Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Mushing to America

On the home stretch

Ever wonder how America was really discovered?

The vast majority thinks an Italian backed by Spain found the place. Others claim the Vikings got here first.

But if you really think about it, it couldn't have happened that way. Any kid can tell you the Indians were already here--had been for a couple thousand years. And, since blond hair and blue eyes are about as rare on Native Americans as anchovies on ice cream, you can bet the family jewels they didn't get here on ships made in Europe.

Some experts are convinced Siberian nomads came first, snowshoeing across an ice bridge that spanned the Bering Strait so many moons ago that man still grew tufts of hair between his toes.

But that's an awfully long walk; even in an age when getting to work on time didn't matter.

Far easier to believe is the theory that man's best friend--a whole team of 'em, as a matter of fact--dragged the first settlers over the ice bridge on dog sleds.

Next thing you know, they're in fabulously scenic Alaska, a far cry from the boring Siberian plain. The postcard setting was teeming with seals and otters, salmon and halibut, and loads of other fine furs and tasty critters. Knowing a good thing when they saw it, they stayed.

Prospering and multiplying, they spread throughout the New World. When they made it to the Tug Hill Plateau, they must have felt they were back in Siberia.and that the world was flat.


Now then, with the sound of snowmobile engines surfing the North Country's winter winds, you'd think dogsleds went the way of chariots.

Didn't happen. Although the last great chariot race was in the movie Ben Hur, dogsled races take place all the time. The main reason is the sport's egalitarian nature. With a little bit of practice, women, men, the emotionally-challenged, almost everyone under the sun --can move around in snow like any ol' Eskimo.

Search the web for sled dog races and most of the listings will take you to far away places like Alaska. Look closely though and you'll find a reference closer to home: the Pennsylvania Sled Dog Club, Inc. This isn't just some ol' junk-yard doggie outfit with its own web page. It's one of the most prestigious outfits around, hosting races regularly that are sanctioned by the International Sled Dog Racing Association, an organization with the power to make and break world champions.


The dogs are still mainly Siberian huskies, Alaskan malamutes and samoyeds, hard working Arctic breeds that are used to the cold and prized for their sweet dispositions. However, a surprising number of crossbreeds and other types, including setters and hounds, are used as well. About the only differences between then and now are that teams are driven to events in kennels on wheels, and some pooches wear Polar-fleece booties to protect their feet from the cold (it causes them to crack and bleed).

Recently, misguided animal rights activists forced the spotlight on the sport. Claiming it's a disguised form of cruelty to animals, they called for a complete ban.

Cooler heads prevailed. Owners readily allowed inspections of their kennels and the dogs themselves. Critics found the animals enjoyed the good life: top notch medical care, clean housing, balanced diets, and lots of attention (training, grooming and kissy-facey sort of stuff) from their masters.

Since their sport is based on athletic performance, sled dogs are among the best cared-for animals in the world. Their drivers keep an eye out for anything that might endanger the health of the team. If an injury occurs, the victim gets to ride back in the sled.

Indeed, what strikes spectators most is how well adjusted and happy the doggies seem to be. Handlers say it's because the canines are encouraged to indulge their greatest instinctive urge: running in a pack (up to 2,000 miles a year, just in practice alone). That's what the animals think they're doing, anyway. But they're a disciplined team, and like an orchestra, do wonders at the hands of a skilled conductor.

Mushing Oswego County Style

Dogsledding around here is a breeze compared to Siberia, but the game is the same, and the weather comes close. The PSDC puts together events all winter long. Dog teams pull wooden sleds eight feet long and weighing 40 pounds at speeds approaching 20 miles an hour.

But don't take my word for it. See for yourself by attending the Mannsville Quest. Sanctioned by the PSDC, the race takes place at the CCC Camp-Winona Forest this weekend (February 21-22), from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Get there by taking I-81 exit 39 and heading east on Cty. Rte. 90 (follow the signs).

For more info, visit, or call 315-298-6993.