February 25, 2013 • 11:16:52 a.m.

Harvard dog-sledding group works to bring awareness to peaceful sport

By JAMI KUNZER – jkunzer@shawmedia.com

Musher Jason Hussong and Joy Zurek of Holiday Hills take a group of 10 dogs around the path while giving dog sledding demos at the Moose Lodge in Harvard. Mussong is head of Free Spirit Siberian Rescue Sled Demo Team which is a non-profit organization of volunteers working to reduce the number of homeless Siberian Huskies in Illinois and surrounding areas. (Sarah Nader - snader@shawmedia.com)

It’s tough for a musher to explain what it’s like to dog sled.

The best way, said George Matos of Lakemoor, is to experience it.

The whisk of the wind, a snow-covered path in the woods, the pant of the dogs and you.

“I don’t want to say it’s an adrenaline rush,” Matos said. “It’s a different kind of feeling.”

There’s a peacefulness about it, he said, but also a sense of connection to the dogs.

“Obviously, if you love dogs, that’s one thing, but to be out there with them and training them. ... Until you can really get on that sled with the dogs and have that feeling, it’s the hardest thing to understand,” he said.

Those who do it share a bond. They live in a world of training, traveling to weekend races throughout the winter and, of course, dogs. Energetic, typically thick-coated, bright-eyed dogs.

Many area dog sledders are involved with Siberian Husky rescue groups, their love of the breed pushing them to raise as much awareness about the groups as possible.

Dog sledding demonstrations, such as one recently hosted by Harvard-based Free Spirit Siberian Husky, provide an ideal way to do so.

Some mushers do it as a hobby, bringing their dogs out to run in open spaces in McHenry County and elsewhere, while others regularly travel to Wisconsin, Michigan and other places to compete professionally.

Matos, a volunteer with the Lake County-based Adopt a Husky, started dog sledding about 10 years ago with a couple dogs, having loved the breed since college, when a friend got a Husky.

He now has five dogs and competes professionally in sprint races, or those that typically are shorter, ranging from 4 to 100 miles. The 4- to 10-mile sprint races are most common.

Most of the races Matos goes to are sponsored by the Wisconsin Trailblazers sled dog club or the Great Lakes Sled Dog Association.

“It’s a small community throughout the U.S., throughout the world,” he said. “It’s kind of like any other sporting event where everybody knows everybody.”

Mid-distance races are from 100 to 300 miles, while long-distance races can go more than 1,000 miles, the length of the Iditarod Great Sled Race in Alaska, the world’s most famous dog sledding race.

With a relative in Alaska, Jason Hussong, who heads up the Sled Demo Team for Free Spirit Siberian Rescue, followed the Iditarod growing up. Becoming involved with the rescue group and dog sledding was natural.

He’s been a musher since 2006, and also trains dogs, starting as young as about six months, for others who’d like to start mushing. He’s even had a 3-month-old Husky pulling a children’s sled to give the dog a taste of the sport.

Training can take a season or more, with lead dogs typically requiring more training, at least three seasons, he said. Seasons typically last October through February, perhaps a bit into March depending on the temperatures and snow.

“A lot of it stems from having a relationship with the dogs and being able to go out with them and let them do what they’ve been bread to do,” Hussong said. “It’s definitely a lot quieter than going out on a snowmobile or any other gas-powered vehicle.

“It all stems back to enjoying time with the dogs.”

Huskies and Husky mixes are the typical racers, but any breed of dog can pull a sled, Hussong said. He’s had a Daschund pass him on a race course. Alaskan Malamutes also race, as well as border collies and others, he said.

“Basically, you can teach almost any dog to pull,” Hussong said. “The biggest key is whether they’ll run with a team.

“I even ran a pitbull a couple years ago. His name was Coco. I put him on the team and he had a natural ability to pull his heart out.”

Hussong doesn’t run his four active dogs professionally, but said they can reach a speed of about 15 miles per hour.

Professional sled dogs can reach speeds of up to 20 to 25 mph. They run in teams of anywhere from two or three to as many as 20.

To do it professionally can cost, though, with sleds going for $5,000 or more. Basic sleds for beginners can be $350 to $400, Hussong said.

“The more fancier you get, the more you’re going to pay,” he said.

Lorette McCarley of Beach Park and a volunteer with Adopt a Husky, began racing a dog team about 13 years ago. As her dogs died, she didn’t replace them and is no longer an active dog sledder, but still tries to volunteer for various races.

She considers those years some of the best years of her life.

“A lot of people do it recreationally, which is what I chose to do. I don’t like the whole racing scene,” she said.

“I love to be out in the woods. It’s just so peaceful. It’s pretty incredible, especially if you are a dog lover. What I found is that it brought a whole different bonding with the dog. For me, it was not the adrenaline of racing, it was actually the quiet and the solitude when you’re out on the trail.”


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