POCONO MANOR - A white tundra of snow-covered landscape is glazed with ice. Colorful huskies prance and bark while they are hooked into harnesses. People bundled in heavy coats, scarves and gloves take their places in a sled or stand on its runners.
It's enough to forget that you're standing on a golf course in Pennsylvania's Poconos mountains.
Want to get the full experience of learning how to mush a dog sled, without flying to the north country? Arctic Paws Dog Sled Tours is a great alternative.
"This is not a ride. It's a learning experience and tour," operator Susi Marsh says.
The company offers an adventure - a thrilling ride across the snow, aboard a sled pulled by a pack of dogs.
Arctic Paws Dog Sled Tours are for people of all ages and groups of all sizes. Families can spend time together, learning about the sport and the dogs and then experience the real thing.
Before a guest steps on a sled or sits in a basket, Arctic Paws staff show each one how the equipment works. The most important part of the sled is its brake.
After the equipment introduction, sled function tips and safety instruction, it's time for guests to grab a seat. Options include a sleigh pulled by a snowmobile, in the dog sled itself, referred to as the basket, or on the back of the dog sled as the actual musher.
"You are indeed the musher and the dogs are under your control. Of course they are professionals and know to follow the guide, and know the trail. However, you control when they can go - and when they stop."
On Feb. 12, father and daughter, Paul and Jen Politano, of Lookout Mountain, Ga., were among the guests at Arctic Paws. The Politanos, who have owned huskies for 30 years, decided to try a sled dog experience instead of skiing. It was Paul's first time for mushing and he said he loved every minute of it.
"You can't help but fall in love with them," Paul said about the dogs.
On a typical run, six to eight guests participate in a relay, taking turns as a musher, basket rider or on the passenger sleigh.
The tour takes about an hour but can vary depending on questions, photos and the dogs.
The course is about six miles long and is full of turns, hills and flat spots. Dogs can pick up some speed on the plateaus.
Marsh, operator Eric Walker and their staff encourage guests to take photographs from the beginning to the very end. They even are generous enough to stop the sled, get a group together and take a photo to make the memory last.
"You just lose track of time when you are feeding off of how much fun guests are having," Walker said. "If people enjoy it, I want them to be an advocate for the dogs."
Private tours also are available for one to four guests.
In the beginning
Marsh said their plans to take over the dog sledding course began years ago when they visited Pocono Manor to see the setup at the time. After they came to the course a few weekends, they learned more about the huskies that pulled the sleds.
"We purchased two puppies, Migus and Yazzie, just to play, as a hobby," she said.
Then their pack grew and they took over at the golf course with Arctic Paws.
The dogs are mostly rescues, with stories all their own. Some were abandoned, others were living in shelters, sometimes for a long time, and some were given up by breeders because their coloration meant they couldn't be bred.
Walker and Marsh opened their hearts to these dogs, who need both a home and a job.
"We learned about how many huskies are out there to be given forever homes," Marsh said. "Few we have gotten as puppies, but most of the huskies are given to use by humane societies, personal owners or shelters."
Puppies come from Celtic Acres Farms in upper Marlborough, Md., and some of the rescues come from various shelters and rescues in the region or from as far away as Canada, Wisconsin and Washington, D.C.
The dogs are purebred or mixed Siberian and Alaskan huskies.
Walker points out that each has its own personality. But almost all of the dogs are social and crave attention, which is a trait of their breed.
Guests have the opportunity to be up close with the dogs and learn about each one. The staff will gladly share each one's story and explain their unique personalities.
"Some are wise old spirits who are serious while others are clowns and full of mischief," Marsh said. "They are all great at what they do and (they) love people."
When offered attention, the dogs tend to offer a paw or sometimes kisses. Most more than welcome a nice ear scratch.
Throes of passion
Huskies were born and bred for a specific job - pulling a sled. In fact, it's almost their passion.
"It's amazing to see creatures like this doing what they completely were meant and created to do," Marsh said. "So many things today are manmade and mechanical - rehearsed or programmed - this isn't. It's live and real and full of unique adventure that is not rehearsed."
The staff hopes when people leave, they have learned about and become interested in dog sledding, developed an appreciation for what these animals can do, and created amazing memories and gigantic smiles.