The experienced pooches were howling and singing. Eager to run. Who knows what they thought of the handful of other dogs and their humans who also appeared Saturday at River Preserve County Park, south of Goshen, and its wide grassy trails.
Clark Richardes and his wife, Dany, from Mishawaka, brought their fluffy Samoyed, dreaming that, when it snows, they’ll go skijoring — that is, have her pulling one of them on skis.
“That’s why we got her,” Richardes says. “We knew she’s a pulling dog.”
Video: Take your dog mushing
So Mushing 101 began. People came to see if their dog would actually pull them on a bike or all-terrain scooter — what mushers call dry-land training. Not that anyone was shooting for Alaska’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Nah. Not even the instructors from the Indiana-based Heartland Mushers Association, who’ve done some regional races but, as a group, focus on educational events.
They’re ready to help, says member Keith Miller, who lives two miles from the park, whether you want to be pulled on skis, sled, wheeled carts, mountain bikes or even canicross, where your harnessed dog runs ahead of you via a line fixed to your waist.
Richardes has already equipped his dog, Miska, with a harness and taken her on canicross runs on park trails, adjusting his pace to hers.
He and Dany had learned a few things, like basic commands, from their road trip last year in a van up the Dempster Highway, reaching through Canada’s Northwest Territories to its northern coast on the Arctic Ocean, where they met a friendly Samoyed in the village of Tuktoyaktuk. Miska, their dog’s name, is the Inuit word for “little bear.”
“It means something to us, because it reminds us of the trip,” says Richardes, 29, who’d grown up in South Bend and, between graduating from IU South Bend and coming back last year, lived with Dany in Colorado.
Tammy Patterson came from Valparaiso, Ind., with her two Alaskan malamutes, whom she’s been trying to train on her own. She’s got the harnesses. Thing is, she says, when they pull her bike, they tend to shoot off to the sides. They did better Saturday on the park’s more defined trails — better than an open field.
Miller started in the 1980s with one dog that he learned to train, thanks to mentoring and guidance from others. Likewise, an experienced dog helps to lead and train other dogs. Now he has six Siberian Huskies, a Labrador retriever and a border collie.
“Just lying on a couch isn’t good for you, me or the dog,” Miller says.
Saturday’s two-hour activity got the dogs to first try pulling an old tire, then tug a scooter or one of Miller’s fat bikes. Instructor and Heartland Mushers co-founder Cruz Schubert, from Hagerstown, Ind., east of Indianapolis, hooked up some of us newby humans with one of her experienced Siberian Huskies — dogs who generally know what to do despite any human mistakes. (Watch a video at southbendtribune.com/outdooradventures.)
The next day, Miska seemed to have a little extra “pop in her step” when she was playing catch, Richardes says. Meanwhile, he says this one-day event — held for the third year — expanded his view of Michiana.
“I would have never thought you could do something like this up here — to meet people who are so well versed in dog mushing,” he says, now working for his family business, Indiana Rug Co., across from Mishawaka’s Central Park, where he’s crafted a $20 T-shirt that pays homage to the St. Joe River, its indigenous peoples and the park.
• How to learn: You likely can find resources online, but you’re best off connecting with an experienced musher to answer your questions. Find links in this column online to the Heartland Mushers Association, the Mid Union Sled Haulers (MUSH) and the Great Lakes Sled Dog Association (glsda.com). Races and events may be slimmed down or fewer this winter, thanks to the pandemic. But Miller says that Heartland Mushers sometimes has impromptu gatherings, often in Indiana, where you can learn from others.
• Where to mush: Before you take your dog out to a park and have her pull you on a bike or skis, you need to check with the park to see if that’s permitted. You definitely want to avoid mountain bike trails, which are way too narrow and with too many swift ups, downs, embankments and hurdles. Also, paved trails — especially in the heat of summer — are hard on dogs’ paws. Miller suggests wide grassy paths. Mushing 101 was held near River Preserve County Park’s Benton Dam, which is on County Road 31 south of U.S. 33 in New Paris. The park isn’t officially set up for this year round, but there isn’t a rule against letting a dog pull you on a bike, Elkhart County Parks Director Ronda DeCaire says; the parks do require dogs to be leashes. You also have to watch for the safety of other trail users and the distraction of other pets. Fort Custer Recreation Area in Augusta, Mich., allows dog sleds on some trails. Beyond that, there are more sled dog trails farther north in Michigan.
• What gear to have: You need to start with the right padded harness, which you can find online. The walking harnesses sold in pet stores won’t give your dog enough support. Miller likes the X-back harness that fits an array of dogs, but it doesn’t suit the shape of some breeds, like Eurohounds and German short-haired pointers. Schubert emphasized that the wrong size of harness can pinch badly on the dog’s breast or ribs. Beyond that, you’ll need a line, which you can buy but you can also make yourself with help from an expert. For a bike, you’ll need a “bike antenna” to keep the line from tangling in your front wheel. This metal device extends straight out from the bike’s front tube. But Miller has made one from a foam pool noodle that he’s cut down to about two feet. And don’t forget a helmet for yourself.
• Commands: Your dog will have to learn some new words. “Hike” = get moving. “Gee” = turn right. “Haw” = turn left. “On by” = pass up a distraction (like other animals). “Whoa” = stop.
• Dunes boardwalk reopens: Trail 2 at Indiana Dunes State Park reopened Nov. 5 after more than five years of being closed because of a collapsed boardwalk. The nearly half-mile boardwalk goes through a marsh and spring wildflowers and also serves as part of the park’s network of cross-country ski trails. It’s part of Trail 2, which is a total of three miles on “easy” terrain. The boardwalk was originally built directly on mostly dry ground in the 1980s, but the hydrology in the park changed, partly from beaver activity that expanded the nearby marshes, the Chesterton Tribune had reported in 2017. So park staff rebuilt the boardwalk to be elevated and to withstand the soggy soil.
• Bike coop update: The South Bend Bike Garage will open only by appointment, starting this week. For one thing, it’s darker and colder on Wednesday evenings when it would normally open. Sure, the bike co-op has an indoor garage space at 909 Portage Ave., but President Dustin New said the group doesn’t want folks to congregate in a virus-risky situation. So, you can call 574-286-6508 or email [email protected] to arrange a time on any day to look for a used bike or work on fixing your own bike. Want to help? New says you can also reach out since volunteers may still gather on some Wednesdays to fix up donated bikes at a large indoor space elsewhere.
• Dowagiac All Trail Turkey Trot: This 53rd annual run (10K, 5K and 1K) was set to return Sunday to the cross-country trails in and around Southwestern Michigan College in Dowagiac, led by Ron Gunn. But, in a change Tuesday because of the pandemic, the race has been postponed to March 20, 2021. The link to register, provided here, remains the same.