December 25, 2017 |Sally Manikian | Land

For the Love of Mountains

Earlier this week, I gazed at the Carter-Moriah Range of the White Mountains while out walking with two of my puppies. The mountains were alive. Winter wind was scouring the summits, sending spindrifted snow into the atmosphere. The ground was hard-frozen and ice edged the brooks. These are the days I feel the most at home, and know that I belong among the mountains of New Hampshire.
White Mountains of New Hampshire. Photo by Sally Manikian.

The love I have for this landscape was forged through two decades of work and life. I lived in the alpine zone as a caretaker of a remote cabin; I led trail crews that stabilized treadway; I skied through forests and felled trees with axes and chainsaws; I climbed the mountains in every single season and in every form of weather. Most recently, I was offered the extraordinary opportunity to work for The Conservation Fund to both conserve landscapes and foster economic growth here in the region I hold dear.

For me, my starting point and most natural understanding of landscape will always be through public access. I grew passionate about these mountains, forests, and watersheds by spending time in them, and managing the recreational infrastructure that ensured safe public access that did not harm the other values of the natural resource. Sometimes public access is about a viewshed, sometimes it is about trailhead protection, and sometimes it is about looking at soils and wildlife corridors and determining that the best public access is no trails at all.

As I launched my life in the outdoors, it is important to note I wasn’t raised in a family of hikers or climbers or hunters or canoers. Our vacations were spent in an RV in Florida. I sought out experiences and work opportunities that built skills and contributed to the stewardship and protection of the mountains I treasure. I grew to love the feel of a tool in my hand, and grew to understand deeply and personally the interlocking ecosystem I was working to protect.

Sally on the trail. Photo by Bruce Luetters, 3Sixty Photography.

Ten years ago, when I was working season-to-season in the outdoors, a flyer on a posting board caught my eye. It read: “Do you love hard work? Do you love winter and being outside? Do you love dogs?” Well, I knew the answer to the first two (resounding YES’s), but the third one I was less sure about, having grown up in a family with only cats and birds and fish as pets.

The poster continued: “Come work for us. We’ll teach you how to dogsled.” It was an advertisement from the local sled dog ride kennel, looking to hire their winter staff. I called the number on the flier, not knowing this would change my life forever.

My interview was done on the trail with the dog team, out on a training run in the dark of an October evening. By the end of the run, I was deharnessing the dogs and talking to them in a way I hadn’t communicated with anyone, human or animal, before. I began to see what it meant to work with dogs in this way. It felt natural.

Playtime with the young dogs at home. Photo by Lauren Dobish.

For three years, I guided clients, and just as I self-taught myself how to be an outdoorswoman, I essentially self-taught myself how to run a dog team and how to educate people on the sport. I learned how to cultivate a team ethic within eight enthusiastic but sometimes grumpy dogs, so that we were all pulling together.

Around that same time, I began to meet and learn about other mushers. Other mushers who were real estate agents or worked in the local school system and had multiple dogs. I learned it was possible to have a career, a family, a social life, and a dog team, to both work in a “normal” job and have 12-15 dogs in your backyard that you trained and worked with and had as part of your family. It was possible to find balance among seemingly competing interests. It was desirable because it created a wide scope of living, not just throwing the future of my life into one bucket that meant all my joys and failures would stem from only one passion. I just had to work to actualize it.

At the start of the 2017 Can Am 250 mile sled dog race; Fort Kent, Maine. Photo by Paul Cyr.

I started building a dog team slowly, with six dogs. I sought out mentors and other mushers and asked so many questions. I scoured the musher versions of CraigsList for used sleds, gear, harnesses and more. I started racing, first in a short 20-mile race and then in 30-mile races. Within three years, I had built and trained a strong, happy and capable team that was racing and finishing 250 mile races, and I named my team Shady Pines Sled Dogs.

At the start of the 2016 Can Am 250 mile sled dog race; Fort Kent, Maine. Photo by Pete Freeman, Capture27 Photography.

 Mushing, as both a lifestyle and sport, is a bit of a fringe culture in New England, although we do have a strong and effective advocacy group in the NH Musher’s Association. The increasing pace of residential development makes it hard to keep a bunch (you know, 12 to 25) dogs on your property, and training a dog team relies on public access for recreational trails. I’ve found that there can be great freedom and creativity by being at the fringe edge. It is that same freedom and creativy that led me to The Conservation Fund, and the way we as an organization approach land and water conservation, community health and economic ecosystems.

In the Northeast, and elsewhere, we describe the nexus of conservation and economy in the context of working forests: timber revenue, jobs in the woods, ecological values, and public access. Public access is not only about community health and traditional recreational uses, but it is becoming increasingly important as an economic driver. Part of the work I do at The Conservation Fund is also directed towards improving the economic system of human powered recreation through the value chain approach, which is entirely focused on boosting local wealth and prosperity without damaging what makes these places special and important.

The Conservation Fund has a consistent body of work in the Northeast that includes—and was inspired in part by—public access. We’ve protected 1,200 acres for the Appalachian National Scenic Trail corridor in Killington, Vermont, helped preserve local historic trails around the Philbrook Farm in Shelburne, New Hampshire, and conserved critical wildlife corridors and habitat for hunters and fishers in the Mahoosuc Gateway. Looking ahead, public access continues to be a driver for both land conservation and economics, as The Conservation Fund works with the Neil and Louise Tillotson Fund to coordinate economic development in human powered recreation through the Value Chain approach.


Androscoggin River, New Hampshire. Photo by Mark Ducharme.

While stewardship work and my life as an outdoorswoman gave me the knowledge of the importance of the outdoors, as well as how to maintain natural resources, the much tougher work that makes it all possible comes in the form of land and water conservation. I’m proud that my professional work now coincides so well with my personal pursuits of mushing and raising sled dogs, and helps me share my lifelong love of nature and New Hampshire’s mountains with more people.

For More Information

Women in mushing:
Can-Am mushers concerned about dogs, not gender or age of competitors by Don Eno
On ‘She’s the Top Dog’ by Sally Manikian

Blair Braverman is a musher living in Wisconsin, who has a column on mushing on Outside Online.

Alaskan racing in National Geographic and Katie Orlinsky’s fantastic dogsledding photos:
Climate Change Is Rerouting World-Famous Sled Dog Race by Nina Strochlic; photographs by Katie Orlinsky
Capturing the Yukon Quest in -50°, Sourtoe Cocktail in Hand by Katie Orlinsky and Mallory Benedict

History and culture of sled dogs:
Sled Dogs Have Been Pulling Us for Millennia, Archaeology Shows by Kristin Romey

A great profile of one particular woman’s story, Katherine Keith:
Quest for Solace by Matt Crossman