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At Tamworth Sled Dog Race, Dogs & Mushers Enjoy a Winter Classic While it Lasts

Dogs from around the Northeast gathered in Tamworth last weekend – along with their owners - to take part in a decades-old winter tradition: the Tamworth Sled Dog Races. Organizers say the event goes back to 1937.

But poor weather conditions in recent years have canceled the race, leaving some to worry about the future of this winter classic.

Watching a sled dog team idle at the starting line, it’s hard to tell who’s more ready to go: the person who gets to drive the sled or the dogs pulling it. It takes one person per dog to hold the team back before the race starts. Meanwhile the dogs make a racket, doing the canine version of revving an engine at a red light.

As soon as the race starts, though, the dogs focus all that pent up energy into launching forward. The barking stops, replaced by the dull fluttering sound of paws on snow, the sled carving its path.

Watching the dogs bound across a frozen Lake Chocorua, with a snowcapped Mount Chocorua looming overhead, it's a timeless scene. That’s what Bob Najar came here to see -- a classic New Hampshire winter event.

"I never understood people who say they hate winter. What are they doing in New Hampshire?" Najar said. "If you’re in New Hampshire, you gotta find something you like about the winter and do it. But you don’t find anything, you should leave."

Credit Mia Phillips

While Najar and other spectators gathered mostly on the frozen lake, the mushers and their dogs teams prepared in some nearby woods. That’s where I found musher Kay Riley from the Finger Lake region of upstate New York. She had just finished a race and was pouring a set of eight water bowls for her Alaskan huskies.

I ask how she steers her dogs during a race. She answers matter-of-factly:

"Gee. Haw. Gee is to the right, haw is to the left. My guys also have a gee-bit, haw-bit. Which is 'just a little bit to the gee' or 'a little bit to the haw.' "

Riley has been mushing for 19 years. She got hooked seeing images of the famous Iditarod race in Alaska.

Her day job is teaching English as a second language to 7 year olds. The races are often far away and sometimes Riley has to drive several hours through the night just to get back in time to teach her morning classes. When I ask her why she puts up with all that, her face brightens.

"The dogs. The dogs," Riley says. "I mean, you can have the world’s worst day at work and you come home and they’re all excited to see you and the harnesses come out and they’re even more excited. It’s unconditional love, you know. It’s great."

Not far away I run into another longtime musher, Robert Worden of Mexico, N.Y. He says he’s been doing this for 21 years. But he adds that today's race may have been his last.

"It’s getting harder and harder to find places that train," says Worden. "Global warming – races are being canceled left and right, year after year after year."

Credit Jason Moon / NHPR

Worden is not the only person to mention the threat that climate change poses to the sport. Here in Tamworth, this race has been canceled the last few years because of bad conditions. A warm spell that turned the lake to slush, or a rain that washed away the snow cover. Worden says he only came here to Tamworth because the race he was planning on going to this year in Laconia got canceled.

Getting out of the sport now leaves Worden with some tough decisions, like what to do with his dogs. He says he once owned more than 50, though he’s already sold many of them and is now down to 10.

"They are family and it was hard. I mean I got chocked up, I saw some of the dogs last week that I had sold and you know it’s not easy. I cry letting these guys go. Nobody knows how much," says Worden. "Probably shouldn’t talk about that anymore."

The long-term future of the sport may be in doubt, but this year, on this weekend, at least, the Tamworth Sled Dog race did happen and Worden and his dogs got to have one last race.

Which was just in time for spectators like Marianne Dower, who came up from Newburyport, Mass., to see the race for the first time.

"It’s a lovely, lovely event -- wonderful," says Dower. "It really is a throwback in time of what life should be in the winter time."

A throwback that many hope will last a while longer.

Jason Moon is a senior reporter and producer on the Document team. He has created longform narrative podcast series on topics ranging from unsolved murders, to presidential elections, to secret lists of police officers.
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