After 25 years, dogsledding and guiding still a passion
They raise their sled dogs from puppies and keep them throughout the dogs’ entire lives.
They take their clients on weeklong trips to northern Canada.
They make their own dogsleds and canoes.
Those are the things that, as they mark their 25th year of business, Kevin Slater and Polly Mahoney of Mahoosuc Guide Service say set them apart from other guide/dogsledding businesses.
Polly and Kevin were into sled dogs and guiding long before they met each other.
Polly grew up in South China, Maine. When she graduated from high school, she said, “I knew I wanted to go to Alaska.” So off she went, looking for adventure.
She worked for the Park Service there for about a year, then moved on to the Yukon Territory of Canada.
“I was introduced to sled dogs by my ex-husband, and we were being filmed in movies: “Death Hunt” with Charles Bronson in Canmore, Alberta and the Walt Disney Production “Never Cry Wolf” with Charlie Martin Smith in Atlin, B.C. and southern Yukon Territory of Canada,” she said. “I was a horse person already so it was a natural switch from horses to dogs.”
Kevin had also left his hometown after high school in the coal-mining country of the Pennsylvania-West Virginia border region.
“I didn’t want to dig coal,” he said.
Instead he went to northern Maine, where he worked at a sportsman’s camp with a guide who was nearing the end of his career.
“The best education I ever had was working with him the last two years he was guiding,” said Kevin, who has a bachelor’s degree from Penn State and a master’s from the University of Maine. “He could go out in the woods with an ax and a crooked knife and make anything he wanted.”
Kevin also ended up in Alaska for a short time, but it was long enough to get into the sled dog business.
“After spending two months guiding on Denali, I was hanging around Talkeetna when a guy asked me if I was sticking around for the winter. He offered me a job helping him guide five- to seven- day dogsled trips.”
After moving on and getting his college degrees, in the mid-1980s he came to work as the program director at Outward Bound in Newry.
In 1989 a high school friend of Polly’s heard that OB was going to start a dogsled program and suggested she apply.
Kevin hired her.
“Those were the good old days when I was her boss,” he jokes now.
Polly brought her Yukon huskies with her.
In addition to sharing an interest in sled dogs, said Polly, “we both had a dream of having our own guide services.”
A year later, they started Mahoosuc Guide Service in Newry.
Early dogsledding trips stayed mostly local, on Lake Umbagog. In the warmer seasons they guided canoe trips.
Inspired by the work of his mentor guide from his late teen years, Kevin also began making his own dogsleds and canoes from wood.
In 1992 they began taking longer winter trips to the Hudson Bay region. There they built relationships with native guides from the Cree and Inuit peoples.
As a result, Polly and Kevin have since worked with those guides, who also provide MGS clients a glimpse into their cultures.
The 40+ MGS dogs (six teams) are descended from the dogs Polly brought home with her from the Yukon. That’s 35 years worth of lineage.
Polly and Kevin do, however, mix in some new bloodlines periodically.
In breeding sled dogs, said Kevin, “most mushers have racing bloodlines. But we don’t really care about going fast.”
Instead, he said, they breed for dogs that can move a heavy sled.
He compared them to draft horses.
The dogs’ weight generally runs from 60 to 90 pounds.
Because of their strength and endurance, only five dogs are needed to pull a sled.
Polly and Kevin begin teaching the pups at about six months old, and by a year they are ready to start sled dog duty.
Generally, the dogs work until about 10 or 11, then go into retirement.
Unlike some mushers who quickly put retired dogs to sleep or find other homes for them, said Polly, their dogs live out their lives at MGS.
“We get so attached,” said Polly. “We have nine retired dogs right now,” a number that is greater than their average.
During the sledding offseason, all the dogs get to roam and play in large fenced-in fields on the property.
The huskies can live to be 12 to 17, Polly said. When they pass on, they are laid to rest beneath personalized wood markers in the MGS cemetery on the property.
On the trail
Not surprisingly, Polly and Kevin have plenty of stories to tell about their guiding/dogsledding experiences.
They shared several.
Polly remembers a dogsledding trip on Richardson Lake with a lead dog named Hermes.
“He kept wanting to go toward shore,” she remembers, but she kept commanding him to stay out on the ice.
“After the third time, I decided I better listen to him, so I let him go,” she said.
A good thing. As they headed toward shore, Polly could see in the distance a spring hole - open water.
Hermes sensed the danger (probably from the scent) and led the team away from it.
Another time, said Polly, Hermes was leading a team on Umbagog carrying client mushers. Polly and her dog team were keeping the group near the shore where there was snow, in order to avoid the glare ice of the lake.
Hermes, however, had no problem running on ice, she said, and he knew that the most direct route to the “take-out” site was straight across the lake.
Add to that the fact that the two novice mushers on his sled kept giving him conflicting commands, and Hermes decided to take matters into his own paws.
He went straight across the ice.
From the dog’s expression and body language, said Kevin, Hermes seemed to be saying, “Tourists!”
One of the most trying experiences for the guides took place when their group stopped for the night in a windy, intense snowstorm on Hudson Bay.
“It was really stormy. We tied strings from the tents to the dogs to the snowmobiles,” said Kevin. The dogs were each tied to a cable that was anchored to the ground at each end. But it was snowing so heavily that he went out every hour to loosen the anchors, so the dogs wouldn’t be held down under the snow – which piled up to eight feet deep by morning.
“I had been in a lot of bad storms in the mountains, but that was worse,” Kevin said.
But such occasional stressful circumstances don’t diminish Polly and Kevin’s love for their work.
“I love being outside, I like meeting new people, and I like working with my dogs,” said Polly. “I can do all of that with this job.”
The couple doesn’t plan on retiring anytime soon.
Gesturing toward the cemetery, Kevin said, “I’ll keep going until I’m planted over there with the dogs.”