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Environment & Climate Change

Listen as we ride along with this dog sled team

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Kara Holsopple
/
Allegheny Front
Matt Philips lines up his dogs for a mush. He says that only a few inches of snow are needed to go for a run with the dogs.

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Credit Kara Holsopple / Allegheny Front

Racing across a frozen landscape behind a team of dogs — it’s not just for Alaskans. Dog sledding is popular in our neck of the woods, too. 

We got a chance to go along for a ride.

Matt Philips and Sarah White are unloading precious cargo—their dogs—from the backseat of a black hatchback.

They’ve driven 50 miles from Pittsburgh, in the snow, to get a couple of hours of practice in. This is only their second winter mushing with their dogs.

"This is Sitka. He’s a Long-haired Woolly Husky, which is a purebred Siberian Husky," says Philips. " But it’s a different genetic trait than people are used to with the longer fur."

And they have another dog, Kaskae. He’s a German shepherd-Husky mix with short brown fur and pointy black ears.

"Kaskae showed up at my friend’s doorstep, Easter, 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, see if he knows how to do the dogsledding thing.”

Preparing for a sled run

He found the group West Penn Mushers online. The Facebook group has grown a lot recently— it’s up to over 200 people. Philips is hoping to grow his pack, too.

'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's name.

To do a sled run, Phillips borrows Apache, a blue-eyed therapy dog who belongs to Karin Botti. She’s also pretty new to the group.  

"As soon as they know they’re going mushing they start howling and howling, and they love it," Botti says.

Philips starts hooking up the dogs and puts Kaskae in the lead.

"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," he says. "It’s just a long leash, and then 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."

?It's take-off time
"Ready? Ready?! Hike, hike, hike, hike, hike! Good dogs! Hike, hike!" shouts Philips as they take off.

"Once they get the idea, once they see other dogs doing it, they pick it up in a hurry."

“'Hike' means 'let’s go'. A lot of people think it’s 'mush,' " Philips explains. "I think some movies and cartoons kind of gave some misinformation there. Mush is just the sport's name." 

They’re traveling about 10 mph down a completely snow-covered road. But Philips says you only need a couple of inches. Bells on the sled jingle as the snow flies up under the dogs’ feet. Phillips calls this a slow trot.

"Keep it up, keep it up! Hike, hike, hike! Come on!"

?The end of the run

"All right, good dogs. All right, Kaskae, back haw!"

'Back haw' means turn around to the left. It almost works. But Kaskae looks like he’d rather run off and play in the woods.

"As well as he follows directions, he also has an attitude," says Philips about Kaskae, with a laugh.

"Whoa, good dogs. Take us home."

The dogs come in for landing in the parking lot, and lap up some much-deserved water after they are unhooked from the sled.

Philips 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."

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