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Dog sledding in Humboldt

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Photo by Liz Kimura

"You'll want to hang on for dear life," Sara Borok says, handing me a helmet. "It's going to be a bumpy ride."

We're going on a training run with the Northern Humboldt Sled Dog Team. Borok, a local dog trainer and canine fanatic, says mushing must be in her DNA, and admits that as a kid she used to fasten a box to her cat and run it. Eventually, she got a dog and about five years ago joined friend Liz Kimura in co-founding our local dog sled team.

The team is made up of purebred female Siberian huskies. When there's snow in the hills, they head east to the mountains to train. Other times, they run at the beach or the McKay Tract in Eureka. On the Sunday we meet up, they're going for a sprint around Myrtletown.

She warns me about the noise before the dogs show up. "It's going to be really loud." Sure enough, the dogs arrive, hurtling from cars in a riotous, booty-sniffing chorus. Their unhinged cacophony sounds like a mix of barking sea lions and ebullient primates.

Waiting at the edge of the road is a small kick sled on wheels with a row of harnesses laid out in front. As Borok secures the six dogs to the sled, she explains their arrangement according to ability and personality. The pair who steer the sled are at the back, the middle two have the power and the front two are in lead position, steering the other dogs. Borok hops on the sled, I crouch, helmet secured, on the little seat behind the dogs and we're off.

Now silent, the dogs careen through the streets. Human team members on bicycles scout for traffic. Kimura flanks the group with her Volvo — pulling alongside us now and then to form a visual barrier between the dog team and any distractions. "Cats are a problem. So are other dogs," says Borok, especially on popular trails and urban routes. Standing at the back of the sled, she works the brakes and relays commands. "Easy girls. On by. On by," she calls, encouraging the team to continue past a leashed corgi, who spectates from the sidewalk on stubby legs with what I imagine is a considerable degree of envy.

The team is a common sight in the neighborhood. People smile and wave as we bump and clatter through intersections and up hills. The sled's wheels emit a rhythmic metal squeak, and the plastic foot brake scrapes the asphalt as we slow through a corner. When we return to our starting point, a team member is waiting with a fresh bowl of water for the dogs, who are petered out, but seem quite pleased with themselves.

Borok says the team has been clocked at 18 miles per hour, but only for a block or two. "We're not terribly fast," she says laughing. "We're a bunch of couch potatoes, really. That's what I wanted to name the team — The Couch Potatoes. But everybody was like, 'Nooo!'"

Team membership is fairly relaxed. "Our motto is 'Always Recruiting,'" says Borok, who adds that the group's mission is to "promote the sport of dog sledding in a happy, healthy dog training environment." The team isn't ferociously competitive, preferring instead to have happy dogs and enjoy the ride. You don't have to own a dog to join the team. There are many ways to get involved and provide support, like giving talks at local schools and helping with sled dog trials, demos and fun runs. As unlikely as it sounds, there are actually two sled dog teams in Humboldt County, though The SoHum Sled Dog Team, based in Garberville, is on hiatus.

Siberian huskies aren't the only breed that's run with the Northern Humboldt Sled Dog Team. For a while it had a spicy little beagle who could pull 875 pounds. A pit bull even ran for a time. Borok thinks dogs instinctively know to pull a sled. "Every dog I've hooked up has been like, 'Oh! I get to run?'"

The lack of snow on the West Coast the past few years has made for slim pickings in the dog racing world, as most events were cancelled across the region. Borok was thrilled to take the team to the Chester Winterfest Sled Dog Races last month. She reports that on day one, the dogs were in the lead for the first half of the race, held second for most of the hill climb and finished fourth. The team didn't complete the second day of the race, Borok says, "but we had a blast, and are heading back up there for Mushing Boot Camp in April."

Borok started working with Siberian huskies back in 1988. She plans to retire in a few years, load up her dogs and head to Alaska to run sled tours for cruise ships. For now, she competes with her dog Karma in obedience trials and rallies. Karma is a lead dog in sledding, has a barn hunt title and recently started agility training. In competitions, she's placed among the top 100 huskies in the country. "Karma can do it all," Borok says, "She's a once in a lifetime dog."

You can meet Karma, Borok and the team at the 29th annual HumDog Expo on Sunday, March 6, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at Redwood Acres Fairgrounds in Eureka. The Northern Humboldt Sled Dog Team is hosting an educational booth presenting two sled demonstrations.

Further information is on the Northern Humboldt Sled Dog Team Facebook page, where you can message Borok for membership details.

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Amy Barnes

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