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With warming winters, mushers and sled dogs in N.H. face changes to a sport they love

Mara Hoplamazian for NHPR
A team makes their way through a slushy patch of snow at Laconia's 93rd annual World Championship Sled Dog Derby

Teams of sled dogs and mushers from across the United States and Canada visited Laconia this weekend for the 93rd annual World Championship Sled Dog Derby.

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Racers were in good spirits, though they faced slushy conditions on Friday and Saturday – a situation that has become more common, many mushers said, as climate change causes winters to warm.

Vince Buoniello was the chief judge for the Laconia race, which has a deep and prestigious history in the sled dog world. He likened it to the Super Bowl.

“Laconia was always a magic name. Everybody wanted to race Laconia,” he said.

Through his 65 years in the sled dog world, Buoniello has seen big changes – fewer people seem to be involved in the sport, and it’s harder to find undeveloped land for sledding trails. And, he said, warming winters have made races difficult to schedule.

“We raced every weekend for years and years. It was an exception if a race ever got canceled. Now, forget it. It's changed drastically,” he said. “To see mud, it just blows your mind. It just never used to happen.”

Buoniello, who is 90, said judging the race in the warm conditions had tired him out a bit. But, he said, his love for the sport and the animals has made it worthwhile throughout his career.

“The dogs kept me going,” he said. “It was just such love. It was just pure love.”

Warmer conditions create difficulty for dogs

Jules Struzyna, a musher from Vermont, said it’s not just the mushers who love the sport.

Mara Hoplamazian for NHPR
Dogs from Cobble Hill Kennel rest after a race at Laconia's 93rd annual World Championship Sled Dog Derby

“We love to do it, obviously, but not even a fraction as much as the dogs,” they said.

Struzyna said they and their dogs have seen the effects of climate change on the sport. For their team, race days have been few and far between – but that made getting out over the weekend all the better.

“If we can get a race in, that’s great,” they said. “Some years we don’t get any….so we’re stoked to just be out here racing and having a good time.”

But the trail was slow going this weekend. It’s harder for dogs to run on slush, Struzyna said. One race on Saturday was moved to start half an hour earlier to avoid more melting.

And Sunday’s events were canceled, after a cold night turned the slush and water to ice, creating unsafe conditions for dogs and humans.

Struzyna’s team comes from the Cobble Hill Kennel in Vermont, where the dogs take tourists out for runs, using a cart with wheels when there isn’t enough snow to use a sled. But the dogs like racing the best, Struzyna said.

At the starting line, each team of dogs met spectators with a chorus of excited yelps. An ATV, sled brakes, and multiple humans were required to keep the dogs from racing off before the starting call.

Mara Hoplamazian for NHPR
Sled dogs are ready to run as soon as they reach the starting line, and humans help hold them steady until it's time to go

Handlers rubbed snow onto some dogs to cool them off.

Sally Manikian, a musher from Shelburne, said warmer conditions can overheat her dogs.
“The dogs get hot, like anyone. It's sort of like running a marathon when it's 100 degrees and humid,” she said.

She started her race with dogs Flora and Cobalt in the lead, but switched Cobalt out after the stress of race day proved too much for the pup. But for Manikian, that was the point – she wanted to get her young team acclimated to the feeling of a crowded race.

“There's a lot of spectators,” she said. “That's why I signed up.”

Mara Hoplamazian for NHPR
Musher Sally Manikian starts her race at the 93rd annual World Championship Sled Dog Derby in Laconia

Climate change shapes training seasons across the world 

Fernando Ramirez brought his dog team to New Hampshire from Utah.

“World Championships is definitely one of those prestige races that really tests your team to see how you rank with the best mushers in the world,” he said.

Ramirez keeps track of temperature and snow conditions each year while training his dogs in Utah. And he’s seen big changes there too, especially in the past five years. He used to be able to start training in September, but temperatures aren’t getting low enough to start until mid-October now. The end of the season comes quicker, too.

“I have it in all my training logs. We're pretty much off our sleds in February,” he said. “In Park City, to see the snow melt and become “unrunnable” in February, it's really strange…If we have a really good snow year, it’s what our average snow years used to be like.”

Mara Hoplamazian for NHPR
Dogs were ready to run at Laconia's sled dog derby

In Quebec, the training season has also been affected by climate, said Guy Girard, a musher from St. Thomas de Joliette, whose team won the open class events on Friday and Saturday.

This year, COVID-19 presented an additional challenge for Canadian teams. Girard and his friend Jean-Phillippe Lacasse, a musher from Gaspe, were able to make it, but quarantine restrictions and the risk of transmission caused others to stay away.

“Some mushers, they have to go to work on Monday,” he said. “They cannot stay here two more weeks because they have a positive test. Even if they really take care – you never know.”

Spectators find community and joy in the race

For the hundreds of spectators watching the event, mud didn’t get in the way of a good time. But many seemed aware of how warming winters in New Hampshire are changing the landscape of recreation.

Merry Fortier, who now lives in Canterbury, grew up watching dog sledding events in Tamworth – a race that’s also experiencing changes due to warming winters. She says the changing climate has changed her experience as a spectator, too.

“Now that the climate is different, it's harder and harder for these events to be in New Hampshire,” she said. “Just not enough snow, or snow and then rain, which doesn't work well for the dogs and the drivers.”

Mara Hoplamaian for NHPR
Warmer winters have changed the experience of racing for many mushers, with slushy snow making trails slower

But even with the mud, the Laconia world championship was an exciting event, she said.

“It's just a really fun, joyful thing to watch, to watch the dogs and their teams go out and be outside and just have a beautiful day.”

And winter sports are meaningful not just to the racers, but to the communities that host them. Kayla Bradshaw, who moved to Laconia last year, said the event showed her the beauty of the community in the Lakes Region – something that helps make winter a little easier.

“It's amazing to see everyone come out and support each of these events – ice fishing last week, and here today with the sled dog derby,” she said. “There’s always something going on in the winter to keep you going.”

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