Mushing catches on in Pa.’s Alle-Kiski Valley

On a cool summer morning, it’s not unusual to see a few huskies pulling bicycles along the Butler-Freeport Community Trail.

In the fall, groups gather on the trail with bikes, scooters or specially designed wheeled rigs that their dogs, sometimes four or six harnessed together, pull for miles.

Some are in training for dryland or snow races. Others are out for the exercise and the camaraderie.

While sled dog racing is more commonly linked to the Alaskan Iditarod or cold, snowy northern states, the sport is becoming a popular recreational and competitive activity in Western Pennsylvania.

“I think it’s amazing what these dogs can do and how they communicate with you and you communicate with them,” said Kelli Bastin, 44, of Winfield. She and her Siberian husky, Comet, participate in local competitions.

“Winning is part of it, but it’s the joy of the sport … the fact that you’re using the dogs as they have been used since the beginning,” she said.

Huskies, Siberian and Alaskan, are high-energy dogs with plenty of endurance. They were bred as sled dogs. They’re the dogs that run 1,000 miles in two weeks for the Iditarod.

“In their breed, that’s what their potential is,” said Ari Allen, 45, of Hampton. But they don’t need snow to show their ability, she said.

“People are surprised that there’s all this equipment for what they call urban mushing,” said Allen, who takes her three dogs biking on the Butler-Freeport trail nearly every weekend. “You start investigating, and a whole world opens up that you never knew existed.”

Mainly, the equipment is a special harness for the dog and a rope that can attach to the front of a bicycle, scooter or rig – a specially made three-wheeled cart large enough for a person to sit in. The dog lead can be connected to a belt worn by the owner. It can be used while biking, also called bikejoring, or running, known as canicross.

Locally, the West Penn Mushers, an informal Facebook group, organizes runs in the fall and winter. Most of the group members are from Western Pennsylvania, some are from central Pennsylvania, New York and Ohio. Local members practice mainly on the Butler-Freeport trail and the Roaring Run Trail in Kiski Township.

Dryland races are held annually at Cooper’s Lake Campground near Moraine State Park in Butler County and sled dog races and dog-pulling competitions are popular events at the Warren County Winterfest in January.

“It seems to be really growing right now, especially with these groups such as the West Penn Mushers,” said John Molburg, president of the Pennsylvania Sled Dog Club, which includes members from many Northeastern states. “I think it’s the feedback you get from the animals. I used to race motorcycles, and you don’t get any warm fuzzy feelings or licks on your face from your motorcycle that you do from your dog.”

Molburg retired from racing last year and spends his time making wooden sleds at his business, Arctic Star Dog Sleds in Tyrone, Blair County.

Outlet for energy

Dog drivers, also known as mushers, say they got involved with dog sledding for various reasons, but most commonly they said they needed a way to exercise their dogs.

Huskies have a tendency to become aggressive or chew on anything in sight if they don’t have an outlet for their energy, owners say.

They’re also great escape artists, noted Tammy Beilstein, 55, of Herman, Summit Township, who owns two huskies.

Despite that, many husky owners develop what they call “potato chip syndrome.”

“You can’t have just one,” said Dan Rehak, of Pittsburgh, who has four huskies, two of which are Iditarod finishers.

“This is a good way to exercise more than one at a time,” he said. “It’s a whole lot of fun. We love having the dogs.”

Beilstein said she got her first husky when her daughter wanted a puppy. They didn’t know a lot about the breed and soon discovered Hachi, now 2 1/2 years old, needed an outlet for his energy.

She discovered dog sledding when one of the co-organizers of the West Penn Mushers invited her to a get-together for husky owners when Hachi was about 11 months old.

“We hooked up our dog with one of the other dogs and he balked at first, but then finally got into it,” Beilstein said. “He just loves to do it.”

She has a two-wheeled scooter for her dog to pull and a sled for winter.

Beilstein has since rescued a female husky, Jade, who is just under a year old. She’s training her to run with Hachi.

“I just love cool weather, and it’s nice – especially in the fall – with the beauty of the trail and knowing the dogs are having fun,” she said.

‘Hooked’ on the sport

Allen said she got involved in dog pulling when looking for a way to exercise her female husky, Ruby. She has since rescued two others: Reno, a male, and Alaska, a female who was trained as a lead dog.

“You just get hooked,” she said. “When you get out there and you’re in the woods and all you hear is the dogs breathing and their feet going, it’s just really cool.

“You get a golden moment or two, and you keep going after it.”

Although huskies specially are suited to pulling, any working, sporting or herding dog can do it, Rehak said. One woman does dryland races with Irish setters, Bastin said.

Rehak, a Leechburg native, said his initial interest in dog scootering in 2009 to exercise their first two huskies eventually evolved into adopting dogs from a Canadian breeder.

He competes using a wooden sled or a wheeled rig.

“One day we went to (the Butler-Freeport trail), and we had two dogs,” Rehak said. “We ran from Sarver (Buffalo Township) to Freeport on the scooter with the dogs. You suddenly get the idea that these dogs are capable of transporting people for distances.”

Rehak and his four dogs have taken first place in several races at Cooper’s Lake.

Bastin said she got her first husky knowing that she wanted to compete with them.

“I took my sister to a dog sled race as a birthday surprise and I fell in love with one of the musher’s dogs, and four or five months later she called and said she was giving up her team and I took one of the dogs,” Bastin said.

She eventually wants to get two more huskies for a four-dog team.

“(Competing is) something I want to get more involved in,” she said. “It really is fun. It’s addicting.”