LACONA — When Roy Smith first partook in the obscure sport of skijoring, which involves skiing while being pulled by dogs, he knew he was hooked.
“I said ‘This is what I’ve got to do,’” Smith said of his thoughts at the time.
That was in 1992 after he purchased three dogs from a man he knew who was moving to Alaska, and with those dogs Smith competed in a skijoring race at Mount Van Hoevenberg in Lake Placid.
Smith went from three to 19 dogs over the next two years, and regularly competed in races from 1995 to 2005. A back injury forced him to give up racing, but he still made his love of dogs a lifestyle and started doing dogsled tours and trail rides for the public. At one point, at the height of his business, he had 60 dogs living on his 70-acre property in Lacona, where he runs Adirondack Kennel.
These days, Smith has just 24 dogs; ongoing back problems have made it difficult to maintain the kennel.
“The doctors say I have to change my lifestyle,” Smith said. “Every time I see my surgeon he asks ‘how many dogs do you have now?’ It’s just so hard to part with them.”
Despite his back presenting difficulty, Smith rarely gives dogs away; he normally keeps them until the end of their life and estimates to have 17 canine graves on his property. He has given away around 50 dogs in his career, but only to homes where he knows they’ll be well taken care of and always keeps in touch with the new owners. He makes sure to get regular updates as to how the dogs are doing.
Smith was at one time a hopeful to make the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. He raced competitively at the NCAA level at the time in 10-kilometer and 15-kilometer cross-country skiing. Although he did not make the cut, he maintains he could of made it if he had dropped out of college to train.
However, it was that skiing talent that allowed him to pick up skijoring so easily, being that it requires an expert skiing experience level to be able to do.
Smith first tried dogsledding in the late ‘90s and now mostly uses the sled as opposed to skijoring because of his back. As his website states, most people expect to see Siberian Huskies pulling a dogsled, but Smith rejected this traditional method in favor of a number of different breeds. He said he even came up with one breed himself, a cross between Staghound, German Shorthaired and Husky.
The most recent litter that Smith bred was just such a mix. It was born six years ago, and he predicts it will be his last. It consisted of eight dogs, each named after a character from the Brady Bunch. Two of those dogs, Jan and Mikey, are two of Smith’s favorites and his best “lead dogs,” the dogs at the front of a dogsledding team.
“They’re a perfect match, same size, same speed,” Smith said.
Smith takes issue with the stereotypical image of a team of Huskies with a driver whipping them and yelling “mush” repeatedly. He argues that isn’t effective and doesn’t think dogs should be pushed as much as they do in long-distance races such as the 938-mile Iditarod race in Alaska, which is where most people get their depiction of dogsled racing.
“Most people don’t do the Iditarod,” Smith said. “Most people do what I do. Short distances, no pressure, just for fun. Everyone hears about the dreadful Iditarod, most people don’t do that.”
Smith detailed how during the Iditarod a team will start with 16 dogs pulling the sled, but finish with six to 10 because of dogs having to be left at checkpoints due to exhaustion. He said the kennels that participate in that race go through hundreds of dogs per year to find the elite team needed to compete.
Smith explained that years ago he had 10 people he paid to help out with the dogs and during long winters he was so busy with tours and races he would make about $30,000 per season. That profit would cover the cost of the 60 dogs he had at the time. That budget included costs such as spending $7,500 per year on dog food.
Smith needs at least two more surgeries on his upper back and had a heart attack two years ago. He said he can handle about six hours per day of working out the dogs. As of now, the dogs he has are split evenly into what Smith designates as old and young. He thinks he may have to look at finding other homes for all the dogs under age 3.
For now, he’s focused on keeping the dogs in good condition. This involves loading them into the special “dog car” (a Toyota RAV-4 with no seats in it) to head to the trails and having them pull the sled. Or in the summer riding an ATV and having them chase it.
“That’s really the best way to condition a sled dog in the summer,” Smith said.