Dog Days of Winter | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Dog Days of Winter

Mushers drive their dog teams through snow and cold ... but what drives the mushers?

It's Jan. 22, a cold Saturday morning at Chapman State Park in northwestern Pennsylvania, and the wind carries a blizzard of snow and the noise of dogs.

Barking dogs. Braying dogs. Howling dogs. Yapping dogs. In all, over 200 dogs -- easily four or five times the number of humans on hand. It was as loud as a truck pull, but the only motors were a few idling pickups and the occasional shriek of a snowmobile. As you got closer you had to yell to be heard at all.

Many of the dogs are traditional ivory Siberians, grouped in purebred teams. Ironically, these dogs seem relatively quiet, offering up a high-pitched, almost squeaky woo-oo! that belies their wolfy looks. There's also a wide spectrum of mixed breeds you might find in the backyard -- black dogs, brown dogs, white dogs, furry dogs and even some relatively sleek dogs.

The few, inaudible humans seem to come in different breeds as well. Some have built-in padding, perhaps due to their own northern habitat, or too much time on the couch. Others are rugged types in Carhartt coveralls. Still others look like serious athletes in sleek, up-to-date Columbia gear

They could've been here as merely the transportation for a vast doggie convention. (After all, who was feeding whom? Who's shoveling the poop?) But in fact they were mushers, or spectators drawn to the sport of mushing.

Mushing is the art of driving a sled across snowy wastes with a team of dogs providing power, a la a Jack London novel. It is an ancient practice, of course, and once it was the most practical way to move goods through remote northern climates. Today's amateur mushers aren't delivering crucial supplies (though many did leave work early on Friday, racing the snowstorm to get to Warren). And at the park's entrance, the scene is like a cross between some Call of the Wild trading post and a county fair. The parking lot was full of pickups, trailers and even utility vans that had been converted into mobile kennels, with small hives of dog-sized cubbyholes. Kids pulled parents along, eyes big, looking for a dog that wasn't barking to pet. Meanwhile, snowmobilers in fluorescent suits hang out under a pine grove like some sort of mild northern motorcycle gang.

Dogs and humans alike are gathered for the annual Jim Lobdell Memorial Sled Dog Races, the only such event in Western Pennsylvania and the most novel part of Warren County's Winterfest.

A lot of the dogs are out already. The "unlimited" race -- that is, as many dogs as you can string in front of a sled -- is to begin in less than 10 minutes. A line of dogs almost 50 feet long stretches through the parking lot, while four handlers in professional-looking matching green jackets are trying to complete the canine centipede. The dogs are going nuts with enthusiasm, jumping on top of each other, twisting themselves in the lines as they attempt to run in circles, all the while barking something along the lines of "Now! Now!" and "Run! Run!" and "DOGDOGDOG!"

Several people have a hold of individual dogs' harnesses and are serving as human anchors to keep the dogs from bolting forward. As driver Jason Rodenhouse finally mounts his sled, all the family and friends run with the dogs toward the starting line.

A voice in the crowd with a soft New England accent -- sled-dog champion and Western Pennsylvania's own Johnn Molburg -- comments: "There's your race champion, there." Rodenhouse, it seems, is the alpha male of this pack of mushers.

At the timer's signal, each team is released by its handlers and takes off down the course. Jason's team, his wife Melanie's equally impressive group, and three other teams disappear into the woods as the dogs settle into a quick, quiet trot. We'll see them back here, panting and hopefully pleased with themselves, some 40 minutes later.

It's the call of the wild, all right. Except here in Warren, it's being answered by the dog owners.

Mushers share an unusual obsession that an ordinary dog lover can barely grasp: Who would want to devote their every spare moment -- and more than just their spare dollars -- to a kennel full of dogs?

Even the mushers themselves can't quite explain it. Roger Carnahan, from Clymer, Indiana County, searches for words, while his brother Jim, 66, falls poetic: "There's nothing like being out on a trail, going though the woods and it's snowing like this. And there's not a sound at all. And the only thing you can hear is the snow crunching under your skis, you know, and the dogs, it's really something. It's a real joy to be out in the wilderness.

"You have to be able to enjoy a day like this," Jim says. Both Carnahans seem to be dressed lightly, in camouflage Carhartts and hooded sweatshirts. "Pennsylvania's lucky to get the four seasons, you know."

