For Marla B. Brodsky of Chesterfield, her sled dog team is family

  • Marla Brodsky gives her two lead dogs a hug after completing the 12 mile trail at the Chesterfield Gorge. They are part of a 22-dog team that lives behind her home in West Chesterfield. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Brodsky’s dogs provide her livelihood through her business Hilltown Sleddogs, which offers rides to the public. But they mean more to her than that: “They are working dogs and they are also my family,” she says. At right, junior handler Aislyn Jewette, 15, of Northampton releases the dogs after the run. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Marla Brodsky as she completes the 12 mile trail at the Chesterfield Gorge with her dogs. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Marla Brodsky takes care of her dogs after completing the 12 mile trail at the Chesterfield Gorge. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Marla Brodsky takes care of her dogs after completing the 12 mile trail at the Chesterfield Gorge. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Marla Brodsky takes care of her dogs after completing the 12 mile trail at the Chesterfield Gorge. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Marla Brodsky gives her two lead dogs a hug after completing the 12 mile trail at the Chesterfield Gorge. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Aislyn Jewette,15, of Northampton, releases dogs owned by Marla Brodsky after completing the 12 mile trail at the Chesterfield Gorge. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Aislyn Jewette,15, of Northampton,thanks one of the dogs she and Quinton Romer mushed down the 12 mile trail at the Chesterfield Gorge. The dogs are owned by Marla Brodsky who mushed a team as well. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • “We live together as a pack,” Bordsky says of her dogs. “I sleep inside, but I am outside with them a lot.” GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Aislyn Jewette,15, of Northampton,thanks one of the dogs she and Quinton Romer mushed down the 12 mile trail at the Chesterfield Gorge. The dogs are owned by Marla Brodsky who mushed a team as well. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Quinton Romer, 14, of Ashfield is another junior handler who helps Brodsky with the dogs. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Marla Brodsky gives her dogs snacks of raw chicken pieces after their 12 mile run on a bitterly cold Sunday. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Marla Brodsky gives her dogs snacks of raw chicken after completing the 12 mile trail at the Chesterfield Gorge. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Marla Brodsky loads her dogs into the truck after completing the 12 mile trail at the Chesterfield Gorge. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 1/23/2018 3:05:01 PM

It’s been a long Sunday at the Chesterfield Gorge for the Hilltown Sleddogs and the sun has disappeared behind the hills. The temperature is below zero and it’s pitch black outside, but the dogs need their supper and that comes before the leader of the pack, Marla B. Brodsky, does anything else.

Brodsky, 58, who calls this 22-member team her canine family, slips on her headlamp inside her cabin in the West Chesterfield woods, pours some hot water over raw chicken and high-protein kibble and brings the steaming pot outside to the dogs, who let out a whine and howl in anticipation. The dogs live out here all winter long, in back of Brodsky’s home.

“It’s always the dogs first,” she says, as she pours the stew into a large container where the dogs gather around. “…These dogs work really hard.”

Brodsky, a life-long animal lover and a former blues singer, lives here with her 13-year-old daughter, Ruby, who is curled up by the woodstove studying for final exams. The two of them, Brodsky says, never get lonely in their eco-cabin, where they live off-the-grid on solar power, because their dogs are always just outside.

“They are working dogs and they are also my family. We live together as a pack. I sleep inside, but I am outside with them a lot.”

Brodsky runs the dogs on nearby trails nearly every day, often taking people for rides on their sled through her business Hilltown Sleddogs, which is based on the 18-acres where her cabin is situated. The dogs live in a traditional Alaskan dog yard, each animal tied on a long chain to a pole, where they can get plenty more exercise running around and playing with each other, Brodsky says. Each animal has a square plywood house. Sometimes the dogs like to curl up inside, but they are often found sitting on top.

Long love affair 

Brodsky’s love for sled dogs is rooted in her childhood; she grew up with dogs and spent the winter months skiing. She always enjoyed the outdoors, she says, and favored the cold months. So, she says, it was only natural that she would be captivated by sled dogs.

Her fascination continued into adulthood. During winters when Ruby was just a baby, she would tuck the child into a stroller on skis, pulled by her Alaskan Malamute, and off they would all go, cutting through the fresh snow on the trails at the D.A.R. State Forest in Goshen and on the paths in the woods in back of her home nearby. “The baby would always fall asleep,” she says.

At the time she was still touring the country as a singer, and, during one trip in the summer of 2007, she says, she found herself in Alaska. She sought out a sled dog kennel that allowed her to run some dogs. When she left, the kennel gave her a retired sled dog named Betty to take home. Betty would go on to give birth to Brodsky’s first litter of puppies. 

