In the frozen forest of northern New Hampshire, we’re surrounded by dogs — dozens of them, jumpy with anticipation, eager for a snowy run. One by one, as their excitement builds, the dogs raise their heads to let loose a howl to the heavens that echoes through the bare, wintry woods. Their joyful serenade is a heartwarming welcome on this cold February day, and pretty soon my wife, daughter, and I can’t help but join in the canine chorus ourselves: Arrrroooooooo!
Suffice it to say we’re enjoying the half-hour meet-and-greet portion of a family dog-sledding adventure at the Muddy Paw Dog Sled Kennel (dogslednh.com, 603-545-4533) in Jefferson, New Hampshire. As our guide, Terry, readies our sled, we’re encouraged to roam around and mingle with the 75 or so huskies, hounds, and mixes in the yard, some of whom are rescue animals.
A couple of the dogs are shy or wary, but most are lovable, attention-seeking showboats. They jump atop their houses and excitedly parade about the roofs, or stretch their leashes to lean in closer to us — panhandling pooches begging for scritches. For the dog-averse, this scene could easily be a nightmare. But we happily zig-zag between the doghouses, stroking their scruffy fur, doling out sweet talk, and soaking up the puppy love. It helps that our 7-year-old, a budding naturalist, has a limitless capacity for petting furry creatures.
We’re warned about Moo, named for his Holstein-style black-and-white coat, who has earned a reputation as a charming but mischievous mitten thief. Sure enough, as my wife, Gina, bends to pet him, Moo furtively tugs off her glove — like a magician doing a sleight of hand — and nonchalantly starts to nibble it while still basking in her affections. One of the guides quickly intervenes, but it’s not Gina’s glove he’s worried about. “If he swallows that, it’s a $2,000 surgery,” he says, handing her the slobber-soaked glove.
It’s when Terry starts harnessing dogs to the sled that the joyful racket breaks out. The dogs all seem to call out, “Pick me! Pick me!” But assembling each sled team is something of a puzzle, Terry says. Certain dogs don’t pair well due to creative differences, or they prefer to run with a sibling. Some are hesitant to lead without a trusted copilot, while others love being out front. “It’s like managing a team with 75 different personalities,” Terry says.
He taps Daphne as today’s leader, and “the twins” — siblings who run at exactly the same pace — will be our “wheel dogs,” the pair closest to the sled. We’re able to help clip the dogs into their harnesses (and we’re asked to keep one from chewing through his lead). When all 10 dogs are buckled up and raring to go, we pack ourselves into the sled, bundled up under blankets even though we’re already dressed to survive an avalanche. Terry barks a command, and we’re off, racing into the winter wonderland outside the White Mountain National Forest.
It’s bitterly cold, and a light snow starts to fall, but that’s the whole point. Our winter-loving daughter had been outspoken about her disappointment with the dismal snowfall at home in Quincy, with barely a chance to use her new snow tube, so we’d decided to venture up North in search of some actual winter weather, and the quiet magic that only falling snow can conjure.
My wife has become a huge fan of dog sledding by way of the charismatic author and musher Blair Braverman. Gina’s familiar with the heroes of the sport — including many of the dogs — and was glued to a grainy live stream of the Iditarod finish line when Braverman completed the two-week, roughly 1,000-mile sled dog race through Alaska in 2019. While we hope one day to attend the start of the epic race in Anchorage, northern New England offers plenty of opportunities for a nearby dog mushing fix.
And quite a fix it is — like no tour we’ve ever taken before. We coast through the quiet woods, hearing only the whisper of the rails sliding on packed snow, and the soft breath and frisky footfalls of the delighted dogs. We gracefully glide past paper birch trees and snow-laden pines. A farm hibernating beneath a blanket of white. A beaver lodge.
Soon Terry shouts, “Haw!” to guide the pack to the left as we take a tight, slightly thrilling turn. We merge onto a wide snowmobile trail, and one dog, Mercy, keeps looking back at us with excited curiosity. “Pay attention, Mercy!” Terry hollers with a chuckle. But she keeps stealing glances back at us. So a few minutes later, Terry pulls over briefly so he can move Mercy to a different position — like a disruptive pupil being made to change desks.
A snowmobile passes us at one point, breaking the quiet spell of the woods. But for the most part, this adventure is nearly as socially distant — from humans, anyway — as you can get. Not that we yet understood, in mid-February 2020, just how much COVID-19 would upend our lives only a few weeks later.
After about 2½ miles, we lurch up a hill and lean into a series of twisting turns that put us on a course back to the kennel. Gina starts talking with Terry about her mushing obsession, and eventually he brings the dogs to a stop on an empty, straight stretch of trail. Then he asks Gina if she wants a turn at the back of the sled.
It’s an offer she giddily accepts. Gina walks around back and stands next to Terry, who explains how to use the claw brake and which commands to use. By now, the dogs are in a groove, and impatient to keep running — so she barely gets out the first syllable of “Ready!” before they’re leaping through the snow. We all take a turn in back, and even our normally bashful daughter belts out “Ready!” and gets the dogs moving. In exchange for this wholly unexpected thrill of a lifetime — we’re all positively beaming afterward — we gratefully tip Terry (in dollars) and the dogs (in provided treats) when we get back to the kennel. (The excursion isn’t cheap — a 90-minute tour starts at $350 for two people, plus gratuity — but it’s easily one of the most memorable things we’ve ever done as a family.)
