Dirt Dogs

No snow? No problem. These Jersey mushers run their sled races on the sand.

Romil Limson and his team approach the finish line at the Mount Misery race site. Dogs with weaker pads often wear booties to protect their paws from the rough terrain.
Photo by Colin Archer/Agency New Jersey.

New Jersey’s unpredictable winters are not exactly made in polar heaven for sled-dog racing, a sport that requires temperatures below 55 and 6 to 8 inches of packed snow throughout its season.
But that doesn’t stop Dave Kulpa, a Browns Mills resident and race organizer for Jersey Sands Sled Dog Racing Association, from competing in the sport he loves. The key is improvisation.

Unlike mushers in colder climes like Maine and Alaska, Kulpa and the hundreds of dog-sledding enthusiasts around the state harness their canines to wheeled carts called rigs and race on sand and dirt trails deep in the Pine Barrens.

“While we’re always ready to run on snow, ideal snow conditions are a packed base with some fresh snow on top,” Kulpa says. “If you get 7 or 8 inches of snow and it’s just the fluffy stuff, you’re going to sink, and you can’t go fast.”

Less than 20 miles southeast of Fort Dix Military Reservation near Goose Pond in Brendan T. Byrne State Forest, Jess Borman’s sled-dog team straddles the starting line. The Atco resident will be going third in the six-dog class, the largest race that day with the biggest purse, reserved for veteran mushers with four-to-six-dog teams. Borman, 27, has put many miles on these Burlington County trails; she started racing in the peewee class when she was four.

The dogs howl and whine with anticipation, but Borman is silent. Her face is motionless, eyes focused down the trail. Three handlers restrain the dogs, an effort akin to containing a string of wild ponies. The dogs continue to wail, lunging forward as Port Republic resident and race timer Herman Lindeboom counts down, “Five, four, three, two, one.” At “Go driver!” Borman shouts “Let’s go!,” and the team takes off, slowly accelerating until reaching full speed seconds before disappearing into the first turn.

Borman and her team—lead dogs Myst and Josie, point dogs Mayzie and Fury, and wheel dogs Griffin and Echo—speed down a 3.5-mile loop full of S-turns and moguls on a combination of dirt forest roads and fire lines. Borman isn’t at the complete mercy of her dogs. Unlike sleds, rigs grant mushers a little more control. An arm connected directly to the front wheel allows them to steer around turns and a rear brake will bring the team to a halt.  Simple vocal commands like “Haw” and “Gee” tell the dogs where to go.

 It is Borman and her dogs’ first race of the year. In practice runs, they’ve been clocked at a 5-minute mile, but she is expecting a faster jaunt today as the team’s practice cart is 60 pounds heavier than the rig she uses for competition. The team crosses the finish line 15 minutes and 15 seconds later—good for third place—but Borman doesn’t even check her time. Instead, she showers her four-legged teammates with praise and leads them back to her truck to be unhooked and watered.

The event— known as the Dick Dalakian Memorial Sweepstakes Race—is the first of the association’s two major sled-dog races each year. The one-day competition has 10 different classes, ranging from the six-dog to the dog-bike (a newer class where one or two dogs pull a musher on a mountain bike) to the peewee-rig, a class for little mushers age 4 to 12 (with adults running alongside for safety). It has been hosted by the association the Saturday after Thanksgiving for the past 30 years; Kulpa, 63, has organized the race for the last 10 years.

Formerly known as Jersey Sands Sled Dog Fun Race, the event was renamed five years ago to honor Dick Dalakian, a Siberian-husky handler who passed away in 2005. Dalakian, who lived in Flemington, is a hero among New Jersey mushers. He was instrumental in getting the state in the 1980s to amend a century-old law that prohibited sled racing. The law was originally enacted to protect dogs from pulling potato carts. The revised law allows working dogs to perform functions they were bred for—like sled racing—as long as the activity doesn’t harm their health or safety.

Before the amendment, Kulpa says people would show up at the races to protest; some even boycotted the sponsors. “Some people didn’t want the races going on because they felt it was inhumane,” Dalakian’s wife, Gerry, recalls. “But this is their character. They are a high-energy, muscular dog, and the mushers don’t expect them to pull a weight they can’t.”  Dick Dalakian collected 5,000 signatures on a petition and personally delivered it to the State House in Trenton to get the law changed. “So we thank Dick tremendously and hold this race in his honor,” Kulpa says. 

