A CLOSER LOOK

Did you know that mushers don’t use the term “mush” in order to make their dogs go? Instead they use the traditional language for guiding horses.

To get the dogs to begin running, the drivers simply say, “lets go!”

Left is “haw”

Right is “gee”

Stop is “woah”

Como said the term “mush” probably comes from the French verb, “marcher” which means “to go”

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Although Liz Como and Andy Chakoumakos live in one of the more rural areas of Maine, it’s impossible to miss their house for two reasons: there is a dog sled at the base of their driveway, and the sound of excited barking echoes in the air a mile before their address.

Como and Chakoumakos have been married almost 12 years, and co-own a business called “Winter Journeys, Dog Sled Adventures.” They own 18 full-grown sled dogs and eight puppies, and offer 10-mile sled rides for people willing to brace the cold and see the winter of Maine in a unique and historic way.

This weekend, the couple was at the Mushers Bowl Winter Carnival in Bridgton to show off their dogs and treat carnival-goers to rides to give them a feel of what the sport of dog sledding is all about.

Learning the ropes

According to Como, she was hooked on dog sledding, also called mushing, long before she and Chakoumakos began the business. She adopted her first dog, Nitap, in 1987, (before Andy was “in the scene”) and then several years later took in six more.

“Most mushers, unless you are under someone’s wing, are apt to do something ridiculous when they’re learning,” Como said.

Como initially introduced Chakoumakos to dog sledding, however now they each display equal dedication towards the sport. While both Como and Chakoumakos drive the sleds as if they were cruising along in a Bentley on a well-paved driveway, she said the learning curve was a little bit steeper than people may imagine.

“It requires a level of minor insanity,” she said. Many mushers began training when there is no snow, hooking dogs up to wheeled sleds or all-terrain vehicles.

“It can be a little crazy,” said Como.

However, once a musher is comfortable behind the reins with a well-trained team of dogs, sledding is a great way to see the winter scenery, Chakoumakos said.

Depending on the terrain, a team of dogs can go around 10 miles per hour. Mushers have the opportunity to offer rides to tourists or enter races – and some, like Como and Chakoumakos, do both.

The pair have entered their sled dog teams in races ranging from 10 miles to an intense 250-mile excursion that lasted several days. However, they also enjoy sharing the sledding experience with others under less-intense circumstances – they have been giving rides at the Bridgton winter carnival for the past seven years.

And judging from Como and Chakoumakos, once the dog sled bug has bitten, the fever doesn’t subside. Unlike a boat or snowmobile, the sled dogs can’t simply be forgotten when the season ends. It’s for this reason, among others, that the sport requires so much dedication.

“The dogs aren’t like a snow blower, you can’t put it in the garage when the winter is over,” Como said.

Besides the care and attention that all animals need, sled dogs require a special diet of high-protein dog food, and if they’re doing sled runs, they need to be fed three times a day.

At the minimum, owners spend two hours everyday caring for the dogs. Como, who can list the names of all of her 18 dogs with barely a breath in between, said after so much time with the animals, their personalities, like humans, start emerging.

In fact, Como and Chakoumakos breed their dogs to be friendly and laid back. They don’t have pure huskies; they’re a cross with labs and malamutes, which is not that uncommon in dog sledding, according to Como. Some of their dogs, like Freeze, are steady and gentle, characteristics that make a good leader. Others have more energy and have a tendency to be easily distracted, which makes for a better follow dog. One white, bouncy dog named Mica, has been deemed a flirt by her owners.

“If Mica were a person, she’d wear mini skirts,” said Como. “I totally know what all these dogs would be like as people.”

Dedicated, yes. Tied down, no.

While there have been times the couple had considered making the business their main source of income, they’ve always chosen to keep it as a side job rather than throw themselves into it full time.

At one point, after a writeup in the Boston Globe, the couple was taking care of 30 dogs and giving sled rides every day of the week. But the constant effort was too much of a strain, and made the rides less enjoyable.

“One winter we seriously thought about it, but then the season was really bad,” Chakoumakos said. It made them nervous, he said, to let the weather have such an influence on their living.

So instead, Como works as a nurse and Chakoumakos works part-time at Patagonia. As if that weren’t enough to keep them busy, they also have a one-year-old daughter, Sofia, who they said luckily loves the sled rides.

“She seems to especially like it when we go fast,” Chakoumakos said.

With their team of dogs, five sleds, and no signs of slowing down, Como and Chakoumakos said they don’t see themselves ever giving up the sport.


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