Maggie Valley Musher and Thundering Herd

Leaving Winterfest Mushing to Pros   by Jim Marks

The 2016 Winterfest Smoky Style will be a “go” on Saturday, February 27 and Sunday, February 28 at the Maggie Valley Festival Grounds regardless of rain, sleet, snow, ice or freakishly warm sunshine. But whatever the weather, local amateur musher Kirk Wall and his Thundering Herd of six Siberian huskies will not be competing.

Professional mushers will be giving demonstrations on Saturday and competing on Sunday. Some will be fresh from competing in Alaska’s Iditarod, which covers over 1,000 miles in the dead of winter when even daytime temperatures can be well below zero. Most people would get cold just thinking about being out in those conditions, but Siberian huskies love them.

“The professional’s dogs are like highly-trained, world-class athletes,” Wall said. “Comparatively, my dogs are couch potatoes.” His interesting and humorous blog, The Thundering Herd.com, reports regularly on the indoor and outdoor activities and antics of his six Siberian huskies. Regular blog readers will easily understand why Wall and the Herd are not competing at Winterfest.

They will be there, however. Wall is one of the organizers of Winterfest Smoky Style and will bring Herd members to meet Winterfest visitors. Wall will use the occasion to tell people a little about the Siberian husky breed and dry land mushing with wheeled “sleds.” These were developed because even Alaska and Canada don’t have packed snow year around, and sled dogs need constant work to stay in shape. Wheeled “sleds”- think big tricycle – let mushers and dogs practice even without the packed snow that is needed for classic dog sledding.

There are sled dog races for teams of two, four, or six dogs that race at three distances. Sprint races for two dog teams are three miles long; four miles long for four dog teams, and five miles long for six dog teams. What mushers call “mid-distance” races vary from 200 to 400 miles long. And the ultimate competitions like the Iditarod are 1,000 miles or more. The dogs usually run silently, doggedly following their leader or responding to the “gee” or “haw” commands of their musher. Like human athletes, the dogs warm up before competition and cool down when the event is over.

Wall was one of the organizers for the inaugural Winterfest last year, and has again been involved in the planning and organizing. Post-event surveys showed that the 2015 edition was greatly enjoyed by attendees, but perceived as a dog event rather than a winter event. Wall said that he and the other organizers wanted to keep the draw of the dog events – dry land mushing and K-9 education and demonstration by area law enforcement officers – while adding other attractions. To that end there will be timbersports, weight pulling competitions and demonstrations by the International Weight Pull Association, music, appearances by representatives of Cherokee Nation, food, and vendors. Survival expert Spencer Bolejack, who starred in the “Hillbilly Blood” reality show and operates the Land of the Sky Wilderness School, will also join the Winterfest festivities. The day’s activities will close with a bonfire at 5pm. (See adjacent page for a schedule of events.)

Families attending Winterfest are welcome to bring their own dog or dogs – leashed – but must follow some restrictions. Visiting dogs will not be allowed to approach the sled dogs or the law enforcement K-9s for the safety of everyone concerned. There will be a musher’s village where the sled dogs will be set up for everyone to meet them and that area will be off limits to outside dogs. On the other hand, a separate weight pull area will offer a novice pull in which any dog of any size will be allowed to experience weight pull. The person and dog will be taught how to do it safely and be supervised by the weight pull staff.

Well-known musher Dan Rehak will be one of the experienced mushers giving demonstrations and educational talks at Winterfest. Rehak has a Siberian husky micro-kennel in Pittsburgh and does recreational mushing on both dry land and snow. He has a team of huskies that are all retired from serious, competitive long distance competition. Sprite, Pauly, Bang and Casey help him introduce dry land mushing at events from North Carolina to well north of his base in Pittsburgh. Rehak also does action photography at dog events.

Other experts joining Rehak at Winterfest will be Robin Harrison and Larry Brown, one of whom lost his left leg above the knee and is now, to the best of his knowledge, “the only peg leg musher anywhere;” Marcia Horne, who founded the Siberian Husky Assist Rescue in Bristol, Virginia that has expanded to Knoxville, Tennessee and Roanoke, Virginia; and Daphne Lewis, whose company, Chalo Sulky, makes sulkies, carts and wagons for dogs to pull.

Winterfest Smoky Style is jointly sponsored by the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for children and $0 for dogs. For the latest information available about the event, go to www.winterfestsmokystyle.com or www.visitncsmokies.com. And tell them PetGazette sent you.

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