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Dogsledding in Maine: Call of the Wild

Dogsledding in Maine: Call of the Wild
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If you think you’re going to ride on the sled all bundled up in a bearskin, think again. And it’s best that you understand this before you allow Polly Mahoney to take you out overnight into the frozen winter wonderland around Maine’s Lower Richardson Lake — something we definitely recommend if you’re fit enough for winter camping.

Polly is a Maine native who acquired her dogsledding chops while working in Alaskan hunting camps. Since 1990, Polly and her partner, Kevin Slater, have operated Mahoosuc Guide Service out of an old farm in Newry, Maine, about halfway between Sunday River Ski Resort and Grafton Notch State Park. In the summer they lead canoe trips; in winter, they guide dogsledding expeditions using the 39 Yukon huskies they’ve raised and trained themselves and the handsome wooden sleds Kevin makes by hand.

Dogsledding is strenuous work — make no mistake about that. As the dog team charges across the frozen, snow-covered lake, you must “pump,” stepping rhythmically on and off the runners with one foot in an action not unlike riding a scooter. If you, the neophyte musher, stand on the runners too long, the lead dog is likely to turn around and give you the canine equivalent of a dirty look. The cardinal rule of dogsledding is “Never let go of the sled.” The dogs love to pull the sled, but they would also love to be free of your weight.

The first thing we do when we reach the preestablished camp at Black Cat Cove is forage for spruce tips to make bough beds for the dogs. Then we cut a hole in the ice for water, feed and water the dogs, and gather firewood. Only then will Polly fix us a hot meal — on this evening it’s sausage, couscous, green beans, tea, coffee, and cocoa, with tinned peaches for dessert.

In addition to the dogsledding, we went cross-country skiing along the woodland trails at the base of Black Cat Mountain during the day, so we’re exhausted by nightfall, ready to crawl into sleeping bags and fall asleep listening to the crackling conversation between the firewood in the woodstove and the ice-cold trees outside. We sleep in a thick canvas tent heated by an Alaskan packer’s stove. Polly’s guests have never suffered a case of frostbite, a testament to the warmth of the government-issue Arctic boots she lends to everyone.

In the morning, we awake to the predawn howl of the sled dogs, a communal wake-up call that signals that the dogs will be ready to hit the trail before we are. As fine a way to pass a winter’s weekend as there is.

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