January 28, 2011

The Sled Dog Connection

Pam Lacombe-Connell and her son, Jacy, assemble their sled dog team for a practice run in Auburn. 
Union Leader Correspondent
Jacy Connell helps one of his sled dogs from the truck.
DERRY -- Pam Lacombe-Connell is an accidental musher. If anything, she was roped into sled dog racing by her subconscious urge to get inside the mind of the one animal that, for her whole life, had fascinated her.
Connell is an artist first.
But a dozen years ago, after adopting a Siberian husky mix — a replacement dog for the family Pomeranian — something about the spirit of that dog spoke to Connell.
That, and her husband’s way with wood.
“My husband Stephen loves wooden boats.
That year he was building one. Our son, Jacy, was about 2, and we loved to go hiking in the winter. Anyway, I remember watching my husband bend the wood and create this thing,
 this boat, and that’s when it occurred to me,” Connell said. “So I asked him if he could build us a sled, and the rest is history.”

She is not necessarily an avid musher so much as she’s a joyous musher. It’s her 16-yearold son, Jacy, who has spent more than half his life flying at the heels of the family’s small herd of sprinting hybrid hounds. 
Saturday he will compete in the Vermont Burke Mountain Sled Dog Dash, although Connell wishes they could also attend this weekend’s New England Sled Dog Club race on Lake Chocorua in Tamworth. 
“Tamworth is one of our most favorite races, but we already planned to go see friends in Vermont, otherwise we’d be in Tamworth,” Connell said. 
Other than that, it’s been a lean couple of years in terms of racing. Beth, the matriarch of the pack, became a mother to seven puppies last year, and so their focus has been on training the yearlings to follow Beth’s lead. 
With all the snow lately, Connell and her son try to load up the dogs as often as possible and take them on practice runs in the Auburn woods just off Depot Road. It takes longer to prepare the team than it actually does to sprint the four miles with them — each dog is released from a compartment in the back of the pickup truck and hooked on to a short lead that is anchored to the truck frame. One by one they are harnessed and hitched to the two-man sled.
At this point, anticipation, for the dogs, manifests in a chorus of yowls that would make their coyote ancestors proud. As soon as Connell plunks herself down into the sled and her son steps into place on the back, they are in no time flat skidding over the mounds of snow and fast out of sight. 
Connell said having one Siberian husky led them to adopt another, which coincided with finding out that you didn’t have to live in Alaska to enjoy mushing as a hobby. 
“We found the New England Sled Dog Club, and found out they had a two-dog class race, so we tried it. We were so excited, and we just had to become a part of it,” Connell said. 
She also learned that not all sled dogs look like stars of Disney movies. 

A portrait by Lacombe-Connell.
“That’s probably one of the biggest misconceptions, that sled dogs are all huskies, like the dogs in ‘Snow Dogs,’ or ‘8 Below.’ I thought so too. But then you go to the races and you see these hound hybrids that are more geared for sprinting, like Alaskan greyhounds, and Alaskan pointers. They have a thinner coat and love to work on a team, and have that extra speed,” Connell said. 
“People are surprised when we bring the dogs around. That’s the No. 1 question: Why don’t we race with huskies?” 
In these 12 years since everything turned to mushing, sled dogs have earned Connell’s respect, so much so that they are pretty much the exclusive subject of her artwork. A graduate of Massachusetts College of Art in Boston, Connell acknowledges that it is the mythology of the dog as a breed that has captured her imagination since childhood. 
“All Native American mythology around coyotes, how they can be a mirror of a person, showing us the good and the bad, and the way they teach us lessons, as in Aesop’s Fables. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always loved dogs, and wolves and coyotes,” Connell said. 
Her home is also her business — an old 1800s-farmhouse in East Derry, which she calls Coyote Farm Fine Arts. 
Every day she paints or draws, mainly portraits of working dogs. It’s a slow process for her; she takes in all the fine details of her four-legged sub-jects, and works particularly hard at making sure their spirit shines through. 
“I take it to heart. I just hope that the respect I have for these dogs is conveyed in my work. I’ve told clients that if they look at a portrait and they don’t see that spark, if I have failed to capture the essence of their pet, I don’t want to charge them for it,” Connell said. 
Although so far, no one has ever rejected a portrait. 
“I always felt it — but never really understood — that special bond that exists between man and dog until I started sledding,” Connell said. “The sincerity of the relationship between musher and dog is hard to put into words. Maybe it’s even hard to express in a work of art, but I try.” 

On the Web: www.sleddogfineart.com

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