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Warmer winters are creating an uncertain future for the dog sledding industry

It's pushing dog sledders into retirement
dog sledding
Posted at 9:10 AM, Feb 22, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-22 11:11:38-05

LAKE ELMORE, Vt.  — There is a certain stillness that settles over the Lake Elmore, Vermont, which is home to Ken Haggett. As each flake floats down from the heavens, it brings with it new opportunities and some silence for this 60-year-old man.

But quiet moments are the exception here.

Haggett's backyard is a winter oasis of sorts for the nearly 30 Siberian Huskies he cares for. Most of them have helped Ken Haggett run Peace Pups Dogsledding Tours, for the better part of 16 years.

"I love animals so I really enjoy being with the dogs," he said.

But for the last decades or so, looks have been deceiving here in northern Vermont. While there is plenty of snow on the ground in the middle of February, major snowstorms have been few and far between this winter. Winter is starting later and ending earlier, leaving those who rely on seasonal tourism dollars to make a living, looking at an uncertain future.

"Every week that goes by without snow it's just money being written off from my income with no hope of recovering it, it's a little stressful," he said as snow continued to fall.

But no matter the conditions, Ken Haggett and his team get to work. Providing dog sled tours for dozens of tourists who come here each season looking to be closer to the sport this 60-year-old loves.

"I really feel like I'm a part of the pack," Haggett said on a recent Friday morning as he worked to harness up his team for a ride.

Climate change though is making it harder for mushers like Ken Haggett to continue. Each unusually warm winter day melts away the snowpack on the trails he relies on to run his team of huskies.

Like so many small businesses in this country, he needs winter to survive.

"I’ve gone from 16 weeks of sledding down to eight. That's a 50% reduction in income," he said.

In an attempt to control what he can, this 60-year-old spent thousands of dollars a few winters ago on a new snowmobile. He uses the matching to pull a grooming device across his sledding trails when snow conditions deteriorate.

"It’s just more and more erratic. I wouldn’t be surprised if we had a winter without snow. I wouldn’t be surprised if we had a winter without snow until February and then we got six feet in a day. It’s just that kind of insanity and running a business based on that is tough" he lamented.

According to NOAA, winter in the United States is warming faster than any other season. Since 1970, average winter temperatures have increased one degree in all 50 states. Researchers say 48 states have experienced a decrease in the amount of precipitation that falls as snow.

All of the uncertainty is just pushing dog sledders further and further north in search of snow.

Dan Hanks is with the US Federation of Sledding Sports. His biggest concern when it comes to dog sledding and climate change is for the dogs themselves. They have a harder time regulating body temperatures when it's not as cold as it use to be.

"Certain people, they have to make choices. Do I move to Alaska or Wisconsin or do I move on?" Hanks said.

Inconsistencies in snow patterns across the country are pushing many dog lovers out of a sport they love.

And that includes Ken Haggett.

"I have mixed feelings about the whole thing, but it's time," Haggett said, sitting inside his workshop as snow continued to fall outside.

This year will be Haggett's last as a musher. Instead of gripping a sled, his hands have found something else to hold on to. To supplement his lost dog sledding income, he started making stained glass art last year.

He's calling the business Phase 3 Glassworks. And soon, the income from the art he sells will become his retirement plan.

While he loves dog sledding, the uncertainty of the future has forced his hand.

"I’m at peace with it. I feel like 16 years was a pretty good run."