When I was a little girl, Call of the Wild and White Fang were my two favorite books. I wanted a husky and fantasized about competing in the Iditarod. Then I got a bit older and read horror stories about dogs dying during the Iditarod and racing dogs being kept in cruel conditions. So I shelved the fantasy... until this year.
For my birthday in February, I went to Eden and found paradise—Eden, Vermont... and by paradise I mean the Eden Ethical Dog Sledding Experience. Normally if I were to travel for my February birthday, I’d head somewhere a little warmer. This year was special, because it was my father’s 70th (his birthday is a day before mine) and as an avid skier, he wanted to spend it at Stowe. Since I now only ski about once every five years, I was eager to find a less humbling activity. Luckily my boyfriend Noah noticed that our hotel’s website listed dog sledding along with the recommendations for the Eden Ethical Dog Sledding Experience—an operation that advertised itself as unique in the world for the way that the dogs are treated. While booking my time slot on the phone, I was advised to make sure I brought a camera with full batteries. Apparently the number one regret of visitors is not taking enough photos. Reader, I took over 300 photos and still think about the things I neglected to capture.
On my birthday morning (February, 6th… Aquarius pride!), we drove the 45 minutes from Stowe to Eden in a snowstorm. Thankfully both Subarus and sled dogs are built for winter. After a winding drive through country roads, we arrived at our destination, where a large farmhouse and a series of outbuildings sat nestled in the Vermont countryside.
As soon as we pulled up, a medium-small, black-and-white dog strutted up to greet us. Her tag read Polly. We followed Polly up to the barn, which was surrounded by large fenced-in areas with free-roaming dogs. Upon entering the barn, we were immediately and enthusiastically greeted by a pack of dogs.
Owner and international sprint dog sled champion Jim Blair introduced us to the dogs, sharing with us a little bit about each one's personality and history. All were mixed breeds that appeared to have some husky lineage.
He refers to them as "The Un-chained Gang," as his operation is one of very few in North America where dogs are free roaming. The gang currently consists of 33 dogs.
Our guide Rodney took over and showed us how to put the dogs' specialized harnesses on. He also made sure to let us know that the lean dogs were indeed well-fed and cared for. Apparently many guests were not accustomed to seeing dogs with such athletic physiques and often expressed concern. I assured him that I was well aware that these dogs were the picture of health. I would later learn that their diets consisted of a high-quality kibble (purchased by the pallet) along with raw chicken carcasses and daily supplementation of coconut oil, probiotics and gelatin. As the team drew closer to being ready, the dogs' growing excitement was palpable. They lined up near the door and whined for us slow humans to hurry up.
Once outside we hitched the dogs to the sled. The team of ten was arranged according to the dogs' strengths and personalities. Brothers Songan and Hanovi were in the lead. Like true siblings they sometimes bickered, occasionally barking in each others faces. Next came Abby, mother to some of the other Eden dogs, and Aslan who at 14 still lived to run. Polly our gentle greeter was paired with Morris, a beautiful rescue. Morris had come from a situation in which he was under-socialized but showed great promise as a sled dog, and while still timid, he had already come out of his shell quite a bit. Mitzy and Bandit were next. Bandit could be a bit of a jerk with some of the other dogs, but Mitzy, despite her smaller size, could put anyone in their place. Brima and Babouch took up the rear, and often scooped their heads down to eat the fresh powder snow. After the dogs were hitched, Noah and I got into the sled, with Rodney driving from the rear. Between all three humans and the weight of the sled, the dogs were pulling approximately five hundred pounds. They didn't seem to be aware of this as we took off.
With an occasional "gee" (right) or "haw" (left), Rodney navigated us through the trail system snaking across the 140-acre property. At one point we passed a pond which serves as a cool down station during summer tours. This is a year-round operation and in the summer the sleds are replaced with custom wheeled carts imported from Europe. We continued to travel at the speed of dog, up to around 15 mph, for more than half an hour. Next Noah and I split up to take turns learning how to drive the sled while Rodney sat in the sled with an emergency brake. The fresh snow provided the perfect conditions for learning. The most difficult part was learning how to correctly shift my weight as we sped around banked turns. As a former skier and snowboarder, this came fairly naturally. I don't even have the words to describe how exhilarating an experience it was.
After returning from our adventure, we assisted in giving the dogs their post ride "doggy gatorade" which was a mixture of kibble and water enhanced with an additional electrolyte mix. Next it was treat time and we got to toss treats to our team. The most rewarding part of this when Morris shyly drew near to take a few treats. We warmed up with hot beverages, popcorn and cookies and spoke with Jim for a while and about his dogs and business. It was hard to leave, but after four hours in pupper paradise, it was time to get back to our reality.