Tell us a little about yourself and your kennel.
I adore my dogs. I have learned so much from them over the years. The kennel size right now is 22 dogs, 17 adult dogs in training and five puppies. There are also two yearlings who are training with a friend of mine, Christine. I am so lucky that she offered to train them because it takes the load off with 17 adults. So technically the kennel is 24 dogs, which is the largest it’s been since I started my own dog team. The dogs have come from friends who are trusted mushers, and whom I know have cultivated well-rounded sled dogs that I really love to run and be around, such as Nature’s Kennel in MN, Brenda Mackey in AK, and Quebec mushers Stephane Duplessis and Denis Tremblay.
My kennel has been described by others as having a community feel, as well as being populated with ‘reasonable’ dogs. I work very hard to build a team ethic among the dogs, which means I do need them to step up and see the bigger picture. In recent years, as my career and family life have become more challenging, being with the dogs is all about joy and ease.
I live in a tiny town, Shelburne NH, of 350 people. I have some really great neighbors and friends who have come to love the dogs and who bring their kids to visit the puppies. When I walk down the road with the puppies we stop in and visit neighbors along the way. I join my local snowmobile and ATV clubs, because they maintain the trails I use, and I sign up for as many races as I can to support local musher organizations and race events. I also care for and support my disabled brother and sister, who live with me. I work full time for The Conservation Fund, a national organization.
The name of the kennel, Shady Pines Sled Dogs, is rooted in a private joke with my brother. Most people come to the dog yard and say ‘wait a minute, there aren’t any pines out here, so what’s with the name?’ For fans of the 1980s sitcom, The Golden Girls, Shady Pines was the name of the nursing home that Sophia burned down, that earned her a rebel reputation. The Golden Girls is one of my disabled brother’s favorite TV shows of all time and the name firmly tied together my entire family, canine and human.
What introduced you to dog mushing? What was your first experience like?
I was introduced to dog mushing 10 years ago by guiding tours at a local kennel. My first experience was a fall training run at night, I still remember walking into the kennel in my sneakers with the 30 or 40 dogs barking and running around. I had never seen so many dogs in one place before, but I was young and fairly fearless. Having never grown up with dogs, only having cats, I didn’t know what to expect.
I connected immediately to the dogs, treating them as coworkers from the get-go. After the run, when I was learning how to water, de-harness, and put them away, I started talking to the dogs and seeing how they responded, it was my first glimpse of what it meant to work with dogs in this way.
I guided for three years, and at the end of three years I no longer wanted a client in the sled, I wanted to be on the trail with the dogs by myself. I also started meeting other mushers and learning that it was possible to have a kennel of dogs and also have a full-time job. Balance was possible, and in 2011 I started my own dog team.
I no longer guide or give tours, but I happily give educational presentations in the off-season. This past year I gave presentations at the US Forest Service campgrounds and at my local high school. There are a bunch of high-quality tour kennels and guides near me and I send all business inquiries to them.
Describe the dogs on your team. What about them do you enjoy the most?
I enjoy their willingness, their excitement, and their capacity for joy. Early on training for long races, I was so focused on getting through long runs, and building miles, but I didn’t know much about how to build a true team. I started noticing when dogs were happy, and how they were motivated, and that is what I train for now. Resilience.
The dogs on the team have such great personalities, there is the joker, the serious stoic one, the driven leader, the sassy girl, the unbelievably happy pair of siblings, the disciplined rising lead dog, the no-nonsense puller, the speed demons, the lets-get-this-show-on-the-road screamer, the tater-tot girl with short legs….like a great group of friends they each bring their individual strengths to the team.
What does your training regimen look like? How long are you on the trail with them?
The hardest thing about my training regimen is that for every mile of every run, I have to load and truck the dogs. There is a saying from Abraham Lincoln that if he had 8 hours to chop down a tree, the first 7 he’d spend sharpening his axe, and that definitely applies in the case of my training. Because of all the steps involved, I work hard to have the dogs be as responsible as possible to help: cutting dogs loose so they go right to the truck and come when called, loading easily into boxes, not wasting time grumbling with each other or hiding bowls under the truck. We are a team!