“They gave me this opportunity,” she says of the kennel staff.

Coincidentally, she says, the day after she got back to western Massachusetts, she was hiking in the Chesterfield Gorge and ran into a dog sled pack. The owner of the team, Ron Bates, had injured his knee and was having trouble running his dogs. Brodsky volunteered to help out by running the dogs over the winter. Soon she started offering sled dog tours, putting fliers up around town. 

“I felt like destiny had intervened to give me a dog team the day after I got back from Alaska,” she says. 

She mated a dog from that pack with Betty and her first litter was born that winter. At first the puppies would run alongside the sled, but by the end of the season they were pulling it. “They were such an awesome litter that I wanted to breed again with the same parents,” she says. 

Ruby never took to racing, Brodsky says, but would help with caring for the dogs. Ruby’s favorite time was when a new litter would arrive and the puppies lived inside until old enough to open their eyes. “That’s the best cuddle time,” Brodsky says.

A family business emerges

During her travels, Brodsky would spend a few weeks at a time at the kennel in Alaska to learn about sled dog racing and how to care for the dogs. Eventually, she started Hilltown Sleddogs. “I wanted to make a living doing this, get off the road touring with music,” she says.

Since then, she’s raced her pack all over the country, sometimes for hundreds of miles. She her livelihood comes from the hundreds of people who pass through her property every year, looking to meet the dogs and experience sledding. It’s not a way to get rich, she says, since the dogs eat their way through hundred of dollars worth of kibble every week. “For most mushers, this is a labor of love. Everything that you make goes back into feeding your dogs.” 

Hilltown Sleddogs also offers a camp every summer, where campers pick two dogs to care for during the week. Aside from scooping poop and grooming, the children can go hiking with the dogs in the woods and go swimming down at the fresh water stream that runs through the property.

“People come and they spend time with (the dogs) and it is healing. ... They learn how to interact with the dogs and it is transformative.” Brodsky says she often is told how sweet and loving her dogs are. “I do take pride in that I have something to do with that.”

Teens part of the pack

One of her campers and junior handlers, Aislyn Jewette, 15, is riding with the dogs at the Gorge on that recent Sunday. “I just love the dogs,” she says after pulling off their harnesses. She helps to round them up, tying the dogs to the side of the truck before Brodsky pulls out a snack: raw chicken backs and pig innards. “They chomp on it like candy,” says Brodsky, hacking up the meat with an ax on the back of her truck before tossing each dog a chunk.

Jewette, along with another junior handlers, Quinton Romer, 14, helps to pack up the gear. “They do it all,” Brodsky says of the kids.

Jewette first fell in love with sled dogs when her mother arranged for Brodsky to come to her 6th birthday party to provide sled rides. Not long after, she signed up for the camp. Since then, she’s learned a lot about these four-legged creatures. One of the dogs is half greyster, a mix of greyhound and pointer, a sprinter who is fast, but can’t go for too long. The bulk of the dogs are Alaskan Huskies, animals that can easily go for long distances. “They have good instincts. If the ice is thin, they know not to go over the ice,” she says. “So, they are really smart.”

Jewette also has learned how to harness the dogs and hook them up to a sled, and how to direct them when driving the sled. Universal commands are “hike” to get them running, “easy” to slow them down and “whoa” to stop them. 

“You can see how much the dogs love to run,” she says as she wraps up the day on the trails.

She and Romer work with Brodsky taking care of the dogs during as many weekends as they can. Their compensation is the training they get from her on racing. When they work with customers, they often get tips.

The teenagers are also part of Brodsky’s dry land racing team during the fall months, when the dogs are harnessed not to a sled, but to an arctic rig, which looks like a three-wheel bike. Together, they travel to Maine and New Hampshire to race through organizations like the New England Sled Dog Club. 

“Aislyn and Quinton are part of the pack,” Brodsky says. “They are extended family. Sometimes I’m away and they help mush the dogs and deal with customers. These are my kids. They grew up with the dogs and the kennel.”

Lisa Spear can be reached at Lspear@gazettenet.com.

How to connect

Hilltown Sleddogs offers 1½ hour rides for $275 for two people, $150 for one person. The price is $75 for kids 13 to 18, $50 for those 6 to 12, $25 for ages 2 to 5. Kids under 2 ride free.

For more information visit https://www.hilltownsleddogs.com/

The Hilltown Sleddogs will be at Daley Field in Easthampton during the city’s Winterfest, Feb. 10, between 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. They will give demonstrations and free rides to children (See the Family To-Do list on Page C1 for more information about Winterfest.)




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