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March 12 , 2004

Dogsledding and Snowshoeing Enliven January Term

Snowshoeing enthusiasts hit the trail in Vermont’s Green Mountains.

For eight Mount Holyoke students who took the snowshoeing and dogsledding class over January Term, "mush" now means something more than melting snow on campus pathways. "The only prerequisites were a love of dogs and outdoor winter activities," said director of athletics Laurie Priest, who taught the course. Priest was surprised by the popularity of the course. "I was amazed," Priest said. "Students contacted me even before J-Term registration began. We had a long waiting list."

The students had two meetings in South Hadley to learn the basics of snowshoeing and dogsledding before spending two action-filled days in Vermont putting their preparation into practice. By all accounts, the experience was fabulous.

Arriving at their lodgings in Vermont in time for a quick lunch, Priest and her students strapped on their snowshoes and explored the Robert Frost Memorial Trail in the Green Mountains near Middlebury all afternoon. In the evening the group met their dogsledding instructor, Lissy Heminway, at the Middlebury Public Library for a lecture and slide presentation, complete with sled dog Merlin and a sled for demonstration. While some folks might have been ready to pack it in, the students headed out for a late-night snowshoeing trek under the stars. "They were so energized," Priest said. "It was great."

View from the dogsled driver’s seat

The next morning, the group headed over to Heminway's house and kennels for a day of dogsledding. The students jumped right in, playing with the 14 sled dogs and helping to load them into the trailer for the quick trip to the sledding trail. "The students were helpful and involved in the whole process, harnessing the dogs and hooking them on the gangline," said Priest. The students discovered that dogsledding is harder than it looks. When the dogs get tired, explained Lindsay Theile '04, you have to jump off the sled and run alongside them so they don't have to pull your weight. This often happens when you're going uphill, so it's definitely a workout."

Priest developed the idea for the course after her first dogsledding experience last winter in upstate New York. Her only reservation about the course was that the students might not be as enthusiastic about dogsledding as she was. "Every part of me loves it, so if my students didn't feel the same way, it would have been hard for me," Priest said.

Priest need not have worried. When the group finally unhitched the dogs later in the afternoon, it was clear that the students shared her passion. Theile said, "it was one of the most fun things I've ever done in my life. It was an absolutely amazing experience." Another student, Candice Bolger '06, told Priest, "I love this so much. It's touched my soul."

Priest acknowledged that trying a new course for the first time—especially one that involves complicated logistics and uncertain weather—could be tricky. She couldn't say enough about how well her students rose to the challenge of the class. "They bonded really well. They wanted to get involved and learn by doing. They fully immersed themselves in the opportunities that were available to them and made the experience wonderful."

Priest said she will definitely offer the course again next year.


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