A thousand frozen dogsled fanatics line the track's edge as approaching yaps signal a start to the races. Dogs of all nationalities and colors zip by, beaming wide and sincere. A jittery musher tumbles off his sled, but remounts with grace to thunderous applause. Pack by pack, the slobber sleighs twist down the trail and out of sight . . . only the most committed and conditioned returning with victory.
Welcome to the Myopia Sled Dog races. Held this past weekend for the second consecutive year at Ipswich's Appleton Farms, and racing into parts of Hamilton, teams of all sexes and ages battle for the quickest run on four-, six-, eight-, and 11-mile trails.
On hand is Lily Stewart, the 13-year-old hometown mushing phenom. The resonance of her doughty pups busting through the snow is silenced only by the substantial cheers she fetches while coasting by the swarms of adoring fans. Stewart already has a bounty of trophies stocked up in her young career, and her sights are set on Alaska's Iditarod in a few years. "She's the pride of Ipswich," a local gloats. "We all adore her."
New England's roots in the sport of dog sledding run wicked deep. New Hampshire transplant Arthur Walden was an early dogsled champion and explorer who, along with his trusty pooch, Chinook — later to beget a breed with the same name — participated in the first American excursion to the South Pole in 1928. Working under Walden on that voyage was a young dog driver from Boston's North Shore named Norman Vaughn, whose lifelong escapades (he died in 2005, days after turning 100) made him a local dog-sledding legend. Today, mushing remains a popular regional pastime for athletes, enthusiasts, and ballsy vacationers alike.
There's also a dark side to dogsled racing. The two-week, 1100-mile Iditarod is blasted by PETA for the death of at least one dog per event — roughly 150 since 1973 — in dreadful ways from strangulation to heart failure. PETA goes so far as to urge people not to support any business or sport that straps a dog to a sled. While both the ASPCA and Humane Society of America combat animal suffering of any nature, neither group has a current agenda against the use of dogs in either sled racing or recreational outings.
Of course, not all dogsled races are as grueling and unforgiving as the Iditarod, and there is little chance of exploding organs or snapped spines from canine competitors at the family-friendly, New England Sled Dog Club–sanctioned Myopia races.
"The only cruelty going on here is when we make them stop running," a young rider jokes while attempting to pacify her pre-race pups.
A noisy sled dog's anticipation instigates a unified howl that bellows throughout the snow-topped farm. "That's a joyous sound," says the owner, attempting to pat his mix-breed's bobbling head. "There's no abuse going on here."
One musher sums it up best: "Truthfully, I treat these dogs better than I treat my own wife."