WARDSBORO—One of the more compelling ways of learning locally about Siberian huskies and the sleds they pull with you in them is to book a ride at Husky Works Mushing Company on Route 100 in West Wardsboro.
For example, how many know that mushers are people, not dogs? You learn that right away at Husky Works.
Or that Siberian huskies are smaller than the Alaskan sled dog most familiar from the Iditarod race, although there have been Siberian husky teams that have run the 1,150-mile race from Anchorage to Nome.
Siberian husky males weigh from 46 to 60 pounds, while females are 35 to 50 pounds; both about 20-plus pounds lighter than the larger sled dogs.
All dogs are thought to have descended from wolves. Siberian huskies, a recognized American Kennel Club breed, certainly have a family resemblance. Alaskan sled dogs also look wolf-like, but are not pure breeds. Malamutes, often used in races, are a recognized AKC pure breed.
There are approximately 10 distinct Husky breeds, only some of which are AKC recognized, and more than 20 kinds of dogs that pull their own weight and a lot more, according to Wikipedia. They’ve been used for labor for hundreds of years and have been racing for about 150 years.
There is controversy among experts about which of the many breeds of running and working dogs is most directly descended from wolves, as there is about nearly every abstruse fact relating to dogs, breeds, purity, size, color and other standards.
Fortunately, it’s the small facts that seem to be in dispute, although some of the overly romantic tales of heroic deeds are probably embellished.
But most of this kind of highfalutin information becomes real and useful after you’ve spent a little time with the dogs and their owners.
As soon as you pull into the Husky Works driveway, the land pulls away and below you see the spacious, cozy-comfy pens housing 31 Siberian huskies (27 belong to the family, three are on loan). The pens are chain-link-fenced-off to separate in-heat females from predatory males, puppies from grown-ups, and to fulfill other segregation needs. Beyond the pens and before a forested hill is the playing field where the dogs get to romp once or twice a day.
In the forest up on the hill are nearly five miles of sled trails —mostly former logging roads. Some are complex and full of the height and switchbacks that dog sled enthusiasts live for.
Meeting the huskies
As soon as you walk toward their pens, the dogs jump on top of their straw-bedded kennels or run to the fence, some yipping, others barking. They all seem to be smiling and examining visitors with their black-rimmed hazel, blue, or brown eyes. Sometimes, a dog has a combination of eye colors.
This is usually when owners Laura Bedortha, 28, or Jeremy Bedortha, 34 — after a visitor has signed an insurance form — opens one of the fence gates and in you go to be greeted by four of five affectionate, lively and gentle dogs.
First, they jump up. Then they calm down, but they don’t stay still.
They rarely stay still, as they move about their pens, taking stock of one another and everything else that moves.
One afternoon, the Bedorthas’ 3-year-old son Tyler joined the group, calling out the dogs’ names and generally dealing easily with the busy canines.
The Bedorthas bought the West Wardsboro house and about 75 acres “because of the trails” Jeremy said, about five years ago.
They have been together about 10 years, Laura said, and married for five.
Oddly enough, they met when Laura, who is a New Jersey native from Oceanside — where her father still runs a family grocery store — went to work for Paul Bedortha, Jeremy’s father, who owns the River Bend Market in Townshend.
Back then, he also ran and owned River Bend Too, in Wilmington, and a small country store in West Wardsboro. His daughter and Jeremy’s sister, Sara Bernard, owns and runs River Bend Farm Supplies on Riverdale Road, around the corner from the market.
The Bedortha family owns substantial property around the market, and they all seem committed to animal care. The many horses Bernard owns and boards, in the fields and in her barn, can be seen year round in the fields in front of the market.
Laura Bedortha explained that members of her family are avid winter sports enthusiasts. When she was 10, the family bought a place in West Dover.
“We summered in Ocean City and spent the winter up here,” she said, explaining that the family store was a seasonal enterprise.
A ski racer when he was in high school at Leland & Gray in Townshend, and at the Stratton Mountain School, Jeremy said he acquired his first dog, a six-month-old Husky named Storm, from a kennel in upstate New York, when he was a senior at the University of Vermont.
“I actually went to get a puppy, but I was encouraged to take Storm because someone had adopted him, and then he had an accident. He returned the dog, so the dog had no home,” Jeremy said, adding that he had no interest in dog sledding at the time.
One day, a sled-dog owne, a customer who used to buy bones for his dogs at the Wilmington store, invited Jeremy over to meet his dogs. Jeremy bought a sled from him and the owner gave him a dog, Sasha, a smallish brown Husky that the Bedorthas still have.
And this more or less led to the acquisition of more dogs, and eventually to Husky Works.
They began sledding just for fun and started the business about five years ago. Most of their dogs are AKC-recognized huskies.
Jeremy worked at his father’s stores, and did construction and milling when he wasn’t in school. He continues a milling business, keeping major equipment in a small field next to the house.
Laura Bedortha rejected college, she said. She was interested in photography, so she went to Hallmark Institute of Photography in Turners Falls, Mass. She said she’s done some commercial work, but now it’s mostly a hobby.
She said she’d also been interested in cooking and now occasionally works for a friend who does catering. She also does gardening for a number of people.
The ski racing business almost covers their bills, Laura said, but they need to do their outside work to stay liquid.
For the love of dogs
In recent years, there has been some controversy over the treatment and lives of sledding animals. The well-known animal rights groups have protested the conditions the dogs endure during the big races like the Iditerod.
Although the web is full of stories about inhumane treatment of dog teams in general, focusing on the lack of shelter and scarce food, from every outward sign, the Husky Works dogs are living very well and appear to be deliriously happy.
“I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t love animals,” said Jeremy.
He affirms what almost every website describes: the good nature of Siberian huskies who are most excited when they are about to run.
The principal physical controls mushers have over their dog teams are the brakes — devices shaped like claws or talons; or bars that — when tripped — dig into the snow, effectively stopping the team.
There is also the drag mat, a rectangular device with teeth-like prongs on the bottom side that can be thrown between the runners to slow the dogs, less aggressively than the braking action.
Voice commands are also essential and there is a regular language, similar to people-to-horse vocabulary.
The harnesses, of which there are many kinds, apart from attaching the dogs to one another, use what is called a gang line to attach the dogs to whatever device the team is pulling — sleds, toboggans, carts, special bicycles, and other wheeled vehicles. The Bedorthas use wheeled vehicles for training. They use basket and toboggan sleds for running.
The mushers, either Jeremy or Laura or a friend who fills in, usually stand on footboards only slightly wider than the narrow sled runners.
Runs are on weekends and on Tuesdays and take between one and two hours. Reservations are necessary. A one-person trip cost $250; a two-person trip costs $475. The website is huskyworks.com.
The family also does what it calls “fun runs” in the middle of the week for themselves, usually in the nearby Townshend State Forest. They pile the dogs and sleds in a truck and harness them up when they get to their destination.