For them, sled dogs are more literally their pets -- they only own seven between them, a Siberian, several mixes and a Samoyed -- and it's just a way to get outdoors when it's not hunting or fishing season.

"You've got to like dogs," he continues. Really, really like dogs: Enough to scientifically calibrate dog food. Enough to sink hundreds, often thousands, of dollars into sleds, gear and vet bills. Enough to drive for miles and stand in the cold for hours to enjoy precious few minutes of racing.

Yep, Jim says, "That's the main thing, you've got to like dogs."

The Lobdell races are no Iditarod, the famous 1,100-mile Alaskan race held each March. Each of these categories -- the longest of which is 12 miles -- is considered a mere "sprint" by the standards of dog-sledders. But love of dogs runs just as deep here, if not as far.

Jim Lobdell, the races' namesake, was a well-known musher in the Warren area. He sponsored his first race here in 1979. When he died in 1982, Ed and Karen Atwood, lifetime Warren residents and members of the Tionesta Valley Snowmobile Club, promised they would keep it going. In previous years, the races have faltered for lack of snow; even northern Pennsylvania's snow belt is on the southern edge of dogsledding territory. But this year, the Atwoods and other race organizers lucked out: A lack of snow cancelled other scheduled races, while a big storm -- which dropped a foot of snow before the end of the weekend -- made theirs the only game in town.

Among others, it has attracted Roland Appleton and his team, who trot across the finish line after a 6-mile race looking exactly like you think a dog team should.

Six perfect Siberian huskies stretch before him in pairs: Casey, Grainy, Taylor, Gibson, J.R. and Kathryn. Many have the Siberians' famous blue eyes, bearing coats in the classic husky palate -- ivory, tan, gray and even a strawberry blond -- which are covered in still-falling snow. Their paws hit the ground in perfect rhythm; their stride is calm and steady. They're compact, smaller than you might think and definitely too cuddly to bray majestically at the moon, or run off and join a wolf pack. Compared to their eager braying and howling of a few minutes ago, they now peacefully head home. Though their faces are covered in frost, their tongues flap with every pant.

Temperatures are in the single digits, cold enough that my tape recorder has frozen. But back at the Appletons' truck, Carolan Appleton says her dogs are more likely overheated than cold.

"Our dogs, they've got ice on their whiskers, la di da! It doesn't bother them at all. The colder the better," she says. "Not necessarily for the people, but for the dogs." A Siberian husky, with its heavy double coat, shouldn't run at all if it's above 50 degrees, she says. And as the dogs wolf down their post-race dinner, Carolan is checking to make sure they don't have any breathing problems from the heat.

"Last year at Tug Hill" -- a race in upstate New York near the snowy shores of Lake Ontario -- "it was 35 below, and it got up to 25 below. Our dogs were fine."

Carolan and Roland, of Glen Mills, in eastern Pennsylvania, have bred Siberian huskies since 1963 -- for racing in winter and showing the rest of the year. And with matter-of-fact ease, Carolan begins to explain the history of the sport, sounding like she could've authored an American Kennel Club guide herself.

Developed at least 3,000 years ago by Siberia's Chukchi Indians, Siberian huskies were bred to pull moderate loads at moderate speeds over long distances in extreme cold. In fact, Carolan adds, the dogs helped the Siberians escape from the encroaching Russians.

But mushing's not just for huskies any more, and the original mushing dogs are now being displaced in their own sport.

"They call 'em Slow-berians," Carolan says. Because they were developed for endurance, not speed, Siberians aren't quick enough for many of the competitive sprint mushers of today. Even though Siberians might have a chance in long-distance and even mid-distance runs, sprinters have turned to mixed breeds. Most dogs will still have some Siberian heritage -- sought for the heavy coat that comes with it -- mixed with a sporting breed like a hound or a pointer for speed. The so-called "Alaskan husky" isn't a distinct breed at all. As Jim Carnahan puts it, "An Alaskan is anything that'll pull a sled."

And it pulls a lot faster. A hound cross-breed can average 18-22 miles per hour, Appleton says, while a Siberian can go about 15. Their doggy personalities are likely to be different, too: A Siberian, Carolan says, is an independent-minded dog -- a hard worker but less interested in repetitive tricks than, say, a retriever who will fetch a stick 100 times and not grow bored. "A Siberian will say, 'I did that already, what's next?'" Hounds and pointers, by contrast, tend to bond with people better, making them easier to train.

