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Dog sledding club holds summer campout

MORRIS — Sled dogs are pretty interesting pooches that come in a variety of shapes and sizes and many people got to experience the joys in the sport of racing them at the Pennsylvania Sled Dog Club’s Summer Campout at the Twin Streams Campground, in Morris, over the weekend.

The state Sled Dog Club has over 150 members from Pennsylvania, New York and seven other states. They have a variety of racing classes and all the club’s events are run under International Sled Dog Racing Association rules.

The club has been around since 1971 and for the last few years, members have come to Tioga County to spend the weekend. Members arrived Friday night for a meet and greet, a board meeting and to prepare for a full day of events on Saturday.

Saturday’s events included drag races and a timed barrel racing-type competition in the morning. Visitors were invited to meet the mushers, or racers, and see the racing equipment and meet the dogs. Speaker Laura Neese, who placed third in this year’s Yukon Quest, the famous 1,000 mile annual wilderness sled dog race from Fairbanks, Alaska to Whitehorse, Yukon, spoke in the afternoon.

Saturday’s race courses were laid out across a lawn at the campground. Red tape lined the race lanes from start to finish and mushers watered the dogs and prepared their equipment.

Most teams are veterans to the process. But the club welcomes beginners. Even those with a well-trained dog that likes to run can join in and the helpful club members will mentor them along. Even children are welcome to learn in the Junior Musher events.

The drag races, which serve as off-season training for the dog teams, began shortly after the racers were prepared. One expects racers to say, “Mush! Mush!” as a part of the universal dog sled language. But according to the dog sled club’s webpage, the term is a derivation of the French word “marche.” And old-time dog mushers thought the word meant “to go.” But these days, many dog sled drivers don’t use this word much. At Morris, many used the word “hike,” although in jest one musher also called out, “cookies … bacon.”

The most popular dog for racing today is the Alaskan husky. It’s a muscular dog built for cold weather and weighs between 55 and 70 pounds. But another similar-sized dog is its close competitor, the Siberian husky. Other popular racing dogs include the samoyed, Alaskan malamute and the German shorthaired pointer.

Saturday’s racers were mostly Siberian huskies, though there were a few other breeds racing. One competitor, Cathy Beck, from North Hampton, Massachusetts, is legally blind and raced with her 8-year-old service dog and her second service-dog-in-training pet, both border collies.

“Sled Dog racing is perfect for folks like me who want to be active but who don’t see well,” Beck said. “Your dog guides you and so you are able to do things you would struggle to do otherwise.” Beck participated in scooter and bicycle races in Morris, but she also ran in the canicross races. Canicross is a cross country foot race with dogs. It is used as an off-season training for dog sledding, but is also becoming popular as a stand-alone sport. The harnessed dog pulls the runner along through a bungee cord attached to a waist belt on the runner.

Races at the campout were divided into youth and adult divisions in bicycle, scooter and gig races. In every case, from one to several harnessed dogs impatiently waited to do what they were bred for: powerfully pull their musher and equipment along. And once released, they rushed to the other end of the straight course with the wheeled cart, or gig flying along behind.

There were several children participating in the races.

Aubrey Murosky, 4, came with her grandmother to see the event and decided she wanted to ride a bigger sled. She was carefully instructed in what to do while dog handlers walked the dog down the race course while Aubrey grinned widely.

Jaymee Eddy, of Butler, rode her bicycle several times behind a sled dog. Her mom was either handling the dog or waiting at the end of the course to greet dog and daughter on a successful run.

Handcrafted white ash sleds by Nancy and Johnn Molburg, of Tyrone, were on display during the event.

Most mushers use carbon fiber sleds, but Johnn Molburg’s laminated wood sleds with lash construction are not only stunning, but useful for training and racing.

The star of the event was the speaker who came from Michigan to talk about mushing on a professional level. Laura Neese, 21, rides for the Nature’s Kennel racing team and travels throughout the country to race in long-distance wilderness races. Laura’s face lit up when asked what is so special about running a sled dog team. “There is nothing like it,” she said. “The Yukon Quest trail is tough, but you do it with the dogs you have trained and that are so special to you. Those dogs love life. They are happier racing than anything else. They develop a bond with each other and with you. And there is no stopping them. They are there to run.”

Neese recounted a morning she and her team of 14 dogs raced to the top of Rosebud Summit, in Alaska, and watched the sunrise there.

The trail was so steep there were times she said she had to lift the sled above her head to help the dogs scramble up the mountain.

But once at the top, there was such a sense of accomplishment, as she and her dogs were literally at the top of the world, she said.

This past weekend in Morris was the start of off-season training for many teams.

Some of the club’s members will return to Tioga County on Feb. 23 for the Canyon Sled Dog Challenge. Club members said they are looking forward to the 15-mile out-and-back course from Darling Run to Tiadaghton on the Pine Creek Rail Trail.

Visitors will be able to meet the mushers and watch the start and finish of the race from the access area at Darling Run.

The Morris campout ended Sunday night.

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