Alex Terriault encourages his 7-year-old sled dog, Dean, to get into the sled with him as Mia DeLuccia of Boston, Massachusetts, watches. Therriault operates Ultimate Dog Sledding Experience in Hebron.  Nicole Carter / Advertiser Democrat

HEBRON — Three pickup trucks loaded with dog kennels parked at a lot on Station Road at the entry to ITS 89 snowmobile trail.

Dog sled drivers and support staff were harnessing dog teams and sleds. Customers were standing by, ready for the Ultimate Dog Sledding Experience: a winter tour of Western Maine’s snowmobile trails.

The barking was piercing; all were clearly ready to get to work.

Owner Alex Therriault coordinated drivers with dogs, sleds and customers. The scene looked chaotic but everyone there was focused on the job and knew their role. Only the dogs were impatient.

One dog, Dean, seemed above the fray. The only one left loose, he went from human to human, making friends and happily circling the activity like a seasoned public relations professional. He knew his chance to run would come.

“It’s Dean’s seventh birthday today,” Therriault said of the Alaskan husky. “He had some health issues as a pup and ended up inside. He didn’t produce body heat as the others did as a young pup so he slept on my chest to stay warm. We had that bonding experience.

“Then I had a bad back injury, about a year-and-a-half into his life. I had someone bring him in because I was stuck on the couch and lonely, and he’s been inside with me since then,” he said.

Dean was free to wander the lot, mingling contentedly with 53 of the 57 dogs on hand who were anxious to get to work. Three 10-week-old pups frolicked in a pen, getting their first experiences at the trailhead vicariously while they charmed everyone who saw them.

With 57 excited canines, Therriault kept things moving smoothly. As we talked he took a call from the first sledder who had just taken his team out on the trail. One, Lilo, had to be taken off the team. Therriault advised the driver to cable her to a tree and someone would run out to retrieve her.

“I don’t know what happened yet,” Therriault said. “But we have a number of females in heat. Chances are Lilo’s trying to hang out with the boys behind her.”

Therriault has 83 dogs in his kennel, from puppies to 15-year-olds. As breeding dogs well-suited to the sport is part of the business, so, too, is managing the females when they are in heat.

“We don’t really have designated breeders,” he said. “It’s more about pairing what I decide is the best combination. It depends on personality, skill, lines. And temperament. There is a lot that goes into it but overall it’s about the dog and what we’re breeding them to do. It’s about combining the best qualities each one has.”

The blue-eyed Fisher, right, joined Alex Therriault’s sled dog kennel when his previous owner passed away. Nicole Carter / Advertiser Democrat

While Therriault carefully breeds his pack for characteristics best suited to touring, he also has a number of re-homed and rescued dogs. He pointed out two of them waiting for their turn to go. One, named Fisher, came to him when the owner passed away. The other, Lucky, was part of a rescue.

“A bunch of us got together and took on the dogs at the kennel when the person died and Fisher came to my kennel,” Therriault said. “That black one in the middle there did not have a nice family, they were dog sledders who are no longer allowed to keep dogs and she came to me (that way). Her name is Lucky. And she’ll have a loving home the rest of her life.

“One I got from a home that another dog sledder had sold a puppy to as a pet. But a year later they decided they could no longer handle him. They had taught him every bad habit they could think of. That happens when they get big and it’s no longer fun and cute. People will say they ‘can’t teach him anything.’ But he’s learned all the bad stuff, so he’s been taught.”

Lilo returned to the lot. Therriault picked her up for a snuggle.

“She’s just two,” he said. “She has time to prove that she’s a high-quality dog.”

The Ultimate Dog Sledding Experience has several packages for its customers to choose from. The main drag of ITS 89 is about five miles out and takes a little under an hour for a round trip. For a two-hour trek, the driver will shoot off on some side trails and loop back onto the ITS. People can also opt to climb Streaked Mountain by sled.

“We also do a training tour for a bigger experience, an introduction to dog sledding,” Therriault said. “It’s for two to three days. I just did one where a couple covered about 50 miles over three days, it was a bucket list thing. The first day they learn basics – how to harness the dogs, about of the sled, and we go out and back. The next day is more in depth, so we go out for three hours, which is about 20 miles. They learn how to steer the sled and give commands.

“The last day, the guide sits back and the customers do hands on,” he said. “Take everything they learned the first two days and put it together on the third day. The guide is just there as the backup. For a person who’s never driven a dog sled before, in a well-controlled environment it’s pretty easy to learn. Our dogs are well-behaved for the most part. We use a bomb-proof team for it, the best leaders. We want to put the customers in a situation to succeed.”

Therriault greeted a couple arriving for their tour. Graham Leman and Mia DeLuccia were visiting from Massachusetts, staying in at an AirbnbOxford.

“We’re here to decompress before I start a new job,” Leman explained. The Ultimate Dog Sledding Experience was one of the activities recommended on the Airbnb website so they decided to give it a try.

Therriault brought them to their sled and demonstrated how to climb in and position themselves, with a little bit of assistance from Dean. The sled in position, Leman and DeLuccia were packed in under a blanket and the team enthusiastically took off down the trail, yelping their delight as they ran.

“There aren’t really other local tour businesses that do the same kind of sledding that we do,” Therriault explained. “A couple that are pretty small. One uses Alaskan Malamutes for walks with the dogs. Those dogs are so big and heavy they can’t run like the Alaskan husky. It’s more of a brisk walk. They go on overnight treks to a cabin.”

Therriault has dog-sledded all his life, joking that he was about his father’s 11th litter. He drove in his first race at the age of 3. Growing up he spent seven years as a professional dog sled racer.

When he was 19, his father took a new job that did not leave him time for the sport. Rather than see the family kennel closed and the dogs all sent away, Therriault decided to take it over himself and started the touring business so the dogs could pay their own way.

The business has steadily grown every season. On an average, early weekday Therriault will book two to five tours, with up to 10 on busier days. On weekends there are 20 to 30 runs. He had 200 scheduled for the school vacation week.

“We haven’t been affected by the pandemic,” he said. “We’ve grown as much this year as the previous one. But we also see more cancellations, someone may test positive and can’t do it, or their state restrictions change but they can no longer come into Maine.”

The team that Lilo had been with returned for a quick shakeup. Apparently Lilo was not alone when she let her hormones get the best of her. Basil, an older female on the run, was just coming out of heat after taking a couple of weeks off.

Lilo, a younger dog whose day on the trail was cut short, gets a consolation hug from Alex Therriault, owner of Ultimate Dog Sledding Experience in Hebron. Nicole Carter/Advertiser Democrat

“Ladies in heat are always fun,” Therriault said, directing that Basil be pulled off duty and two fresh males put in her and Lilo’s place. “Usually the females don’t care – it’s the males who get distracted. But Basil came to me with Fisher and I’m still learning about her.

“[So] when she is in heat she is ridiculous, more needy. Lilo was taking her lead, deciding that it’s OK to just play with them. Usually we put the females ahead of the males and there are no problems. They lost focus (with Basil), so we’ll just add a couple of boys to the team and it’ll be fine.”

Therriault explained there is much more than just putting six dogs together and expecting them to run together as a team. It takes hundreds of hours of training. A younger dog gets paired with an experienced one and learns by being mentored. The dogs with the best brains lead and the dogs with the most brawn bring up the rear.

In just minutes the swap-out was done. Lilo and Basil were given the rest of the day off. The new team of dogs pulled the sled back out on the trail, their riders sure to have a memorable anecdote to their dog sledding experience.

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