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Chillin', thrillin' on a dogsled

Mushing, winter camping in New England.

Kevin Slater (left) starts a team of Yukon huskies on a mush around Lake Umbagog with intern Tom Rosenberg.
Kevin Slater (left) starts a team of Yukon huskies on a mush around Lake Umbagog with intern Tom Rosenberg.Read moreBOB MacDONNELL / Hartford Courant

ERROL, N.H. - We caught a comparatively mild, calm Saturday. The temperature might have reached as high as the teens during early afternoon. That was good. It was January in the mountains on the Maine and New Hampshire border. It could have been colder.

It could have been the day before. When we arrived in the New England north country for a weekend of dogsledding and winter camping in the woods, the wind and cold were so nasty that the walk from the car to our heated cabin was almost painful.

But here we were in the sun - comfortable, mushing across Lake Umbagog, a shallow, amoeba-shaped lake in New Hampshire and Maine that is more than 10 miles long, with more than 50 miles of shoreline.

We would mush nearly seven miles up the lake to a campsite, make supper, sleep in tents, and mush our way back to creature comforts the next day, all in an area with abundant wildlife, including moose and bear.

Think dogsledding, and the image that comes to mind is Alaska or the Yukon Territory - and cold, rugged conditions.

Dogsledding in New England might be a tiny piece of the region's winter recreation pie, but it is well established. It's cold and rugged here, too.

To people unfamiliar with an overnight dogsledding trip in winter, it's fun to mush across frozen lakes and then sleep in a floorless tent on hemlock or spruce boughs laid on the snow.

We arranged our trip with Mahoosuc Guide Service in Newry, Maine, one of several dogsledding guide services in northern New England. Mahoosuc is the creation of Polly Mahoney and her partner, Kevin Slater. Polly would lead our trip; Kevin made the dogsleds.

Our adventure began Friday night with an orientation that included tea and sweets. There was a brief lecture on the basics of dogsledding - what we should expect over the course of the weekend, some history of dogsledding, that kind of thing. If your gear isn't up to the challenge, Mahoosuc has extra parkas, boots and gloves to borrow for the weekend.

After the orientation, we settled into our heated rooms for the night.

The next morning, there were seven of us customers, plus Polly and her apprentice, Tom Rosenberg, to mush on three sleds. I had never been on a dogsled before and didn't quite know what to expect, other than what I had seen in photos or movies.

After a big breakfast, under clearing skies, we were introduced to the Yukon huskies. There are 35 of them kept in a large enclosure behind the farmhouse and adjacent guest lodge. Gear and 15 dogs, enough for three sleds, were loaded onto a truck, and we drove to the southern tip of Lake Umbagog. The dogs, with bloodlines rooted in the Yukon Territory, barked and seemed anxious to get out and run.

Polly reminded us how to slow and stop the sleds and what to do when a dog's foot gets caught in a rope. To set the dogs in motion, the command is "tighten up" and "let's go." Pretty simple.

With the dogs in harness, off we went. The dogs were all business now; no barking. They seemed happy to be running. We stood on runners at the rear of the sleds, whooshing over the snow-covered lake, silently taking in the views of the surrounding mountains. You don't talk while sledding, Polly had said.

The quiet was striking - the soft, soothing sound of the sleds shushing through the snow, the muffled patter of the dogs' feet. Nothing else.

Sara Ott of Johnstown, Ohio, in one sled with her husband, Matt, said the sounds of the sled runners were a highlight of the trip.

"Just that little bit of crunching, and otherwise it is completely silent," she said.

We arrived in camp in the afternoon, giving us plenty of time before dinner to prepare for the night. Everybody pitched in to gather, saw and split fallen tree limbs to burn in woodstoves in the tents. We took turns swinging a heavy steel pick to chop a hole in the foot-thick ice to get water for cooking.

With an hour of daylight left, we were settled in camp with time to play. The Otts went cross-country skiing. Austin Frank and Jack Wain, 12-year-old friends from Massachusetts, played with the dogs in camp. Austin's dad, Mike, went for a long walk. I went bird-watching, hoping to find a black-backed woodpecker. This area, I had been told, was a good place to see one.

I was surprised that we hadn't seen a moose, which are plentiful in the area. Then I heard it: Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap. A woodpecker for sure over in that dead spruce at the lake's edge, maybe 200 yards from camp. It was a black-backed woodpecker, an unmistakable bird, aptly named. It couldn't have been easier.

I've seen hundreds of moose over the years, but I'd never seen a black-backed woodpecker. I let out a whoop.

Supper was a heaping plateful of sausages, pasta with cheese, sauteed mushrooms and onions, corn, and cookies for dessert. After dinner, we tromped onto the ice and made a bonfire big enough to illuminate all of us. We huddled close to the fire and talked for about an hour. The boys toasted marshmallows.

We still faced the prospect of sleeping in a tent in winter. From the start, the unspoken question was: Would we freeze our glutes off?

The woodstoves can't be used overnight because the tent could catch fire. So, the stoves were lit shortly before bedtime to warm the tents while we changed into nightclothes - lots of them. Then the fire died out and the temperature dropped, while we snuggled, reasonably comfortable, in our sleeping bags.

Still, we really wanted to restart the fire.

How bad was it? That night, the temperature dropped to something like minus 8. I can't say that I was cold. Most of us slept, although not necessarily soundly through the night. When nature called - several of us answered - it was a very cold few minutes outdoors.

It was snowing lightly when I stepped out of the tent at 3 a.m., reinforcing my long-standing opinion that the true satisfaction of winter camping is not so much doing it as getting to brag that you've done it.

There are other pleasures. In a remote area far from city and suburban lights, the stars are brilliant. There is the pervasive quiet. And there are no bugs.

"I was actually really cold even with my coat on and snow pants and two layers of socks," Austin said the next morning.

But, he added, "It's worth it."

The Otts said they were comfortable during the night and slept like logs.

We were slow to emerge from our sleeping bags, knowing we'd be enveloped in icy air until we could bundle up in parkas and boots again. The smell of bacon, pancakes and coffee finally provided the push we needed.

The overnight snow showers didn't amount to much - just enough to freshen the wintry view. We loaded our gear, cleaned up camp, and mushed off. We took a different route back, winding our way along the lake, listening to the shush of the sled runners, and smiling.

Dogsledding in New England

Get information about the Mahoosuc Guide Service at its Web site,



or call 207-824-2073.

The overnight season begins Thursday. Cost for a two-day/one-night trip with camping and meals is $525 per person.

Accommodation at the outfitter's Mahoosuc Mountain Lodge, in Newry, Maine, is $35 per person per night for a bunk with shared bath and kitchen. Includes breakfast.