The association’s second sled-dog race, known as the Pine Barrens Dryland Run, is held about five miles west of the Dalakian race across the Ocean County line at a site known as Mount Misery. Staged every December or January for the past 30 years, this 11-class event attracts mushers statewide, as well as participants from Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland and Delaware.

Unlike the tortuous Goose Pond course, the Mount Misery trail (four miles for the four-dog class and six miles for the six-dog class) is predominately open forest roads— “not as fun as the S-turns and the moguls,” Kulpa laughs, “but if you have a pretty fast team, you have an advantage here because the carts go faster on these hard-packed sand roads.” The Pine Barrens Dryland Run also offers an eight-dog class, but entries for this class have dwindled over the past few years.

“Sometimes we get a couple of entries, but it’s a lot harder to train eight dogs. You have to run a farther distance,” Kulpa says. “Up North where the purses are higher, you’ll see more entrants in that class.”

At the Garden State races, the purses are small to nonexistent, but it’s obvious prize money doesn’t drive the sled-dog culture here. After buying medals for the winners, paying the club’s $800 annual insurance bill, and obtaining $55 park permits for each race, Kulpa admits the club often loses money on the events. To keep on mushing, members seek donations by staging sled-dog demonstrations at local schools and community events like Mount Holly’s annual Fire & Ice Festival.

The club also relies on volunteers like Bryan Freeman, a musher from Franklinville, who has been trail boss the last two seasons. Two weeks before the race, Freeman scopes out the trail, identifying turns where the dogs could possibly veer off. “After locating such areas, I will decide how many trail help volunteers we need and then try to place the appropriate amount of people at those turns,” he explains. “It’s integral that I know the trails well, because maybe you won’t have a good turnout of volunteers and you’ll have to shuffle things around in your head quickly the morning of the race.” If a cleanup is necessary, Freeman checks the trail a week before race day to remove any debris. Last November, he found the Goose Pond trail obstructed by trees that fell during a storm that had occurred earlier in the week. “Volunteers came out, and we put on a trail-cleanup weekend,” Freeman says. “We wound up taking three trees down from across the trail that looked dangerous.”

Mother Nature constantly meddles with Jersey Sands plans; Kulpa says every year, training delays are common. “Twenty years ago, I used to get out the first week of September, but lately it’s just too warm,” he says. “Now if we’re lucky enough, we’ll start in the middle of October.” Last December the forecast of a major snowstorm deterred attendance by many of the mushers. While snow never accumulated, poor turnout forced the club to cancel the race. “We’re responsible for safety, which requires so many people to act as trail guides, and then we need spotters at the starting shoot,” Kulpa says. “At Mount Misery, you’re going through the heart of the forest, so there’s intersections and cross sections, and there’s one point where you have five corners, so you really need someone at each spot.”

But instead of crying foul, the dozen or so teams that showed up ran a few friendly practice runs. It isn’t the competition that brings them here anyway. “It’s the dogs that are racing against each other, not us,” Freeman laughs. “We just have this thing in common, and we’re happy to be there to run our dogs.”

An hour after Borman’s run, she checks the scoreboard to find out how her team fared. She beat her best practice run by a little more than half a minute, but there is no celebratory dance. In fact, she doesn’t even remember how she placed last year to compare her times. “I really couldn’t have asked for a better run from them,” she says. “Racing to me is not just about winning. I just enjoy spending the time with my dogs.”


All races and events sponsored by Jersey Sands Sled Dog Racing Association are free and open to the public. Concessions are potluck style; members and spectators contribute everything from hot chocolate to hot dogs to chili. Here are some upcoming events:

❄ Dick Dalakian Memorial Sweepstakes Race: November 26; race start, 10 am; Goose Pond, Brendan T. Byrne State Forest.

❄ Pine Barrens Dryland Run: December 3, race start, 10 am; Mount Misery, Brendan T. Byrne State Forest.

❄ Fire & Ice Festival: January 28, 10 am to 3 pm; downtown Mount Holly. Professional and amateur ice carvers from all over the East Coast and more than 40 amateur and professional chili cooks from Burlington County show off their skills. The Jersey Sands Sled Dog Racing Association gives demonstrations and hosts a Q&A session on sled-dog racing.
For more information, visit jssdra.com.

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