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Born to Run

“I never wanted to be out in the snow, but now I want to be out there all time,” says musher Polly Bray. Everything changed for Polly, 52, of Harrison City, when she discovered that her rescued husky, Rookie, loved to pull people on a sled. That first run was improvised. While watching a dog sled race in Warren, Pa., in 2004, Polly’s husband Bill harnessed up Rookie, sat inside a trash bag on top of blanket, and had the dog pull him down a snow-covered road as Polly ran alongside encouraging Rookie to run. “She freaked out,” remembers Polly of her first sled dog, now deceased.

Last Wednesday, with six days left in winter, Polly pulled her converted 4-wheel-drive van — with a vanity license plate reading “On-By,” a mushing command, — into a snowy parking lot in Forbes State Forest. Wind gusts blew snow in swirls as the temperature with wind chill hovered in the teens. Polly and five of her dogs were meeting up with three other mushers.

Matt Philips, 26, of Shaler had already run his dogs Kaskae, Nike and Sitka once, but was waiting for Bray to arrive. The trails hadn’t yet been groomed and they weren’t ideal for his team. Dew, one of Polly’s dogs, was good at breaking trails. Although the powdery snow made the runs slow, “It was still a very fun day,” said Philips. He “likes to go really fast,” but adds that “sledding is fun in a white winter wonderland. You are at the mercy of your dogs to get back to where you started from.”

“On the snow, it’s so quiet and peaceful. All you hear is the dog’s breath, their feet on snow and their tags jingling. It’s magical,” says Polly.

–Rebecca Droke

Rebecca Polakovsky of Mt. Pleasant mushes her dog sled team including Cali, left, and Luna, along J.E. Miller Road on Wednesday, March 15, 2017, in Forbes State Forest along the Westmoreland and Somerset County Line. “It’s peaceful to be out with just the dogs. I love how excited the dogs get and how natural [mushing] is for them, ” says Polakovsky, who has been mushing for over two years. (Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette)
Matt Philips of Shaler harnesses Nike, as his other two dogs, Sitka, back left, and Kaskae, back right, wait. Although all his dogs are huskies, at least partially, Philips says other dog breeds, as long as they are big enough to pull, are good at the sport too. “Some of the best times I’ve seen at races are hound dogs. They can pull like champs. And can run in the warmer temperatures.” Dogs need to be about 30-35 pounds to be able to pull, says Polly Bray. (Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette)

In Focus Video

Video by Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette

Nike, front, and Sitka, back, pulled musher Matt Philips as he takes them to the dog sled before running them. (Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette)
Sitka, left, and Nike are harnessed and attached to the dog sled before their first run. (Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette)
Matt Philips adopted Kaskae, left, a German shepard-husky mix in 2014. “I really wanted to see how he would do in snow and see him do what he was meant to do.” After hooking him up with other experienced sled dogs, Kaskae immediately figured out what to do and wanted to take charge, recalls Philips.(Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette)

In Focus Video

GoPro video courtesy of Matt Philips, LifeIsForEnjoying.com

Polly Bray of Harrison City unloads her dogs one at a time from her van as other mushers help keep the dogs calm before running them. Bray has been mushing for 10 years and has six dogs on her team. (Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette)
Polly Bray of Harrison City runs her dog sled team along J.E. Miller Road. “Even though the trail wasn’t groomed they didn’t mind. Dew[one of the dogs] is good at breaking trails,” said Bray. (Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette)
Matt Philips receives a lick from Bobbi, one of the dogs on Polly Bray’s team. (Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette)
Nike, left, and Sitka tug at their lines as musher Matt Philips attaches Kaskae to the sled. (Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette)

In Focus Video

GoPro video courtesy of Matt Philips, LifeIsForEnjoying.com

“Most people think I am crazy,” says Polly Bray about being outside in the cold. But seeing how much of a good time her dogs are having “makes me enjoy it.” (Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette)