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Sledding With Vermont's Mushers

The world’s best known sled dog race, the Iditarod, got underway in Alaska last Sunday. And among the people who will be following that race closely are the members of the Vermont Mushers Association — people who run sled dogs in the Green Mountain state.

On a sunny, cold day in the Green Mountain Forest outside of Ripton, Ed Blechner drives up in an old truck with a large plywood box on the back. Curious dog noses poke out through hand carved windows. He’s brought six dogs to hitch up to his sled for a 15-mile ride over the snow.

Blechner explained the procedure. "We take the dogs out of the box. It’s called dropping the dogs. And [we] hook them up to these short chains so they’re around the truck, and that way they can pee and do their thing."

He introduced one of the dogs as he continued to prepare the sled. "This is Scuppy. And then we harness them there, and get the sled and everything ready. And in that process, there’s always a lot of excitement because they’re excited and ready to go.

"People who aren't familiar with sled dogs don't realize that not only are they bred to do this, but they love to do this. " - Ed Blechner, Vermont Mushers Association

“People who aren’t familiar with sled dogs don’t realize that not only are they bred to do this, but they love to do this. Now you can’t make them do something they don’t want to do. So for instance, if you’re out with a dog on the trail and they just stop for some reason — they don’t want to go — you can’t force them.”

Blechner has been mushing sled dogs for nearly 40 years. At the moment, he has 12 dogs, many of them older racing dogs who came to him from all over. He enjoys the process of getting these different dogs to work together as a team.

“If you think about people, and you took people who didn’t know each other and didn’t necessarily get along and you try to put them together on some kind of team effort, it usually takes a while to get," he says. "And often times it takes a while for dogs to get used to each other.  It’s just amazing how quickly they can adapt and how quickly they’ll be able to work really well together.”

Blechner tries not to play favorites with his dogs, though he says he does develop a special relationship with the lead dog. Today he is running Scuppy at the lead, but usually he hooks Queens up at the front of the pack. Before she came to him, Queens raced in the Iditarod.

“You know, when I got started, the big type of racing was sprint racing, which still goes on. These are dogs which run very fast for a couple of days. And then the Iditarod came along and kind of changed the whole racing scene and people got all into long-distance racing.”

"The whole key, and the whole reason really why people run sled dogs, is that relationship we have with the dogs. The stronger that relationship, the better they're going to run, the happier they're gong to be."

The air has been filled with the sound of barking from the moment the truck pulled up, but as soon as Blechner gives the command to run, the dogs are silent. They leap forward and just pull.

As the sled slides away, Blechner notes, "The whole key, and the whole reason really why people run sled dogs, is that relationship we have with the dogs. The stronger that relationship, the better they’re going to run, the happier they’re gong to be. And it takes a lot of love, a lot of care, and a lot of respect to put together a successful team.”

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