'By the end of the race, you're all one'
At Hilltown Sleddogs, humans, dogs and nature connect
WEST CHESTERFIELD — You hear the barking first. Pulling up a steep driveway, Rollo and Una and the rest of the Hilltown Sleddogs aren't visible yet, but their howls are piercing the polar morning air in this patch of West Chesterfield forest.
You level off and see a house to your left. To your right, a pair of puppies are playing inside a circular, chain-linked pen. After parking, you wander farther up the hill, stopping once you spot some of the 20 adult sled dogs lingering atop, beside or within their rectangular wooden homes at the knoll's base. They are white and wolflike, but Marla B. Brodsky, now walking towards you to introduce herself, has different adjectives to describe the occupants of this Alaskan-style dog yard: sensitive and sweet and connected.
"By the end of the race, you're all one," the musher said on Tuesday.
Dog sled racing often evokes Alaska and the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, the 1,000-mile journey between Anchorage and Nome that will start this year on Saturday, March 2. But over the past decade, Brodsky has cultivated a predominantly Alaskan husky racing and touring kennel on her 18-acre wooded property in Western Massachusetts, regularly competing in sprints and mid-distance races across North America. The Hilltown Sleddogs owner also offers camps, tours and dog-sledding lessons that draw visitors from around New England and beyond — and not just during the winter.
"I've built a summer business with sled dogs. Everybody thinks sled dogs — winter. But as I tell people, they live and breathe 365 days of the year; you have to keep them happy and healthy," Brodsky said.
Her summer camps focus on caring for the dogs and dry land mushing, using, for instance, racing rigs instead of toboggans or double-driver sleds. Ideally, she and the dogs have the winters to themselves, preparing for and participating in competitions. In recent years, Brodsky has traveled to Minnesota and Canada to spend a month training her squad to run longer distances. This winter, however, she is focusing on running her business, which means that the animals will be remaining in West Chesterfield and, consequently, won't be competing in any races that span hundreds of miles any time soon.
"It's too hard to get the miles here in southern New England," said Brodsky, who had participated in the short Blue Mountain Sled Dog Race in Grantham, N.H., the previous weekend.
Brodsky often mushes in the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) State Forest. She had checked out the conditions there earlier on this morning and was now preparing to host some clients at noon. She hugged some of the dogs, who were chained to poles but still mobile.
"They are on these pivot poles from up above, so it doesn't get caught on anything on the ground," Brodsky said.
Brodsky positions the dogs close to their siblings. For example, blue-eyed Ulu Jr. and Una were next to one another, touching paws on occasion. During the summer, all of the adult dogs get turns in the pens, too.
"The great thing about the pens is, you get to watch the animal, the behavior. You see how they are with each other. You learn about pack mentality, pack behavior, animal behavior," Brodsky said.
The 24 adult dogs and puppies were bred on the property. Brodsky's trips to Alaska more than 10 years ago prompted that process. A blues singer for more than 25 years, Brodsky was touring the state in 2007 with her band when she decided to visit mushers' dog yards during her off hours. She had spent a lot of time skiing in the Poconos during her youth and quickly took to dog-sledding.
"Mushing is the ultimate because you're not just on skis, you're standing on runners, and your feet are not locked in, and you're being pulled by dog power," Brodsky said.
In Alaska, she met Yukon Quest winners Aliy Zirkle and Allen Moore, who allowed her to "handle" for them during the 2008 Iditarod. Handlers learn the ropes of mushing as they care for the dogs.
"They're basically like the musher's assistant," said Brodsky, whose own helper, Quinton Romer, was tending to the dogs and the property throughout the morning.
While Zirkle and Moore were out on the trail, Brodsky would run eight-dog puppy teams to keep them in shape. She also sang the National Anthem at the Iditarod and taught self-defense classes to locals during that time, merging her diverse interests.
"I'm a martial artist, I'm a singer, and I'm a musher," Brodsky said.
After the 2008 season, Zirkle and Moore retired one of their B-team leaders, Betty, to Brodsky.
"She had some hound in her, so my first two litters are very leggy and big. They can do anything. My team can do sprint, mid-distance, distance. It's all in their genes," Brodsky said. "You have to train them like any athlete. If I want them to do 50-mile legs, I have to be building up to 50-mile legs. Somebody's not going to run the Boston Marathon if they haven't trained for it."
Taffy, a 6-year-old with pink around the eyes, is great out front.
"She's an amazing leader," Brodsky said.
Speck runs easily, similar to a greyhound. Tra La La is a bit less swift.
"He's big, but he's the calmest," Brodsky said, noting that the dog often gets paired with young campers.
The number of dogs pulling Brodsky varies by race and the type of equipment being used; training sessions often involve eight animals. When it comes to racing, Brodsky enjoys continuous competitions the most because they're unassisted.
"Everything you need is in your sled bag," she said.
In the near future, Brodsky hopes to complete a 200-mile race. Her longest was a competition in a remote area near Labrador, Canada. It involved two 70-mile legs and 12 or 13 hours of trail time. During those hours, Brodsky said that you can't rest mentally.
"You can't ever let down your awareness because that's when, suddenly, a dog stops to poop, when the line [gets] tangled or a squirrel runs across, or another dog shows up out of nowhere, or suddenly a moose is about to cross the trail. You have to be ready for anything," she said.
Physically, she can't let up, either.
"There was one point where I started to get tired," Brodsky said of the Labrador race, "and I was like, 'All right, I'll just let the dogs pull me.' But the dogs feel that I'm getting tired, and I'm like, 'Oh, are we all going to take a nap now?' So, I realized, 'No, no, I cannot.' We have to work together. It's really a team," she said.
At mid-distance races, Brodsky's goal is to finish, not win. The dogs' well-being is of the utmost importance to her.
"I want my team to be healthy and happy when we cross the line. When I do shorter races, I'll go for it a little more," she said.
Brodsky's programs provide opportunities for people to learn about nature and bond through their shared relationships with dogs. They also produce future handlers; Romer, for example, was a camper.
"Those of us who have a passion for mushing understand the value of coming and working for somebody," Brodsky said. "You're getting a learning opportunity that, certainly around here, you're not going to find many places."
And once they're mushing, they will find few emotional and physical connections, if any, like it.
"To me, it's the ultimate," Brodsky said, "because you're dealing with nature, animal nature and human nature all at once."
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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