We’re staying at The Glen House Hotel (theglenhouse.com, 603-466-3420) in Gorham, at the base of the Mount Washington Auto Road. Dating back to 1852, the hotel was completely rebuilt for the fourth time in 2018, this time with a geothermal climate control system and other sustainable features. The heart of this dog-friendly hotel is a spacious-yet-cozy lobby and lounge with soaring ceilings, an enormous stone fireplace, and a wall of windows overlooking the peaks of the Presidential Range. The space, which Architectural Digest named the most beautiful bar in the Granite State, strikes a charming note between modern and rustic: A patchwork-quilt moose head hangs above the hearth. We play board games by the roaring fire, watch the snowy summit of Mount Washington turn gold in the late afternoon sun, and order dinner and local craft beers from the bar. (This winter, food and drink will only be served to go or on the outdoor patio, weather permitting, where there is a fire pit. Out-of-state guests in the Granite State must also sign a letter stating they’ve taken quarantine-level precautions the previous 14 days.)
Of course, our daughter is most impressed by the indoor saltwater pool and the vacation-only novelty of watching TV in bed — the morning of our adventure, she preps with a dog-sledding episode of Molly of Denali on PBS. For a more active morning, the adjacent Great Glen Trails Outdoor Center (greatglentrails.com, 603-466-3988) offers miles of trails for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and fat-tire biking, plus equipment rentals. (Outdoor activities are available as usual, with some COVID precautions in place — masks are required in the equipment rental lodge.)
But the next day, our snow-deprived daughter is more interested in the free snow tubing on the premises, and I’m not about to push for a pricier activity. So we take the short shuttle-bus ride to a sledding hill behind the hotel, where a shed full of snow tubes is waiting and a wide, steep hill rises before us. With the snow flying and wind whipping our faces, we hike up the slope and go careening downhill, run after run, until we’re all exhausted and flirting with frostbite. We’ve officially found winter, and our girl couldn’t be happier.
After warming up with a hot chocolate by the fire, we head down to Ice Castles (icecastles.com, 866-435-2850) in North Woodstock, one of this seasonal attraction’s four locations in the United States. A gentle snow is falling as we enter the fairy-tale crystal kingdom, which looks like a Disney scene come to life, created by Princess Elsa herself. Constructed icicle by icicle each December, this 25,000-ton ice attraction is entirely outdoors, with acres of frozen landscapes to explore behind scarves or masks, making it particularly well-suited to pandemic-era tourism. (In case the name doesn’t tip you off, boots and other cold weather clothes are also recommended, especially at night.)
Given the limited shelf life of ice architecture, opening day is weather dependent and tickets routinely sell out, so booking in advance is suggested. We’ve reserved an entry time just after dusk, and find the crystalline castles to be especially magical at night, illuminated by hundreds of swirling, colorful lights (though beams of sunlight create their own dazzling daytime displays). We traverse tunnels through towering ice structures, stroll along the top of a glassy fortress wall, and gaze in awe at the otherworldly creations of professional icicle sculptors.
Farther in, we come across a clearing where food huts are selling hot cocoa and other treats. We hear whoops of excitement, and discover what must be a 100-foot-long slide constructed entirely from ice. As we near the top, we can see it’s actually two slides: a pair of slick, sheer tunnels, side by side. We each get a plastic sliding mat, and then zoom down the icy chutes in a psychedelic cyclone of LED lights. It’s like the Willy Wonka chocolate canal scene on ice.
By the time we leave, the snow is really coming down. There’s an hour-plus wait at the nearby Woodstock Inn Brewery, so we drive into next-door Lincoln, home to Loon Mountain, for a cozy, comforting dinner at The Common Man (thecman.com, 603-745-3463). This beloved New Hampshire mainstay is also packed, but time flies when you’re waiting by the gigantic fieldstone fireplace in the lofty lounge area.
We joke with the server that our kid is approaching the “irritable gremlin” stage of hunger, and without a word she knowingly zips back with a dish of mac ‘n’ cheese in two minutes flat. A little while later, the hearty chicken pot pie seems to warm my extremities and nourish my very soul. (As of press time, The Common Man is offering limited indoor seating on a call-ahead basis, and a full takeout menu.)
We spend the night back in Woodstock at the Wilderness Inn (thewildernessinn.com, 603-745-3890), in “The Bungalow” — the private cottage beside the Craftsman-style main house. After a home-cooked breakfast, we have to clear about 5 inches of snow off the car and put our all-wheel drive to the test as we plow though the fresh-fallen snow. On a midweek workday, this would prove irritating. But up in snow country, it’s invigorating — it just feels right. I could almost howl.
February sunshine sparkles on the glittering trees as we begin the drive home. On the approach to Massachusetts, the smooth blanket of snow gradually gives way to a drab, scrubby tangle of late-winter brush, and the magic melts. By the time we open our car doors at home, the ground is a dull, barren gray, the thermometer a full 10 degrees warmer. It feels as if we’ve just tumbled out of Narnia — and I’m hopeful we can find our way back one day.
Jon Gorey is a regular contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.