Johnn Molburg, 56, of Tyrone (near State College) looks to the hounds' malleability for his competitive advantage. Sled dogs tend to have two main pitfalls on the trail. They can be too distractible, prone to veering off a racecourse just to socialize with another passing dog team. At the other extreme, they can be too focused: Once they start running, sled dogs can have a one-track mind. And if the musher -- standing on two skinny sled runners and clinging to a couple handles at speeds of over 20 miles per hour -- lets loose of his team, good luck! Some of Molburg's dogs, he says, will stop running and come back for him -- a boast that might not seem like much to a layperson, but is a feat for a sled driver.

Once, during a racing event that was several days long, Molburg was pushing himself to compete with flu and pneumonia. The dogs seemed anxious, he says. "We pulled out after the second day. They just knew it wasn't right."

Molburg also lets his dogs handle some navigation. If a tree falls into the field where he normally practices, he says, he leaves it there: "The dogs have to make an instant decision about where to go. I have to be careful not to tell them where to go, because sometimes they can see ahead better than I can."

Molburg, who comes from a New Hampshire mushing family, began racing at age 8, with a family Saint Bernard. As a young adult, he raced motorcycles; later, when he was no younger than 40, Molburg began running in events like Pittsburgh's Great Race. "That gave me a better understanding about the dogs," he says.

Though Molburg works in construction sales, he now subsidizes his mushing by making handcrafted wooden dog sleds, which sell from $315 to $1,000. Right now, though, he's talking shop with another musher, Dan Broughton, a maintenance worker for the Ohio state parks system.

"My good six-dog team will be in 2007," Molburg says. "Carl will be five." The peak racing age for dogs is from three to seven years old.

"And Willie will be coming along," Broughton adds.

Meanwhile, Johnn's wife Nancy, a successful mid-distance musher herself, is going through the routine of readying Johnn's sled for the six-dog race, which will begin any minute. "It's such an all-consuming hobby; it's either both of you get into it or you get divorced," Johnn says later.

Unlike the Appletons' Siberians, Molburg's dogs -- Rusty, Willie, Grunt, Norman, Lightning and Eliot -- are mostly hound mixes. In any case, they're charming: big eyes, sleek coats and mostly floppy ears.

Molburg's version of mushing is far from its utilitarian roots, yet, because both he and his dogs are so athletic, it has its own visceral appeal. Besides his six-dog team, Molburg is known for his skijoring -- in which one, two or three dogs pull a skier -- and has won several national medals in the past few years.

"I just go fearless," he says. "I like being on the edge of out-of-control."

The secret to a smart, responsive dog is a happy and secure dog, Molburg says: "Spend lots of time with them and make every run as enjoyable as possible. Make sure it's trouble-free, and never let dogs see you angry."

"Wow! Ten minutes!" says Robert Worden, a musher and construction worker from Mexico, N.Y., near Lake Ontario north of Syracuse. He's just back from the unlimited-class race (he placed fourth), but it's already time for the eight-dog race to begin. "Ten minutes 'til the eight-dog!" he tells his wife Kathy. "That's too quick. We don't even have time to take care of the dogs." Luckily, the just-run dogs seem happy enough, devouring a stew of raw beef and warm water, along with a healthy dose of Glycocharge -- a sort of Gatorade for dogs, which replaces the glycogen in their muscles, keeping them from getting too sore or exhausted.

From this post-race glow, Worden and his wife Kathy shift into a frantic efficiency, popping last race's dogs back into their cubby holes in the pickup's topper and rousting eight more.

It's Worden's ambition that's really rushing him. He's entered a dog team in all the big-ticket sled races of the day: unlimited, eight-dog and six-dog, and four-dog. They're scheduled only 15 minutes apart, so his morning will be virtually without a break. These races are low-key, but for Worden that means an opportunity to try out a group of rookie dogs, assigning one to each team. (The strategy worked: One new dog won, and Worden placed in all the categories he ran.)

Worden is agreeable, sturdy but not large, with a pink scoop nose that's just about all that's visible outside his wraps. He's been dog-sledding only about five years, he says, but by any measure he's gone gung-ho. In addition to the 30 dogs he has here today, the Wordens have 14 more at home. Their kennel, Paw Power, offers sled rides to the public and does school and community programs. And despite his New York address, he's president of the Pennsylvania Sled Dog Association.

