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In Maine, the extraordinary rush of the mush

NEWRY, Maine - The air is charged with the sound of 17 howling huskies, and the snow brake I'm standing on with both feet quivers as the brawny dogs in front of me strain against their harnesses.

NEWRY, Maine - The air is charged with the sound of 17 howling huskies, and the snow brake I'm standing on with both feet quivers as the brawny dogs in front of me strain against their harnesses.

It's not a moment for misgivings or second thoughts: Either you hold tight as you release the brake and the dogs snap forward, or you're left behind as the sled races toward the mountains in the distance. I choose to hold on.

Already charged with adrenaline, I'm prepared for the rush of euphoria that accompanies our first leaps across the ice, but I wasn't expecting the silence. One moment, it's orchestrated chaos accompanied by nose-to-the-sky howls; the next, it's utterly hushed except for the crunch of snow beneath the runners.

It's a moment that Pauline Mahoney, co-owner of Mahoosuc Guide Service, never tires of, despite 32 years of mushing dogs in the Yukon, northern Canada, and Maine. The soft-spoken Pauline radiates a calm energy that transmits palpably to her dogs, which visibly adore her. I try to synchronize my movements with hers as we lean into turns and she calls out commands: "Gee!" (go right) and "Haw!" (left).

But I'd underestimated the balance necessary to stand on one runner of a sled moving at up to 12 m.p.h. It's challenging, particularly as one boot floats above the snow brake, poised to punch its metal teeth into the ice in case of a tangle. Much as in horseback riding, fighting the motion is tiring.

We traverse Maine's frozen Umbagog Lake, skirting ice-fishing camps, then leaving civilization behind as we go deeper into the 26 million-acre Northern Forest. Tails waving and tongues lolling, the huskies settle into a steady pace behind our lead dog, Jarvis. I feel myself slip into a similar rhythm.

I'm not the first writer to be wooed by the sound of sled runners over ice; Jack London and Gary Paulsen subscribed to this method of travel long before I did, and I have to admit it's partly their fault (combined with my own romantic imagination) that I'm here in the first place.

I'm not the only one who carries a torch for dogsledding, though. The sport has enjoyed a surge of popularity in the last 10 years, with many ski resorts offering mushing as another winter pastime. It's not hard to find an outfitter offering half- and full-day trips in my neck of the woods in northern Vermont, either. But I read too many young-adult novels about the Iditarod as a child to be excited about a run around the pasture with a few dogs: I wanted the real deal.

I found it at Mahoosuc Guide Service, based in Newry, Maine, where Pauline and her longtime partner, Kevin Slater, guide dogsledding trips from December through April. (And once all the customers go home for the season, they frequently pack up their dogs for monthlong excursions in northern Canada that serve as their "holidays.")

Did I mention that Pauline's dogs also starred in the 1983 Disney adaptation of Farley Mowat's autobiography Never Cry Wolf, and that Pauline stood in for Inuit shaman Ootek for the movie's mushing scenes? Or that Kevin makes all of his own sleds using knowledge gleaned from renowned sled maker Ed Moody, who accompanied Adm. Richard E. Byrd on one of his expeditions to Antarctica as chief dog handler?

The couple are hugely devoted to their dogs, which are descended from the last team used by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to patrol remote parts of the Yukon. The long-legged, broad-chested canines are nothing like the small, fast-moving dogs used in races such as the Iditarod, where 10 or more might pull a single sled.

The couple started Mahoosuc Guide Service 23 years ago, when Pauline applied for a job at a dogsledding program that Kevin was starting up for an outfitter in northern Maine. "When someone from the Yukon Territory with five of her own dogs applies for a job, and you're starting a dogsledding program, well, you're going to hire her," Kevin says.

And fall in love with her, and then start your own dogsledding business together, which they did in 1989. "We knew that no one else was doing extensive dogsledding in the Northeast," Kevin says, "so if you wanted to really learn about it and experience it, you had to go to Minnesota or Canada. And people were doing that. So we gave them the chance here in the Northeast."

For me, that opportunity was the two-day Mahoosuc Intro weekend, which includes mushing on the frozen Umbagog Lake and an overnight at a permanent camp.

Living in Vermont, I'm no stranger to cold weather and came prepared with all my winter camping gear, but a visitor from Florida could show up, be outfitted with all the appropriate parkas, mittens, mukluks, sleeping bags, and space-age-looking insulated boots and have a great adventure with hardly a chill.

It wasn't always that way.

"When we first ran trips, we'd cut the poles for the tents, set them up, collect all of the boughs to line the floors, and gather firewood, all with the clients," Pauline says. "Now it's all set up beforehand - and it's pretty cush. But the permanent camps are imperative because we're getting older and people are getting softer. We've definitely noticed that people don't want to work as hard as they used to."

I'm intrigued by Kevin's tales of the rapidly disappearing dogsledding culture of the indigenous Cree and Inuit people, with whom he has traveled extensively. "Once this last generation dies, it will be gone," he says. "You're never going to be able to go out with a traditional northern native who grew up in the bush and knows how to live off the land again, because now they grow up in villages."

Even though we aren't hunting caribou and taking ice readings during my trip, it still feels steeped in authenticity.

I share a tent with Karen Boss, a graduate student and communications manager at a Boston nonprofit, and Christy Cunningham, an associate director in the careers center at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.

Mahoosuc trips are as hands-on as you want them to be, whether you want to mush your own team or would prefer to trust yourself to the capable hands of Pauline and her three young apprentices. It's hard to resist the novelty of camp chores, though, so when apprentice Joey Shaw grabs an ice chisel and several stainless-steel buckets and heads out onto the lake, I'm hot on his heels.

He chips away at the ice, finally breaking through to our water source for the next two days (it's boiled first), and we fill up the fire-blackened buckets and head back to camp. Lagging behind, I take a moment to look back at the snow-covered lake and the mountains in the dusk. In camp, I know Pauline is feeding and bedding down the dogs, and the other guests are spreading fir boughs for our beds and collecting firewood. But out here there's nothing but silence.

And that's exactly what I came to hear.


Getting There

Newry, Maine, is about 70 miles northwest of Portland. Mahoosuc Guide Service can help coordinate ride shares from the airport.

Where to Stay

Most overnight trips begin with a 7 p.m. meeting the night before the trip; accommodation is not included for this first night. Special rates are available at these B&Bs and motels in nearby Bethel, or contact Mahoosuc Guide Service to stay in the on-site farmhouse or timber-frame lodge.

Rivendell House

16 Park St., Bethel


Traditional 150-year-old New England farmhouse bed-and-breakfast. Rooms from $100.

Waterford Inne

258 Chadbourne Rd., Waterford


Nineteenth-century farmhouse inn in the Oxford Hills and Lakes region. Rooms from $125.

Mahoosuc Farmhouse

1513 Bear River Rd., Newry


Two rooms available in a 100-year-old farmhouse; $50 per night includes breakfast.

Mahoosuc Timber-frame Lodge

1513 Bear River Rd., Newry


Two bunkrooms available, plus a dining room, a lounging area, and views of the Mahoosuc mountains; $45 per night includes breakfast.

What to Do

Mahoosuc Guide Service

1513 Bear River Rd., Newry


Tours weekly through April 17, ranging from day trips ($275 per person) to 10-day cultural trips ($6,110, including airfare from Montreal). E-mail for information.