It’s a snowy Saturday in Laurel Mountain State Park in Westmoreland County. Matt Philips and Sarah White are unloading precious cargo—their dogs—from the backseat of a black hatchback.
“Stay. Stay. You already have your harness on, buddy. You’re ahead of the game,” Philips says to his long-haired woolly husky, Sitka.
They’ve driven 50 miles from Pittsburgh to get a couple of hours of practice in. This is only their second winter mushing with their dogs.
Philips says Sitka is the energy bundle that doesn’t really listen to commands. But their German shepherd husky mix Kaskae picks up that slack. He’s brown, with short fur, and pointy black ears.
“So when you put the two together, they work pretty well,” Philips says, laughing
Philips fell into mushing by accident.
“Kaskae showed up at my friend’s doorstep two years ago. So I brought him home, and he was just full of energy. And I would run him with my bike, but over the winter, I was like, ‘He’s half husky. I should give this a shot,'” Philips says.
LISTEN: “Hitting the Trail with a New Breed of Musher”
So he found this group—West Penn Mushers—online. A few more hobby mushers, their dogs and sleds, are arriving in the wintry parking lot. Many of the dogs are rescue huskies—40 to 50 pounds. Some of the mushers are here every weekend to give the dogs a work out. Others come more often.
Karin Botti is also pretty new to the group. Philips is borrowing her blue-eyed therapy dog, Apache, so that more than one person can ride on his sled today. The dogs are pacing and whining.
“As soon as they know they’re going mushing, they start howling and howling, and they love it,” Botti says.
Philips hooks what looks like a long leash under the front of his sled.
“This is a four-dog line, so we’re just going to hook two of them together so we can use it as a three-dog line for us today. The sled has bungees underneath of it where it’s hooked on, so it absorbs some of the shock from the dogs going forward and backward a bunch,” he explains.
The sled is made of wood, painted black and red. It looks a little like an upside-down rocking chair. He got it on the internet. Traditional handmade sleds are made with rope, but this one’s bolted together. The runners along the bottom are plastic. It only weighs 15 pounds.
Philips and Botti give the command, “Line out.”
“‘Line out’ is one of the commands that they don’t know very well. They’re supposed to go out to the end of the line and just wait for me,” Philips says.
When the dogs finally get into place, Philips tells them to get moving.
“Ready? Hike, hike, hike, hike, hike! Good dogs! Hike, hike!” he shouts.
Kaskae is in the lead.
“And now we just hope they stay in a straight line. I can steer the sled a little bit. For the most part, we just trust the dogs,” Philips says.
The first time, Philips brought Kaskae out here with another, more experienced dog to show him the ropes. He ended up in the lead.
“Once they get the idea, once they see other dogs doing it, they pick it up in a hurry.”
When the dogs slow down, Philips gives them another “hike.”
“‘Hike’ means ‘Let’s go.’ A lot of people think it’s ‘mush.’ I think some movies and cartoons kind of gave some misinformation there. Mush is just the sport name,” he says.
The team is traveling about 10 miles an hour down a completely snow-covered road. Philips calls this a slow trot. There are about eight inches of snow here now, but Philips says you only need a couple. It’s flying up under the dogs’ feet. In the spring and fall, he and other mushers go dry land mushing with scooters or carts instead of sleds.
To turn the team around, to get back to the parking lot, he uses another command—“back haw.” It almost works. Kaskae looks like he’d rather run off and play in the woods to either side of us. Sarah White, who has been following us on a bike, helps straighten the dogs out.
“As smart as Kaskae is, and as well as he follows directions, he also has an attitude. He knows what I’m saying and sometimes will decisively disagree,” Philips says.
The dogs come in for a landing in the parking lot and lap up some much-deserved water after they are unhooked from the sled.
“They did good,” White says.
WATCH: “Mushing in Downtown Pittsburgh”
Between runs is a good time for the mushers to trade tips and learn from one another. Beth Tallentire has been mushing for 25 years. Her big, white Samoyeds are show dogs, and they wear pink booties to protect their paws.
“You have to teach ‘whoa‘ first. ‘Cause I lost my team one time,” she says. “Whoa” is the command to slow down and stop.
“They want to go,” Botti says.
The mushers here today agree the sport can be addictive, for both the dogs and the people.
“I’m so happy when somebody new finds it,” Tallentire says.
The Facebook group has grown a lot recently—it’s up to over 200 people. Philips is hoping to grow his pack too.
“I’m in the process of buying a house with a bigger yard to get one or two more, so we can do a three or four-dog team out here,” he says.
He says he doesn’t have anything against cats—but he’s a dog person. And for him, the appeal of the sport is simple.
“It’s nice to just be out here, be with the dogs, finding the elements for what they are.”