On a frigid Wednesday evening, after the sun has set and the sky is dark, Sarah Knowles and her team of mushers meet at the very end of Perrin Drive in Fall River, N.S.
The only light comes from the headlamps on each of the mushers and the headlights of cars that are still running.
Each musher clips a belt around their waist and then attaches a gang-line from the hook of the belt to the harness of the dog or dogs who are a part of their team.
They venture onto a trail while the dogs howl in excitement.
Knowles and her brother Corey are the organizers of HRM Urban Mushing. Corey got a taste for mushing in 2010 when he went to Vancouver for the Olympics and took a sled tour. When he returned, he introduced his sister to mushing.
When HRM Urban Mushing started, Knowles did not own any dogs. She now has three. There is Sage who is a husky and labrador retriever mix, Heidi a golden retriever and Koda who is a pure husky. All three dogs are rescues.
Knowles says there are about 70 people in the Facebook group, though there are others involved outside of that. Knowles says that there are roughly 100 dogs who are a part of the team.
“From there it grew, and the more research we did the more experience we got and we started to learn that we didn’t have to use sleds, we use scooters and we do canicross when there isn’t snow.”
Canicross is how mushers continue to train when there isn’t any snow. It is the practice of running or fast-paced walking while a dog, or team of dogs are attached to a harness and a belt around the musher’s waist. However, there are specially made scooters for this sport as well, which require the musher to attach the gang-line to the scooter.
Knowles and her brother have concerns for the well being of their dogs and offer seminars, which members of the mushing team must attend in order to learn about their dogs’ nutrition, the right way to mush and how to check for injuries on their dogs after a run.
Although Knowles and her mushing team like to run their dogs at night, they have never had a wild animal pose a threat to the team.
“It’s because they are an established pack. No animal would dare threaten them because they would fight and protect each other and us, just like a pack would,” says her brother, Corey.
Knowles and her team do mushing and canicross almost all year around, except for the summer.
“I can run Sage, who is a husky and lab mix and Heidi who is a golden [retriever] and the heat doesn’t bother them as much as it would Koda, who is a husky. So, Sage and Heidi get out much more than Koda does. But the runs are still very short and very quick, 10 minutes tops,” she says.
In the summer, Knowles likes to get creative when it comes to keeping her dogs active, this includes finding ways to burn off their energy, while still keeping them cool in the heat. Knowles especially likes to take her dogs to the beach, and explains how Koda is a big fan, because huskies tend to love the beach because of the cool temperature and winds.
“If I miss more than one day [of exercise], I’ll have a mutiny on my hands,” Knowles says.
On top of organizing a mushing team, Knowles and her dogs also volunteer for St. John’s Ambulance dog therapy. Heidi works with children, while Sage and Koda work more with adults. Although, Sage will be testing to work with children soon.
“Heidi can sense people. In the testing she went over to this little boy who recoiled a little bit, so for the rest of the testing she would let him come to her,” Knowles says.
“When it came to the point where the kids lined up and would come over and pet her, for all of the kids she would take a step forward and wag her tail, but when it came time for that little boy, Heidi sat down and looked the other way and let the little boy come to her instead.”
Knowles knew that she wanted to get involved with an animal therapy program even before she owned any dogs. As soon as she got her dogs, she signed them up right away.
“Animals don’t judge you, they don’t care what you look like or what you’ve done and they have respect for you,” she says.
Knowles is two years into her social work degree at Dalhousie University, but has since put that on pause to figure out a better route for achieving her goals. She wants to help people feel like they are a part of a group by getting them involved with animals and with her mushing group.
Knowles wants to mix helping people with animals by getting a farm where at-risk youth can help out, to help keep them busy and allow for therapy when they interact with the animals.
“My goal is to have a small hobby farm. I’ve kind of taken a break from school to see if there is an alternate way of achieving that goal. The biggest thing I’ve found is that kids get in trouble when they are bored,” Knowles says. “To see kids interact with the dogs, you can see the pride that they have for being an equal.”
Knowles also does shift work, working with adults with disabilities and going to their homes. She helps with supper, to get them ready for bed, and she takes them out to the movies. Knowles explains that the people she works with are “genuine and trusting people.”
“I love working with people, helping people to reach their full potential and to live to the highest capacity or help them reach their goals, whether it be taking a trip somewhere or getting a job at Superstore.”