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How one dog sledder races without snow in Western New York

Bekka Gunner hoists a mountain bike off the back rack of her SUV and rolls its thick, rubber tires across the parking lot at Devil’s Hole Park in Niagara Falls. She lets it fall on its side in the muddy grass, a handlebar puncturing the soggy soil.

“Woof. Woof! Woof!”

Her three dogs, Nova, Ghost and Marla, press their noses against the window inside her car, tails wagging in each other’s faces, eyes fixed on Gunner as she lays out a multi-dog harness on the ground in front of her bike. Their “woofs” are muffled, but no less eager, so she works quickly, attaching the red harness to the bike and separating individual leashes for each dog.

She lowers a matte black helmet over her head and hooks a camera to the front. She straps a knee pad over her pants on each leg.

“Woof! Woof! Woof!!”

She opens the car door and the huskies leap out, bounding toward the harness, ready to take off. She attaches them to the contraption with haste, and less than a minute later she swings her leg over the bike and lets the dogs do the work. She’s in their hands, now. Well, their paws, rather.

The “woofs” have stopped, and all you can hear is the Niagara River gushing from the nearby gorge, quiet huffs from Nova, Marla and Ghost, and Gunner calling out instructions to her team in their special code. “Good girl,” she yells melodically after they whiz around a turn on the trail. “Good girl.” The trio chugs along gleefully until they disappear down the path.

Of course, training for a dog sled race when there hasn’t been much snow has been frustrating for the 25-year-old Holland native. But nevertheless, Gunner’s team is a regular at Sprague Brook Park, Delaware Park and Devil’s Hole, even if they have to use a bike instead of a sled. Gunner is just one of many urban mushers, aka city dog sledders, in New York State, and on this particular Saturday morning, she’s preparing her pups for a race in Haliburton, Ont., where there will be snow.

Seeing three dogs pull a bicycle, though? That’s not something you see every day.

“We get a lot of weird looks,” said Gunner, a veterinarian at Niagara County SPCA. “A lot of people want to take pictures.”

Bekka Gunner's huskies are mid-distance runners, meaning they can pull her up to 50 miles. (Photo courtesy Eric Haase and Bekka Gunner)

Ever since Gunner can remember, she’s wanted to spend her life with canines. After seeing the 1995 animated film "Balto" when she was a girl, she was hooked on dog sledding, so her parents drove her to a few races in Pennsylvania. Growing up, she would let her mom’s dog, Phoebe, pull her on a Razor Scooter up her stony country road. After graduating high school, where she studied small animal science at the W.D. Ormsby Center, she headed to Alfred State College to study veterinary technology.

While she’s been working with animals since college, she’s making her love for dogs into a bigger dream. From time to time, Gunner takes on clients under the moniker Untamed, teaching them to urban mush for themselves. Within the next year, she has plans to make Untamed an official business with a headquarters in the Southtowns — complete with trails, a fenced-in dog yard, boarding kennels and a gear shop. Her clients would join the racing team, too.

“The ultimate goal of it is to not teach things like obedience and typical dog training, but to teach people how to have an active lifestyle with their dogs,” she said. “Working with their dog as a team rather than being the boss over their dog. Our emphasis is on dog breeds and what their instincts are telling them to find a productive outlet for the dog, so the dog still has a sense of self and can be happy.”

When Gunner isn’t racing — she’s taken on both snowy and dry-land events in Gasport, the Tug Hill region,  Mendon Ponds Park in Rochester, Cooper’s Lake in Pennsylvania and Quebec — they are climbing the high peaks in the Adirondacks, swimming in Lake Erie or hiking the Niagara Gorge Trail. They never practice running when it is over 60 degrees, but there is always something to do.

“If I didn’t do it, they would destroy my house,” Gunner smirked. “When people get (huskies), they don’t expect all that energy and all that strength. They can’t just live in the house and not do anything.”

Urban mushing lets the dogs follow their basic instincts. After all, huskies are bred to run — Ghost, Nova and Marla are mid-distance runners, meaning they can pull Gunner up to 50 miles. They finished a recent 4-mile race in Haliburton in 24 minutes, 46 seconds, a huge improvement from their last-place finish a year before. Since Marla is the fastest, she pulls in front, setting the speed for her teammates. Ghost and Nova are strong, so they are set closer to the sled to carry more weight. During races, Gunner will add one of her friend’s dogs to the mix, too.

"We're a team. We do everything together," Bekka Gunner says. (Photo courtesy Eric Haase and Bekka Gunner)

“Being on those runners in a race is pure adrenaline — 100 percent,” Gunner said. “You can feel your heart rate and the nerves and the butterflies. You don’t know when that team’s going to come up behind you and pass you. How are your dogs going to react? When you want to turn, are they going to turn? Or what if they see an animal? It’s pure adrenaline. I live for that excitement.”

It’s not just the dogs running; Gunner kicks the snow beside the sled to propel them forward. Whether they’re training on a casual Saturday on a spring day in Niagara Falls or going for it during a big race, there is only one thing that matters to Gunner: that they’re doing it together.

“A lot of people are under the impression that these dogs are doing all the work and people just stand on the sled and whatever,” Gunner said. “There are times that we’re going uphill and I’m running with them, pushing that sled to help them. We’re a team. We do everything together.”

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