The autumn leaves hardly have started to fall, let alone the first snowflake, but on certain cool mornings, a team of sled dogs can be seen zipping up and down a quiet back road in Mayfield.
The Siberian huskies are harnessed to a dogsled on wheels - a vehicle that looks like a cross between a a mountain bike and a chariot from "Ben-Hur."
Mushing this team of canine athletes and riding in the dry-land sled rig is Kate Van Slyke, a local woman who loves her dogs as much as they love to run.
Kate Van Slyke trains with her team of sled dogs on a dirt road in Mayfield on Tuesday morning. Using her dry-land rig, she can train with the dogs as soon as the weather turns cool without waiting for snow cover. (The Leader-Herald/Bill Ackerbauer)
Icarus, the youngest of Kate Van Slyke’s sled dogs, mugs for the camera on Tuesday morning. (The Leader-Herald/Bill Ackerbauer)
Van Slyke is shown Tuesday morning with Star, who leads her team of racing dogs. (The Leader-Herald/Bill Ackerbauer)
Van Slyke, a veterinary assistant at Noah's Ark Animal Hospital in Fonda, used to run cross-country and ski competitively when she was a student at Mayfield High School. While she's still interested in those sports, dogsled racing in all its various forms has become her true passion.
"There are so many more dynamics to this sport compared to just running by yourself," she said. Ensuring the dogs have the right nutrition and keep in top shape is part of the challenge.
Van Slyke says she's not terribly concerned about winning races or taking home trophies.
"It hardly has anything to do with the competition," she said. "Giving the dogs their job in life is what I like seeing."
Meet the pooches
Van Slyke got interested in dogsled racing and huskies after taking a trip to Alaska, home of the famous Iditarod sled race. Her first husky was Lux, a brown-and-white-coated dog that was "rescued right off the street in Schenectady," she said.
"When I got him, you could poke your fingers right between his ribs, he was so emaciated," she said.
But with a bit of TLC, Lux soon had some meat on his bones. Van Slyke began experimenting with dogsledding by hooking him up to a small sled loaded with firewood. One dog alone isn't strong enough to pull a person, so she started recruiting more team members. She now has five dogs, four of whom she rescued or adopted.
Van Slyke went to a breeder to buy her youngest dog, Icarus, who isn't fully grown yet.
"Oddly, she's one of my best runners, so age doesn't necessarily matter," Van Slyke said. "She's got generations of great breeding behind her."
Her lead dog, Star, earned his position at the head of the pack by obeying commands well and being "mentally quick," she said. Star knows "Gee" means "turn right" and "Haw" means "turn left" - the same verbal commands used to steer draft horses.
One of Van Slyke's five dogs, Moon, doesn't race competitively, but he travels with the group, and he's so good with children, he serves as a good-will ambassador when they go to public events.
"He's earned his spot on the team because of that," she said.
Van Slyke said her racing dogs are all 4 years old or younger, so each of them can look forward to at least three or four more good years of running before retiring from competition.
"I've always been told that a dog will tell you when it doesn't want to run anymore," she said.
On Tuesday morning, Van Slyke's four huskies seemed to be saying they simply couldn't get enough running.
She said she treats the dogs like members of her family, but she doesn't treat them like people.
"They're dogs, and you have to give them jobs that are natural for them," she said. "For huskies, that's running. It's what they are meant to do."
In the heat of summer, the dogs slow down and "fall into slug mode," she said, but in the cooler seasons, she runs them about three times a week, sometimes more often in the winter. This time of year, they train early in the mornings, before it gets warm enough to overheat the huskies. She said racing is only done when the mercury is at 50 degrees or cooler.
"If it's cold enough to wear a jacket, it's right for racing," she said. "It has to be cold enough because the dogs are always wearing a jacket."
Van Slyke and her huskies do more than just race with her snow-sled and dry-land rigs. She also competes in events such as bike-joring and cani-cross racing. The first entails one or more dogs harnessed to a bicyclist. In cani-cross racing, Van Slyke wears a harness around her waist and runs, with a dog pulling her just bit faster than she would normally travel.
"It's possible in [dogsled racing] to let the dogs do all the work for you and let the dogs be your muscle," she said. But in cani-cross racing, "you have to prove that you keep yourself in shape."
Van Slyke and her team have competed in races in Canada, and in Maryland and at Lake George. This weekend, they are participating for the second time in the Northern New England Sled Dog Trade Fair and Seminars in New Hampshire. In addition to racing, the event offers opportunities for sled-dog enthusiasts to meet, trade stories and learn from each other.
"You're getting a lot of training from them, and you get to try out new rigs," she said. "You sit around and talk to people about racing dogs. It's nice; it's like a club."
It's a fairly exclusive club, too, at least in the Continental United States. Van Slyke might be the only sled-dog racers in the area except for Fonda resident Edgar Morey and his family.
Morey says dogsled racing is much more popular in colder climes, and he often travels to competitions in Quebec and Alaska.
"The competition is super-fierce up there" in Canada, said Morey. An engineer, he designs and sells racing equipment under the business name Outlaw Dog Sleds. Morey, whose father started a kennel in the late 1960s and introduced him to sled-dog racing, said most serious competitors don't use huskies anymore.
Many racers use "Euro-hounds," a breed designed for speed and capable of racing in warmer temperatures without overheating. Morey and his father have developed a breed that began with sturdy American hunting hound stock mixed with husky. The hound is a durable animal, he said, and its genes compliment those of the Siberian husky, which has "lots of heart and a love of running."
"Over 15 or 20 generations, you've got a super athlete," he said. This breeding has produced dogs that can run 20 miles per hour for 20 miles, he said, and they're friendlier than huskies, which tend to be aloof because of they are not as far removed from their wild wolf cousins.
"They're more domesticated," he said. "They have a different mentality."
Morey said he has given Van Slyke advice about racing and equipment, and her encourages her to continue racing with her huskies, which remain an important link to the history and traditions of the sport.
"In the purebred class, she's really competitive," Morey said. "You need to be somebody who's willing to work hard like that. She's doing good."
Features Editor Bill Ackerbauer can be reached by email at email@example.com.