DoNorth

Sledding Down Thunder Mountain

Thunder Mountain dog sled tours show a fun and festive time gliding around the snow.

Tanner braces his paws into the snow as his musher checks the harnesses hooked up to every dog. Warm air bursts out of his nose with each exhalation. He excitedly yelps into the air, and the other dogs follow suit. Tanner leads the sled team and has the responsibility of being first in line. John Houghton, his owner, and musher yells out his name, and with one swift move, Tanner digs his sharp nails into the snow and the team is off on another tour.

Thunder Mountain Dog Sled Tours, located on Mirror Lake in Lake Placid, has one goal: “To make the people happy.” Dog sledding makes for an extraordinary experience and a must-try for those who want a chilly, thrilling adventure.

Houghton first started out as a musher with Mike Arnold and his dog sled team, which occupied the other side of Mirror Lake at the Golden Arrow Resort. Houghton acknowledged he had dogs of his own and it was getting harder to feed them. So, when he heard of the retirement of Hank Wilson, who was a musher to a dog sled team farther down the lake, he made the quick decision to take over.

“I never learned from anyone how to be a musher,” Houghton says, bending down to ruffle Tanner’s fur. “I guess it just came naturally with the love of dogs.”

Thunder Mountain Dog Sled Tours has been owned and operated by Houghton for 27 years. He chose this particular name because, “you can’t look around Lake Placid and not see a mountain somewhere in the distance, and I’ve grown up with mountains in my backyard.” Houghton has 25 dogs and has raised them with the help of his son, Tucker, and daughter, Emma.

“Tanner is the leader of our team today,” Houghton says. “I have a 1-year-old back home training to be a leader as well, but not every dog is born to lead.”

               Dogs resting after a long day of work.

               The dogs obediently waiting for instructions.

             John Houghton Tends to his dogs.

            And they are off! The dogs pulling Houghton on the sled

Houghton pays attention to each dog individually. He takes speed, skill and affability into consideration for a dog to become a leader. “It doesn’t take me long to know who could be a lead dog,” Houghton says. “The dogs know it themselves, sometimes even before I do.” He switches his dogs up every other day, not because they need the rest he explains, but so the other dogs get a chance to work as well. “Some days are fast, and other days are slow,” Houghton says. “Sometimes I even believe the dogs enjoy it more than I do. They love to run, and they love the cold, so I think this is the best place for the business to thrive.”

Houghton says he is always ready to show people a good time, whether they are beginners or not. “My daughter loves the dogs,” says Sam Brown, a Lake Placid local. “We come down to the Lake whenever we have free time so she can ride in the sled. Even though it’s not a long ride, it’s something everyone should experience.” Houghton bends down to secure a family of four into the dark wooden sled. He pulls a bright blue sleeping bag on top of them to keep the two kids in front warm.

He then walks over to untangle two dogs in the middle of the team that twisted their leads. After placing them in the right direction, Houghton goes to stand in back of the sled in the mushers’ position. “Tanner!” He calls out. “Let’s go, buddy!” All the dogs are whining with eagerness as Tanner starts running in place until the rest of the dogs follow his lead.

Houghton’s dog sled tours start up normally in late December or early January when the water in Mirror Lake freezes over. They are open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday through Monday. The tour circles around the left side of Mirror Lake and every 4-mile ride costs $10 per person.

He also does tours during the Saranac Winter Carnival every year in February. “I’m passed making plans for the future,” Houghton says. “I like what I do, and I like having a business with my dogs.” As Houghton gets on the back of the sled for his 17 tours this morning he says, “I’m an old man, so seeing people smile because of Thunder Mountain Dogs is enough of a plan for me.”

Issue 6: Winter/Spring 2016

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