Mushing the dogs

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Doug Butler of Middlebury, Vermont, spent Wednesday afternoon training his sled dogs on a recreation trail in Hill. (Roger Amsden/Laconia Daily Sun)

Sled dog teams work out in Hill


By ROGER AMSDEN, LACONIA DAILY SUN
HILL — Doug Butler of Middlebury, Vermont, is one of a handful of New England sled dog racers still competing in other parts of the country and hopes that this will be the year that he wins the Fairbanks Open North American, the dog mushing world championship, in March.
Butler, in his mid-60s, has been mushing for 43 years. He’s also a full-time dairy farmer who hopes to pass his 400-acre family farm, where he raises over 600 dairy and beef cattle, on to his son.
He was in Hill on Wednesday working out his sled dogs, 24 of them, with assistance from Jim and Diane Lyman of Gilford, who helped him hook up his teams and followed him along the trail with their snowmobiles.
Jim Lyman, president of the Lakes Region Sled Dog Club, said that at one time there were more than 50 sled dog teams in New England, many of them based in the Lakes Region. Today there are only a handful of teams and very few racing events.
During the 1960s, the New England Sled Dog Club hosted races every weekend at places like Tamworth, Meredith, Belmont, Wolfeboro, Newport, Gorham and Pittsfield, that attracted 30 to 40 teams and led up to the Laconia World Championship Sled Dog Derby, which was hosted by the Laconia Sled Dog Club. As many as 45 teams took part in the Laconia derbies with many of the mushers coming from Canada, New York and the Midwest.
The races in those days started on Laconia’s Main Street and drew thousands of spectators, as well as presidential candidates every four years seeking votes in New Hampshire’s first in the nation presidential primary.
Lyman says that rising costs to raise and train a competitive team have taken their toll on sled dog racing in New England. The New England Sled Dog Club now holds only three or four races a season with Tamworth its only New Hampshire location.
The last major Lakes Region breeding kennel for sled dogs was run by Keith Bryar Jr. of Moultonborough, a two-time Laconia world champion who died two years ago.
Some of his dogs have gone to his niece Brittany Colbath of Gilford, while Butler has acquired four of the Bryar dogs, two of whom, Hocho and Pretty Boy, are his lead dogs.
Butler said he hasn’t had much time to get in training runs with his dogs this year and that Wednesday was the first time being hooked up to the sled for several of his young dogs.
He has around 50 dogs in his kennel and is very high on some of his younger dogs. He said that training for race season begins in September, but he keeps the dogs active year-round, hooking them up to his tractor and leading them on long walks.
This year, Butler and his team will take part in a number of races this month and in February, including the Laconia World Championship Sled Dog Derby Feb. 16 to 18.
He says that taking part in the Fairbanks Open North American will be the culmination years of devotion to the sport.
“I’d really like to win it. It seems like I’m jinxed every time I’ve raced there,” says Butler.
Butler has qualified many times before but has never been able to win the Open North American, a three-day battle over a 22-mile trail that starts on city streets and crosses frozen lakes in front of thousands of fans.
He is also the subject of a movie “The Underdog”, which was created by three Middlebury College students and debuts at the Town Hall Theater in Middlebury this month.
While the film will focus on Butler, the story extends beyond his farm to other dairy farmers in Vermont who are struggling to keep up with a market that is pushing toward larger farms and subsequent cheaper prices.
Butler says he hopes that the movie will tell a story of the farmers who spend 16 hours a day, seven days a week at work and give them credit for all their efforts to make a living for themselves and their families.

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Doug Butler holds Pretty Boy, one of his lead dogs, who came from the kennel owned by the late Keith Bryar Jr. Butler hopes to race his team in Fairbanks, Alaska, in March. (Roger Amsden/Laconia Daily Sun)

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Two of Doug Butler's dogs wait to get hooked up to the sled before a training session Wednesday in Hill. The dogs are a mix of Alaskan husky and German short-haired pointers, a breed which dominates sled dog racing. (Roger Amsden/Laconia Daily Sun)