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Agile companions

A mushy winter won’t deter area husky owners

Huskies are built for winter. Their thick pelts have a downy undercoat, and their paws, ears, bellies, and tails are extra furry. They need to run and explore all the time, and if they want to stretch their legs, they let their owners know with full-throated yelps and howls.

The breed is most closely associated with dog mushing. Double-runner sleds pulled along by teams of muscular dogs were once a vital mode of transportation in the far north but never more than a sport in New York, where canals, roads, and train tracks have been present throughout the state’s history. Returning gold miners brought dog sled racing back from the Yukon in the 1920s, but there are few competitive teams left.

Plenty of amateurs take up the slack, but with fewer dogs rather than the regulation team of twelve. When there’s snow, mushers harness up their sleds and ramble down packed trails shouting clipped commands like “Gee!” and “Haw!” When the trails are bare, they switch to wheeled rigs with bicycle wheels, some made by pipefitter Dave Schwab of Chili.

Schwab is also the president of the Seneca Siberian Husky Club, which meets monthly at a farm near Scottsville. The meetings are both a social event and a chance to get in one more run. Schwab says that mushing is only part of the attraction of owning huskies. Some owners take their dogs to purebred show competitions. Others come up with creative ways to let their four-footed athletes burn off steam all year long.

Melanie Collins of Rochester does “canicross,” an intense cross-country run with the dogs attached to a lead around her waist. She averages fifteen to twenty miles a week. Her dogs Ellie and Atlas help train her for half-marathons and she chronicles their adventures on Instagram as Expedition Husky. “There’s a lot of teamwork involved. They have to pay attention to you, and you have to pay attention to them,” she says. If you’re going full speed ahead and you trip, you’re going to go down real fast, and it’s going to hurt.”

Bekka Gunner of Holland, New York, considers herself an “urban musher,” harnessing her dogs to bikes and skateboards. Gunner works as a veterinary technician and has seen many abandoned Siberian huskies whose former owners couldn’t keep up with their energy level. “Huskies are not for everyone,” says Gunner, who offers classes to new owners to suggest activities and learn about the breed’s particular needs.

At an event this winter at Mendon Ponds, the snow has melted, but dozens of husky owners turn out anyway to trundle across the frozen dirt trails. There are plenty of broad-shouldered Siberians, with wolf faces and, sometimes, piercing ice blue eyes. But there are also Alaskan huskies, less furry and more hound-like. The dogs lunge at their leads, stretching their muzzles open wide, letting everyone within earshot know they’re ready to run. The rider steps up onto the rig, releases the brake, and, as if shot from a cannon, disappears with her team into the trees. 

Mark Gillespie is communications manager for the Rochester Institute of Technology College of Science. He is an avid fan of the region’s food, culture, and great outdoors.

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