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Voluntown - As though sensing their owners' displeasure, the Siberian huskies in Pachaug State Forest Sunday morning whined and strained against their leashes.
The dog owners had made the trip here on this bright, crisp morning for the last mushing race of the season, only to discover that inferior snow quality had canceled the race.
But the sub-optimal snow did not deter many members of the Connecticut Valley Siberian Husky Club, who take advantage of any significant snow accumulation to practice a sport more commonly associated with Alaska or Canada than Connecticut.
The CVSHC schedules these regional dog sled races six to eight months in advance but cancels them if the weather is not appropriate. The snow on Sunday, although plentiful, had a crusty layer that broke under weight. The sleds would sink right into the snow, making mushing difficult, explained CVSHC Treasurer and former President Tom Kowalcky.
It's not particularly difficult to practice mushing in Connecticut, said Kowalcky, aside from the fact that snowfall is less predictable than it is in more traditional dog sledding areas. The CVSHC provides training for people new to the sport, using tricycle-like wheeled sleds to practice on dry ground. The difficulty of the training process "depends on the dog itself," said Kowalcky, who has owned dogs who "ran the gamut" when it comes to ease of training.
While several husky owners left shortly after Kowalcky informed them about the snow, a handful harnessed up their dogs and pulled sleds out of trucks, SUVs and minivans.
Bianca Plourde, who has been mushing for about 10 years, married into the tradition: her husband's family breeds Siberian huskies. She was the first to sled down a long, narrow path at the state forest on Sunday morning.
As Plourde returned toward the parking lot, her husband called out to their dogs, Coal and Apolo - a practice that isn't allowed at competitions because of the extra burst of speed it provides.
Plourde and her husband, Phil, said they were disappointed that the competition was canceled but wanted to take advantage of the snowy forest after an hour's drive from their home in Enfield. They're regulars at the CVSHC competitions - Bianca Plourde took home two third-place ribbons after the group's Jan. 26 race.
There were only seven teams at that race, said Kowalcky, as opposed to the 50 or so he remembers competing in races when he joined the group nearly 20 years or so. He said it's been disappointing to watch the numbers dwindle as older people retire from the sport and not see younger people come in to replace them.
There are only 27 adult members of the CVSHC currently, he said, and the number of race categories has decreased. People used to race with four, six or eight dogs, but the club's current competitions feature only one, two or three.
But Kowalcky seemed content as he watched the Plourdes and other club members practice mushing in the crunchy snow.
"People are taking advantage of being out here with their dogs, doing what they can," he said.