Lack of winter snow vexing New England sled dog racing

  • Marla BB finishes a race with a team of five Alaskan Huskies. Ben Domaingue photos / Monitor staff

  • A cyclist uses her two dogs for greater speed. Bicycles are permitted during snowless dog-sled races.

  • In the final event, racers travel in pairs with their dog on foot. Ben Domaingue / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 10/5/2021 3:46:51 PM

Sled dog racing evokes images of canines and their caretakers charging through frozen trees across harsh winter climates. Yet, because of changing New England winters and a frequent lack of snow on the ground, the sport has been forced to adapt in order to survive. 

Located at the Hopkinton Fairgrounds, a number of amateur and professional mushers tested their skills in multiple dry-land races during the annual Northern New England Sled Dog and Trade Fair. Bob Heckman, treasurer of the New Hampshire Musher’s Association, said winter races in the Granite State have been pushed further north as a result of a lack of quality snow.

“The way the snow is going is a classic example of global warming,” said Heckman. “The point is, we used to race, one or two races were in Massachusetts and slowly but surely, I live in Kingston, we’ve moved further north.”

Tom DiMaggio, the president of the New Hampshire Musher’s Association, believes dry-land racing will become increasingly popular as inconsistent snowfall plagues the sport.

“When we were in it, you’d go to Tamworth January 1 and that’d be the first race,” said DiMaggio. “The race in Tamworth was pushed to February for the lack of snow. I think you’re going to see more and more of this dry land racing.”

These problems are not just impacting northern New England – states like Alaska have struggled in recent years as well.

“It’s not just us,” said DiMaggio, mentioning how the start and finish of the iconic Iditarod have had to be moved over the years due lack of snow.

A recent study from the University of New Hampshire found that New England snowfall is on the decline due to climate change.

Researchers reported than more than a quarter of the Northeast goes without snow during the winter months. By the end of the century, that number could climb to nearly 60% as states like Connecticut and Pennsylvania begin to accumulate little to no snow.

Even if enough snow is present for mushers, not every trail can be used in New Hampshire. Dog sled teams compete for the same precious routes that are used by snowmobiles, which travel at far greater speeds, creating a safety hazard for dogs and riders.

“The further north the snow goes, the further north the snow machines and the ATVs go,” said DiMaggio. “There are a lot of things we try to fight and make sure people are educated.”

Racers have already started to adapt to the changing climate. Marla BB, an International Federation of Sledding Sports (IFSS) gold medalist and professional musher who competed in the Serum Run – a 674 mile race from Nenana to Nome, Alaska, continues to train new leaders even as the sport continues to shift.

Even though winter racing has been on the decline, BB believes dry land racing is gaining popularity among mushers.

“The small teams, dry land stuff, I feel like is actually growing because there’s more time in the year to do this,” said BB. “But then again it gets warm, and its too warm for them.”

Despite the lack of natural snow, mushers are able to take advantage of artificial snow, provided by some ski resorts.

Kim Murphy, an International Federation of Sledding Sports world champion, notes that despite a lack of snow, mushers can race on some local cross-country trails with smaller teams of dogs.

“There’s places you can go, like we go to Gunstock sometimes because they make snow,” sad Murphy. “You can run one or two dog teams there.”

Even with man-made snow, mushers with large teams of dogs are limited in their training options. This, along with the increased financial strain of traveling to train and care for their teams, has caused the sport to become less enjoyable to some.

“Winter is like, most of the races have been canceled,” said Murphy. “We get out when we can, but sometimes you’re doing this dry land rig stuff if it’s not super snowy or icy. It hasn’t been super fun lately and I think it’s a big reason that part of the sport is declining.” 

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