How does someone go from having a pet dog or two, to running a canine athletics program? When does the family pet become a teammate? Like many mushers, Rob Worden can't exactly define the tipping point: He started with a few dogs, then got another and another. He works in construction, and sledding's a good off-season activity. Most of his dogs, he says, are animals that didn't work out for other kennels, and he was recently offered $1,000 for one of his "free" dogs.

But families that sleigh together, stay together. Rob's daughter, who's 18 and the child of his first wife, will soon be heading up to Fairbanks, Alaska, where she'll work as a handler to Dee Dee Jonrowe, the famous woman Iditarod champ. Rob's working on making a musher of Kathy, too, who's shy but friendly with turquoise snowpants and long brown feathered hair that trails out from her earflap hat: "I was supposed to learn this year," she says, but was hung up by a broken foot.

For now, she adds, "I'm mostly the feed and water person." Feeding and scooping up the waste is called "dropping" the dogs. At a minimum, it takes an hour to feed and water the dogs, but, most nights, the Wordens end up outside longer, training or just giving the dogs some extra attention. Kathy works for Blue Cross Blue Shield and uses most of her vacation on winter Fridays so they can travel to the races. "Once, I couldn't go, he said if I'd been there he would've done better," Kathy says.

Not everyone is so deeply involved. Today, for example, was Mary Beth Logue's first race in the four-dog sportsman class. Logue, a twentysomething school psychologist from Trout Run (near Williamsport), decided to take the plunge after she and her husband Chris visited Denali, Alaska, on a cross-country motorcycle trip. "She always loved animals. She was going to be a vet," Chris Logue says.

Most mushers claim that their family and friends think they're nuts, but Mary Beth reports, "Our family's really supportive."

"Our whole family's crazy!" corrects Chris.

Liz Stanaitiz, a graphic designer from Chester County, is also embarking on her first competitive sled race. One day a few years ago, she put a harness on the dog she had adopted from the local husky rescue club. Since then, she's purchased two purebreds from the Appletons, and her dog team's running ability has grown by leaps and bounds. Still, she says, she has a soft spot for her husky, now retired at 14 years old: Alexandra Van Halen.

"Hey, it's a holiday for the dogs, too," adds hubby Rich. "They get to go away, stay in a hotel ... "

In a hotel? With both of you in the same room? "Yep, and bark at other dogs all day!"

If there's a dog-sledding sport of the future, skijoring might be it.

Skijoring is something like water-skiing, except with a dog team instead of a motorboat. And the water in question, of course, is frozen.

As unusual as the sport may sound, skijoring is a good place for beginners to enter into the sled-dogging world: It requires only keeping a few dogs, and the gear is relatively inexpensive.

At these races, Johnn Molburg is the only serious skijoring competitor, easily outpacing the other three entrants by almost 10 minutes, even though he was skiing with only one dog, which is slower than with several.

It takes a special dog to do this, and Molburg's partner is Carl, a seemingly relaxed but outgoing speckled hound. "Carl's really bonded to me," Molburg says. Like Molburg, Carl is sociable, smart and lean, with gray hair.

At least in the smaller Eastern regional races, skijoring is still overshadowed by the spectacle of the big dog teams.

But Molburg is breaking his own trail, drawing attention to skijoring.

In 2001, Molburg won the International Sled Dog Racing Association gold medal for three-dog skijoring. In 2002, he vowed to win two -- which meant that, in order to earn enough points, he would have to win every race he attended. He drove 8,600 miles and 172 hours that season, he told the Dog and Driver trade journal, for 2 hours and 58 minutes of racing. But Molburg made good, winning gold medals in both the three-dog and two-dog categories.

Then, last year, besides winning a bronze medal in two-dog skijoring from ISDRA, Molburg won a spot at the World Championships in Bernau, Germany. It was his first European competition, and the highlight of his career so far.

Not surprisingly, skijoring is bigger in Europe than it is here, he says; its origins are Finnish, where people first began skiing behind reindeer. "Swedes, Germans, French, they all have it as a national sport," Molburg says. "In Europe, skijorers are skiers who just didn't make the Olympic ski team!"

One object of such a competition, sponsored by the International Federation of Sled Dog Sports, is to establish skijoring as an Olympic sport. Molburg emphasizes that skijoring isn't just getting pulled along: "Your pure skiers, they pooh-pooh the dog things," he acknowledges. Skijorers don't go very fast if they don't do a lot of the pushing as well, especially going uphill.

