By JAN WILLMS
Longfellow resident Russell Booth had not planned to become an urban musher. “I was going to be a skijorer,” he said. Skijoring is a sport in which an individual is pulled by a dog or by a motorized vehicle on skis.
Photo right: Russell Booth, is a modern urban musher. But, Booth has garnered some additional skills in addition to mushing. He makes some of his own clothing, including the heavy mittens he wears. (Photo by Jan Willms)
But when Booth adopted his dog, Parker, a Red Siberian Husky, from the Humane Society, he knew skijoring with him was not going to work.
“I talked to some other people in the dog park within days of getting him. A vet tech I met told me I could get a scooter,” Booth noted. “So now the scooter is the main thing we use, and I also have a kick sled.”
“When I got him, he had no training,” Booth continued. “He did not know his name, he was not housebroken, and he had no bonding. He did not know how to pull.”
Booth said it easy in warmer weather to practice with Parker using his bike, with a 14-inch lead so that he could keep him under control. But when he tried to walk him around the neighborhood, the dog was hard to handle because he was so powerful.
Although he wanted him to pull a scooter or sled, he did not want him pulling all the time when walking him.
“He never stopped pulling, and that caused a lot of damage to my body and a lot of stress, and so I was getting very frustrated with him,” Booth said.
“I used a kill collar, but I could see he was going to kill himself with that, so I took it off,” he related. “I tried two kinds of gentle leaders, and he couldn’t pull as hard, but he still pulled all the time.”
Booth said someone in his neighborhood told him about wrapping a leash around the dog’s body and then over itself. As the dog pulls, the leash tightens around its body. “That kind of worked, except it seemed no amount of pain could get him to stop pulling I could see he might damage his internal organs, so I made a modification so I could loop the leash to itself behind where it connected to his collar, squeezing only on his rib cage so he could not do as much damage to himself, but he still pulled as hard as he could all the time,” Booth said.
“I invented something which I later found was invented in South Africa, so I am not the first inventor,” Booth said. “It’s like a backpack strap in reverse. You put it on him figure 8 so part of it goes around each of his shoulders and that connects to his collar, and it slips through on his back so that as he pulls, the squeezing goes around his body more, and that seemed to work the best.”
However, nothing seemed to stop Parker from pulling when Booth wanted to walk him around the neighborhood. “I was worried I was not going to be able to walk with him, and I had lived with therapy and was healed up again, but I was in chronic pain.” Booth said nothing seemed to prevent his dog from pulling when walking, and he thought he would have to return him to the Humane Society. “They would probably consider him unadoptable and have to put him down,” he added.
“There was one thing I had not tried to do, and that was beating him, which I don’t recommend anyone do. But beating him saved his life because he responded to me. He came around immediately. And it became mandatory for me to cuddle with him an hour every night. One thing I know about huskies, if you can save them, they are pretty emotionally needy. So my dog is pretty emotionally needy.”
Photo right: It took some time, and trial and error, for urban musher Booth to get his dog Parker to bond with him. Now, the Red Siberian Husky demands an hour of cuddling every night. Here Parker is taking a breather in Hiawatha Park. (Photo submitted)
Booth said that when you are urban mushing with a scooter and running a draft animal, you have to have enough stopping power that can exceed the pulling power. “There are two places in North America where they manufacture these scooters,” he continued. “One is in Alaska, and the other is here in Minnesota.”
“The scooter is designed with a secondary braking system,” Booth said. “When I set my scooter down, resting on a tripod of three metal points, it is very hard for a dog to drag. That was intentionally designed into the scooter.”
Minnesota is one of the centers of mushing, according to Booth. “It is just as good as Alaska,” he claimed. He and Parker have mushed to 12 other cities. “We have gone from 694, crossed the bridge from Brooklyn Center in Fridley before we started heading back, and we have been as far as downtown St. Paul. We have been out to Hopkins, Eagan, and Bloomington.”
He gives him Premium Kibble and feeds him meat two times a day. “He eats more meat than I do,” Booth commented. “Now he is very affectionate,” he added. ‘He doesn’t have the typical husky problem, escaping and running away.”
Parker can mush up to 20 miles per hour, but he and Booth do an average speed over six miles of 4.5 to 5 miles per hour. “We go on sidewalks and alleys. It’s okay to be on the streets, but he prefers sidewalks. And it’s safer,” Booth noted. He said there are lots of trails available, with over 3,000 miles of trails within Minneapolis.
Booth said urban mushers are limited to one dog. “Two dogs are in violation of city ordinance.”
He said his Norwegian kicksled is designed to be operated by a person, but can also be hooked up to a dog. And with his scooter, he doesn’t need snow. But he has learned a lot about staying warm in winter temperatures that he didn’t know.
“I learned how to keep my water from freezing and dressing in layers. I knew from skiing to dress in layers, but with skiing you’re always active and with mushing, you’re just standing there most of the time,” Booth explained. “I wear up to eight thin layers, and every layer is like a click on your thermostat. Mushers say if you’re sweating, you are working too hard and you need to have the dog work harder.”
Booth has garnered some additional skills from mushing. He makes some of his own clothing, including the heavy mittens he wears. He also has spent enough time in dog parks that he has started creating rock sculptures.
This is Booth’s fourth winter of mushing, and the sport has so enthused him that he doesn’t consider skijoring anymore. He said he and Parker take turns navigating. “Parker knows his way around so much he could be a cab driver,” Booth joked.