“Biscuit Break!” Stephen Madera calls to his team, and all thirteen dogs turn his way. Teddy, Raven, Rigel, Dove, Snow, Roy, Dove Two, Kealy, Little Bug, Gizzy, Camey, Digger and North are harnessed together and have spent the morning pulling a sled around the Hirundo Wildlife Refuge in Alton, Maine.
Stephen starts at the back and works his way to the head of the line, giving each dog a biscuit, a few words and a pat. The dogs all wait their turn, patient and confident their biscuit will arrive.
This does not strike me as doggish behavior. I would have expected clamoring, or competition to get a biscuit first, but these dogs are relaxed. “The two-year olds get amped up once in a while,” Stephen says, “but that is very rare. They just have no interest in fighting.”
Having been brought up with Jack London and Call of the Wild, where dogs fight to the death, I realize preconceptions need to go. The dogs settle down for a brief rest. Some are close to each other, others alone, just as people would be. These dogs are socialized, that is part of their job. They are sled dogs, and they want to pull sleds. Dogs are domesticated—man has created breeds to suit his needs. Dachshunds were bred to chase badgers, Newfoundlands hauled nets and wood for fishermen, and Golden Retrievers were bred to retrieve the waterfowl their owners shot. Today most of these dogs are pets; they no longer have the job they were raised for. They are loved, pampered, and give their owners pleasure, but no longer have to work for food. I have met many happy pets, but rarely have I seen dogs as content as Stephen Madera’s sled dogs. They are fit, pleased to get a pat and a hug, but not needy. They have work to do, and nothing makes them happier than doing their job, and doing it well.
After break the dogs are led back into the sled harness. There are two sleds, and Zach Talmadge, who works with Stephen, offers some kids the chance to lead the dogs over and snap them into their traces. A young girl looks at her mom and gets approval. She leads Snow and is told how to hook the cords up, one at front, and one at back. She then can’t help herself and wraps her arms around Snow, burying her face in the clean, thick fur. The sweet smell of these dog’s fur and their fresh breath was unexpected, and a testament to their healthiness and good care. Snow leaned gently against the girl and gave her a nudge with her nose.
Snow is a Siberian husky. Stephen has mostly Siberian huskies, and a couple of Yukons. He does not breed them. “There are enough dogs in the world,” he says. He gets his dogs as rescues, or from people who can no longer care for them. They are welcomed into the team at Song in the Woods, which is Stephen’s business offering dogsled adventures in Abbot, Maine. Wherever they come from, with Steve they find a home, have a job and companions, and life is good.
Life is good for Stephen, too. Twice a day he feeds the dogs. The dog yard is across a field from his house, but it is never a chore. Some people would see this as a lot of work but for Stephen it is grounding, “I look forward to it,” he says. “I’ve been doing it for fifteen years, twice a day, and I still look forward to it. It is therapeutic for me, and I learn from them. Huskies don’t always do what you want. It is a challenge to work with their personalities and I can transfer those skills.” When he gets a new dog as a pup, he gives them time to be puppies, and time to see their older team members at work. When he puts them in the traces, they are ready, more than ready, to get going.
At the other end of life is Rigel. She is fourteen, and pulls her fair share with pride and dignity. Stephen makes sure all his dogs have everything they need, but for a friend who has been at his side for so many years he admits to going beyond that. “She sleeps in the house every night, and when we go on trips, she rides in the cab with us.” The other dogs have no problem with that Stephen says, and remarks on their ability to accept whatever they get. When Stephen and Zach led their teams around the reserve, there was always one dog left behind. That was the unhappy one. He would give brief howl as he watched his companions head off to work, gazing after them until they were out of sight, and then curl up resignedly. “Humans could learn that lesson,” Stephen says, “to just accept things they can’t change.”
Stephen also works at the Charlotte White Center in the Batterer’s Intervention Program, and the same non-judgmental calm that he brings to working with his team must be a comfort to the men he helps to accept their past, and make a better future. Leading dog sled adventures and counseling men with control issues have a clear connection for Stephen. They both help him fulfill his vision of life. “When I was in my thirties I decided I wanted work with a meaning, not just a job and a paycheck,” he says.
Before starting Song in the Woods Stephen spent many years working for Outward Bound in Canada, Minnesota and Texas. He once went ten years without a car. When he was a site manager for Outward Bound he lived two and a half years forty-five miles from the nearest neighbor. Tall and sinewy, with a weathered and angular face, Stephen exudes calmness not unlike that of his team. At home with his furry friends, as he calls them, he is a bit shy with the growing group that has come out for the day and a sled ride. He talks about the afterschool group he leads every week. “These kids get a taste of the outdoors, it feels good to pull them away from video games. They learn survival skills, tracking, how to look at the real world, not a TV screen.” He pulls a brush out of a pocket and dusts the snow from his canvas mukluks as he goes on. “The group is called the Lifejackets, because we teach them skills to lead a better life. And it’s not just practical skills, but how to make informed decisions, how to evaluate situations. We all have dinner together once a month, the kids help make it. Many of them never have the chance to sit down to a group meal. It’s like a family dinner.” A rare smile flashes out. “Our favorite meal is Cow Spit Stew.” He describes the green noodles and cheese.
A couple approaches for a ride, and the dogs are led back to their traces. They are ready, muscles tense, quivering with intent as they wait to hear the words, “Let’s go!” These are not race dogs; there is no competition, no winners or losers. They are just here to do a hard day’s work. They lean forward, the runners of the sled are loosened from the snow and the two teams race away, dogs grinning, their plumed tails waving a cheery good-bye.
Cow Spit Stew
1 package spinach fettuccine
½ stick butter
1 onions, minced
3 cloves of garlic, crushed
½ cup grated cheese of choice
½ cup medium cream
(Milk and ½ cup cottage cheese, optional)
Cook and strain fettuccine
Melt butter in saucepan, sauté onions and garlic until translucent
Add cheese and cream, stir until smooth. If it gets too thick, add a bit of milk.
Pour cheese sauce over noodles and serve.
For added effect, stir in ½ cup of cottage cheese just before serving.
Stephen Madera and Song in the Woods can be contacted at 207 876 4736, www.songinthewoods.com