Molburg is beginning his quest for his fourth gold medal. This time around, Molburg's going for the final skijoring category, one-dog skijoring. "The key is a dog like Carl, who can go 30 miles an hour down the hill." But with only one dog running, and the musher somewhat vulnerable on skis and dependent on him, a lot would be asked of Carl.

"I'm a competitor," he said. "I brought Carl here because there'd be no pressure." And if Carl didn't do well, he might be off the medal team.

Other skijorers at Warren, like Molburg, are also following their own path, even though the three of them are novices and hobbyists.

"Bonnie's the club secretary, I'm the club treasurer," jokes Karen Riley of Buffalo. Tall, lean and stately, Riley looks like a skier. By day, however, she drives tractor-trailers, while looking for a social-studies teaching job. In the meantime, skijoring offers her a chance to compete on a level playing field. In skijoring, Riley notes, "There's not an advantage to being a man, but being a good skier helps."

Also from Buffalo, Bonnie Klubeck, 25, is improvising, with downhill skis and ski boots, not the cross-country skis that are preferred. "She's pure deadweight down the hills," jokes Karen.

Bonnie works in a nursing home and is studying to be a veterinarian. Her dogs are Yukon and Yipper. Yipper, a purebred Siberian, is a show dog, and Yukon, Bonnie's first dog, was a Christmas gift. After joining a husky club, Klubeck decided to try him on the harness.

"What I like best," Riley reflects, "is you're out in the woods with your dogs, there's no Ski-Doos, no beeping of the horn."

Back at the warming hut -- a picnic shelter outfitted with plywood and a big wood fire -- on Sunday afternoon, Ed and Karen Atwood, from the snowmobile club, are writing prize checks out of the club checkbook. The $2,500 purse is being split 36 ways, with a top prize of $216. (As Johnn Molburg had predicted early Saturday morning, the hearty, wholesome Rodenhouse clan -- they of the matching green jackets -- clean up.)

Little speeches of thanks follow each medal. Many were equally grateful to slurp down thick, homemade chicken noodle soup at $2 a bowl. But given the foot of snow and the fact that temperatures never cracked 20 degrees, just being outdoors all day in these conditions is a triumph. So besides the prize money and medals, all the participants get a special souvenir of Warren County: a travel mug with an American flag. Unlike much patriotic paraphernalia, these were actually made in the U.S.A., at a Warren factory.

In organizing an event like this, the Atwoods and the other organizers are blazing new trails as well. Warren County is one of the four counties that contain part of the Allegheny National Forest, and the Atwoods hope that an event like this will bring some notoriety to their area in the off-season. Ultimately, they hope it will lead visitors to appreciate the area's natural beauty -- often given last priority behind the area's oil, gas and timber industries.

"Timber won't save our economy," Karen Atwood says. "It's got to be lots of things."

No one's aiming to make Warren the Poconos of the west, but Atwood argues that an event like the sled-dog races has a holistic impact: Visitors, naturally, will spend money in hotels and on food, but local spectators, too, will get out of the house and participate in the community. Tourism -- even in the winter -- "might be really super here, and we've repressed it all these years," says Atwood.

There are signs their vision is taking hold. A couple years ago, the Warren County commissioners didn't even want to pay for a single country recreation director to coordinate such activities. This year, in the second year of Winterfest's recovery after a stretch of warm years, is the first year with a new, younger batch of commissioners. One of them even capped off Winterfest by gamely jumping into icy Chapman Lake on Saturday, a stunt to raise money for the Salvation Army.

Such spectacles -- along with the dog races, fireworks and family activities like cross-country ski rental and sledding -- drew 2,500 spectators out to Chapman State Park, says the county's newly minted rec director Chris Seymour.

With its odd mix of participants and over-the-top dog devotion, mushing is rustic but far removed from big-money racing sports like horseracing and greyhound racing. It's homegrown, it's rural, it's unpretentious and it happens in the backwoods. In a way, it's a little like NASCAR in its early years, before it became a national corporate cliché. Except the action here is driven by panting dogpower, not roaring horsepower, and a scantily clad woman would be one without a facemask.

There's no partying, either, or even time to stay for the winter fireworks display after the races are done. With not much of the weekend's blizzard cleared off the winding, woodsy byways, the roads are bound to be bad -- even for dogsledders. And most of the mushers have to be at work Monday morning.

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