educational standards. Many educators are already doing this, virtually through websites
The trip was about much more than dog mushing for all of us. We enjoyed cooking and conversing together in our century old, rustic log cabin at West Branch Pond Camps, recently featured in the February DownEast magazine. The first night my husband and I snowshoed across the moonlit pond at the base of White Cap Mountain which the Appalachian Trail traverses. We wondered about our daughter out with a team of dogs on a snowy ridge to the north of us and looked forward to hearing her stories around the wood stove later.
Selena engaged the kids in building a quinzhee, a type of snow shelter made by piling up snow, waiting for it to settle, and then hollowing out the inside. The kids made a whole village in the snow, complete with a grocery store, home, clothing store, jail, ice shop, ice sculpting station, and a Dunkin Donuts – the quinzhee. They even invented their own currency- twigs from the surrounding softwoods. The kids' imaginations filled in the furnishings of the extensive snow forts they built.
At night we sang dog songs, were entertained by Paul playing his penny whistle music, and watched our daughter Irish step dance for friends. Steve is more of a listener than a talker, but we pummeled him with questions about his work, his dogs, and experiences. We learned his life had not been the same since mushing dogs. He related how much he had learned about himself from having dogs. We wanted to know more. We were hoping the impending storm would arrive early and we'd be snowbound. No one wanted to leave. At the top of Steve Madera's Song in the Woods brochure is “Make Some Memories” and we certainly did. How could an experience get any better! Upon returning, I found myself wanting to call up everyone and tell them what a great adventure I'd just shared with my family. Reflecting on the trip through writing this story is rewarding, as it helps me further appreciate and relive the all too short experience.
Thank you: Selena Tardif of Maine Woods Explorers; Steve Madera of Song in the Woods, the Stirlings of West Branch Pond Camps for providing a cabin for our overnight trip, and NREC of Greenville, Maine for stewarding the natural resources of the region.
Mary Ann McGarry the author is Associate Professor of Science Education with the Center of the Environment, at Plymouth State University which her husband, Steve Kahl, founded and directs. He also previously founded the Mitchell Center For Environmental and Watershed Research at University of Maine, in Orono. Mary Ann and Steve still own a camp on Hopkins Pond in Maine.