Cart before the sled

Who needs snow? In Vermont, you can get the flavor of the Iditarod minus the elements -- the barks without the bite

Email|Print| Text size + By Mary Mulkerin Donius
Globe Correspondent / November 13, 2005

EDEN MILLS, Vt. -- Spend a few hours mushing with Jim Blair and you're ready to chuck it all for half a dozen Alaskan huskies and a sled -- or, in our case, a cart.

Blair, 51, an outdoorsman who describes his 25 dogs as his ''best friends," knows how to make the country life look irresistible. At the Eden Mountain Lodge, his 75-acre spread 30 miles north of Stowe on the western fringes of Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, he treats visitors to two types of dog rides.

An accomplished, competitive dogsledder and skijorer (the sport of being pulled on cross-country skis by a team of dogs), Blair bought his retreat with two cabins in 2000 and began creating paths for his dogs to run during the off-season. His land is surrounded by preserved wilderness.

''The dogs love to run and I didn't want to keep them penned up all summer," he said.

Eventually, he developed a cart and started offering rides to tourists. As far as he knows, he's the only person in New England to offer dog carting. His new business came with an unintentional bonus: The dogs are in prime shape for dogsledding once the snow begins to fall.

''Dog carting is the ultimate system for dog training," Blair said, ''and it all happened by mistake."

When we pulled up to the lodge one morning not long ago, we were greeted by a kennel-full of barking dogs who piled on each other to catch a glimpse of the visitors.

''They know we're going for a ride," said Blair of the dogs whose spirited barks and soulful looks seemed to say: ''Pick me! Pick me!"

We don't own a dog, and my children, ages 9, 8, and 5, were a little intimidated at first by the noise and excitement, but Blair and his assistant, Laura Streets, did a great job of introducing the dogs and putting the kids at ease.

The next stop was the barn, where Blair, Streets, and Blair's 9-year-old neighbor, Colby Griffin, led the dogs, one by one, to be harnessed for the ride. Blair had tacked a list to a post with each dog's name and position. It reminded me of Santa's roster of reindeer, but instead of Dasher and Dancer, Comet and Cupid, there were Rainbow, Lily, Fuchsia, and Flint. Peaberry, Blair's favorite lead dog, chosen for his obedience, took Rudolph's spot up front, followed by 10 other dogs.

Siberian huskies, which compete in renowned dogsledding races like the Iditarod in Alaska, are chosen for their endurance. The Alaskan huskies that Blair keeps are known more for their strength and speed.

We were invited to help with harnessing. To my surprise, the kids jumped right in and helped the 50- to 60-pound dogs get ready for their ride. With the dogs in formation, Blair and his crew attached the harness to the cart.

Designed by Blair and a friend, the cart seats six on two vinyl benches. Blair stands on a platform in back to drive. He said he can also easily hop off and run, Fred Flintstone-style, when the dogs need help scaling steep hills.

We all took our places on the cart. Blair yelled, ''Hike!" (not the ''Mush!" we had expected) and we were off.

For the first time in nearly an hour it grew quiet as the dogs began to work instead of bark, leading us through a shady trail at what Blair estimated to be about 15-20 miles per hour -- and which felt pretty fast. On snow, he said, they can run 25-30 miles per hour.

This was some ride -- thrilling and bumpy and beautiful. The children were well aware we had embarked on something special as they laughed hysterically and threw their arms in the air roller-coaster style.

In winter, Blair said, the dogs run for hours and cover a lot of territory, but they tire and overheat quickly in summer and fall. So he tries to organize cart rides in early morning and evening to take advantage of the best weather conditions.

We did need to make a few stops on our 15-minute ride. One dog was bullying another and had to be moved. But the stops and starts didn't take away from the fun, and the scenery was gorgeous. We were in the wilderness and it felt as if there was nobody around for miles.

At a picturesque little pond on the property, Blair unhitched the dogs for a much-deserved dip. They dove into the water and frolicked like a bunch of penguins. We all tossed them doggie treats that Blair had brought and realized that we had become fast friends.

Then the unharnessed dogs, much to everyone's delight, spontaneously raced around the pond several times before jumping in the water for one last swim. Blair said the full-speed runs, which he encourages, help the dogs realize what they are capable of and are great training for competitive dogsledding.

''Some dogs never find out they can run 35 miles per hour," he said.

Soon after, Blair and his helpers, who had met us at the pond, harnessed the dogs for the ride back.

Dog carting is so invigorating that after just one ride it's easy to understand Blair's passion for it. Streets, a former dancer, discovered the sport only recently and now drives teams for Blair during the busy winter season.

''I'm hooked," she said.

In winter, Blair said, the dogsledding rides are much smoother than the carting rides. They are also much longer -- about an hour. He described Eden Mountain as being in a ''major snow belt" and dogsledding there as ''riding on a cloud." Blair drives the team from behind the sled -- which resembles a chaise lounge with cushions, sides, and no legs -- along trails that he grooms daily.

''I cry every spring," he said of the eventual melting of his meticulously maintained trails. But now, thanks to his dog cart, he has found a way to pursue his passion all year and to share it with people like us.

Contact Mary Mulkerin Donius, a freelance writer in Hingham, at

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