Sled dogs keep Addison man young
How long in life can you continue to pursue physically and emotionally demanding hobbies that have you outside in extreme temperatures, facing challenging and even dangerous scenarios?
The answer for Ed Blechner, dog sled driver of almost 40 years, is “as long as I can.”
Blechner, now 66, first got into dog sledding in 1975. “I was always interested in dogs in functional, non-traditional ways,” he says. With a parallel interest in winter camping, working with sled dogs seemed like a natural hobby to pursue.
From the beginning, an integral component of his hobby has been sharing it with other people. He has voluntarily taught in schools, elderly facilities, and public forums, bringing dogs with him and teaching in hands-on ways what it is like to interact with them.
Working with sled dogs is not only fun and rewarding when you’re on the sled and working as a team, Blechner says, it’s also about the relationships you form with the dogs and respect you develop for them.
Blechner considers three main things when working with the dogs: love, caring and respect.
“The love part comes naturally, so that’s the easy part,” he says.
Caring is the driver’s job as their leader. When you’re on the sled you are paying attention at every moment to what is coming up on the trail ahead, whether any of the dog lines are slack, and what obstacles may be around you, Blechner explains.
“You’ve got a tremendous amount of responsibility when you’re driving the sled,” he says, “whether there’s a moose in the trail or a dog with a hurt paw, it’s your responsibility to notice and do something about it.”
Blechner is also constantly monitoring the spirit and temperament of the dogs, signs that can indicate potential challenges or particular strengths each dog can offer the team.
The respect comes from recognizing the dogs as working animals.
“These are very strong and powerful animals with a mission and passion for the work they do,” Blechner says with a sense of awe. “It’s one of the reasons I love sled dogs so much.”
Blechner is careful not to suggest that he isn’t friendly and loving with the dogs when he describes his relationship of respect for them as animals. He says that one minute the dogs can be working together to pull hundreds of pounds up a steep hill in deep snow and the next minute they are cuddling on a blanket and licking his face. The ability to respect both sides of that animal is what makes them interesting and fun, he says.
Blechner’s kennel hosts 12 dogs, but several of them are too old to pull in a sled team and have “retired”. While over his tenure Blechner has kept many different breeds, he currently has all Alaskan Huskies, which he explains as a hybrid or category of dogs that are bred for use in dog sledding.
Typically five to six dogs are used to pull a sled, Blechner says, and training the dogs to learn to work as a team and build the endurance is a major effort. “Unlike a car, the more miles the dogs can get in, the better they do,” he says.
Far from being a passive rider, the driver also requires training, he says, and the dogs know when you’re out of shape or don’t know what you’re doing. Pedaling, or pushing off the ground with long, forceful kicks as you would on a scooter or skateboard, is a primary job of the driver, helping to propel the sled forward as the dogs pull. Often when going up hills, the driver will jump off the sled and push or run alongside to relieve the load for the dogs.
A year ago in March, Blechner traveled to Labrador, Canada for a cross county trip with a friend and 14 dogs. The team traveled between 20 and 30 miles a day, covering more than 200 miles.
“I’ve been fortunate to be able to do a few of these long trips — we have gone every 10 to 15 years or so,” he says.
“A little while after we got back from that last trip, my friend asked me if I had one more big trip in me. I told him at this stage of the game, with a bit of arthritis in my knee and trouble with my shoulder, I’ll just have to see how it goes… that said, Norman Vaughan raced the Ididarod into his 80s.”
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