Into the turn at speeds approaching 25 mph, a six-dog team of Siberian Huskies whisked sled driver Doug Heitz over the 2-inch snowpack surrounding Lake Francis at Nescopeck State Park. Heitz and his Huskies were in a featured event at the park's Winterfest last Saturday.
Heitz has been training Siberian Huskies for 30 years. He grew up on a farm and always had dogs. When he was 14, he met his first Siberian Husky and it was love at first sight.
"I thought it was a really cool dog," said Heitz, who knew nothing about dog sleds.
Some time later, he chanced upon some vintage pictures of dog sledding. That led him to do further research. He met a cabinet maker, and from drawings they assembled, he constructed a prototype sled.
"The Siberian Husky breed goes back over 3,000 years," Heitz explained. "Its first purpose was as a companion dog. The Intuit people discovered that the dogs were very strong, and they lashed together slants from driftwood and reindeer bones to create primitive, yet effective, sleds."
He said sleds weigh under 40 pounds and can have a capacity of up to 800 pounds. The design of the dogsled has changed little over the millennia.
Heitz brought 10 dogs to the Winterfest, all of them Siberian Huskies, ranging in age from 1 to 14 years old.
He directs his dogs by voice commands.
"To get them to go, we say 'hike.' To turn right, we say 'gee.' To turn left, we say 'haw.'
To get them to stop, we say 'whoa'."
Unlike most dogs, Siberian Huskies have blue eyes. Heitz explained that the blue pigment serves as a sunscreen to protect the dog's eyes from the glare of the snow.
A team of sled dogs can go over 20 miles a day at sustained speeds of up to 12 mph. They love cold weather. Fifty degrees is too hot for them to run; 40 degrees below zero is borderline too cold. But give them zero degrees and they can just about run all day, Heitz said, and with six dogs pulling a sled, driver and gear weighing up to 800 pounds.
Heitz is the owner of Howlin' Huskies Kennel in Perkasie. During the winter months, he runs his dogs and offers rides on the Lehigh Gorge Trail in Jim Thorpe. For more information, email sleddogdriver@ verizon.net.