We start with 4 mile runs and build from there. I stop the team a lot, so they learn patience but also because it’s fun to play with them and smile a lot. We are usually on sleds in mid-December, although there have been years when I was on the ATV until January. I like to travel and train with other mushers when I can, because I always learn something and it’s good to get out on new trails.
Last year I started training for what I called ‘resilience’, which was training to create a team that can take on anything, and not just take on certain trail conditions but learn adaptation to changing circumstances. We would go on and off trail, taking new turns from groomed snowmobile trail onto unbroken soft snow, randomly following snowmobile tracks through the woods for miles. I would stop the team, and cut them all loose, and then play with them and then hook them back in again. I saw this training come into play in races last year, when I would have to turn the team across a wide plowed road into a teeny-tiny trail, and when I had to stop and turn the team back to a checkpoint.
Once I started training for 250 mile races, I did start paying attention to time spent on the trail, less so on the miles run. It is not just about miles, but about spending time out in the wilderness with the dogs, and learning how to solve problems together.
What do your dogs do in the off season?
The dogs do what I do in the off season! We hike, swim, and bike. I live next to the White Mountain National Forest, home to so many hiking trails. There are some great hikes we do right by the house, and can be out all day. In the course of two weeks, I try to get all dogs out for at least one hike or bike ride, usually pairing older experienced dogs with younger dogs, and not taking more than two or three dogs at a time. These off-leash summer adventures are the building blocks of having a strong team in the winter, both for keeping them active and happy but also deepening the bond.
I learn a lot from them during the off-season, such as learning that Inferno, a young rising lead dog star, LOVES WATER. And I mean LOVES water. When hiking with him I hear an inevitable ‘splash’ when he lands in the water, no matter how shallow or deep it is. He also swims like an otter when I bring him to lakes. Knowing how much he loves water, when I take him hiking I will of course choose a hike that has as much water as possible.
What has been your most memorable experience as a dog musher?
Three come to mind. One was the extraordinary sunrises I’ve experienced when running the UP200, the Lake Superior sunrises are unlike anything else. They burn gold and red and pink for hours. To be out, gliding along on the magic carpet ride of that race, with so many mushers and friends and the most amazing dog team in the world…that is a memorable experience.
Another was one particularly great run we had in April last year. It was a Sunday morning, amazingly clear and bluebird skies. It was an 8 dog team, and we were just out to have fun. We just started follow random snowmobile tracks, the trails getting thinner and more narrow, the corridor less defined. I didn’t see a soul all day, except for a rabbit that crossed in front of our trail. The mountains rose around us, as we climbed the valleys. We were never really lost, but there was one point when I wasn’t entirely sure how we would get back to the truck. In lead was my soul dog, my lead dog who I could put my heart in her hands. It was one of the most amazing runs I’ve ever had.
The other is a recent experience, when a young dog, Hilde, that I have raised since she was four months old, started leading. And not just running up front, but actually leading—diving into turns, charging up hills, and driving the speed. It brought tears to my eyes when I would watch her drive, so confident in front of such a long string of dogs.
Watching new lead dogs emerge and really take on the responsibility of being in front, is one of the most rewarding things I’ve experienced.
What’s your advice to other mushers?
Pay attention. Tell stories to other mushers because you never know what advice they may give, they might see suggestions you haven’t even noticed before. I have learned from recreational mushers, sprint mushers, distance mushers, young emerging mushers and ‘retired’ mushers. Be honest and active in your listening, and don’t just wait to tell your next bragging story. Bring your questions to the table.
Be nice to other mushers, on the trail and in the world, because there aren’t that many of us, and being on the fringe we have to support each other. It is possible to be competitive with each other, but still build camaraderie and cultivate a spirit of sportsmanship. Our community is so small.
And other mushers—I have so much to learn from you!