Mushers with Free Spirit Sled Demo Team prepare to show off sport in Harvard

For Jason Hussong and his fellow mushers, it’s the dog days of winter.

As team leader of the Free Spirit Sled Demo Team – part of Free Spirit Siberian Rescue based in Harvard – Hussong and his team of about 15 spend the season demonstrating their sport to both raise awareness of the rescue group and keep mushing alive.

His love of mushing began with his dogs, and there’s no place he’d rather be than at the helm of a sled pulled by his Huskies. He now has five dogs, of which three are active racers.

“It’s a very addictive sport. You get involved, and it just becomes a part of you,” he said. “I consider it even more fun than snowmobiling, than doing any other winter or fall activity, because of the dogs. The dogs really enrich the experience."

The Free Spirit Sled Demo Team will host a mushing demonstration as part of the 2020 Chili Lunch and Sled Demo event from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Feb. 1 at the Harvard Moose Family Center, 22500 Route 173, Harvard. Admission costs $15 for adults and $5 for children. Children ages 5 and younger attend for free.

The demonstrations will take place in snow, rain or shine. Mushers use carts on wheels when snow isn’t available, which allows them to start their season in the fall and extend it into the spring.

The Harvard event is a highlight of the season.

“The chili is second to none, and the experience of watching the dogs run is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Hussong, who first became interested in mushing while attending the 2006 Chili Lunch and Sled Demo event in Harvard.

He’s been at it ever since, spending just about every weekend from the fall to the spring either demonstrating the sport or racing in it. Although a single dog potentially could pull a young racer, most mushers use an average of four dogs.

Hussong has raced up to 14 dogs, reaching speeds of up to 20 mph. Professional teams reach speeds of 25 mph, “which in a car doesn’t seem like a lot, but when you’re on the back of a sled, it is a lot,” he said.

Why does he do it?

“The dogs, first and foremost,” Hussong said, “and I guess it’s just something different.”

Aside from the excitement the sport brings, it draws attention to Free Spirit Siberian Rescue. The group is expected to have a couple of adoptable dogs – that also happen to race – at the Harvard event.

Free Spirit rescues huskies and husky mixes from animal shelters where they’re in danger of being euthanized.

A friendly breed, the husky also is a working breed that needs to be active and can be stubborn. Hussong recommends anyone considering adoption to research the breed and sign up the dog for obedience classes.

Sled dogs don’t have to be huskies, said Hussong, who fell in love with the husky breed based on an interest in wolves. He also has family in Alaska, where dog mushing is popular, and he works part time as a dog trainer.

Those who attend the upcoming Chili Lunch and Sled Demo are invited to bring their dogs along and try them out with one of the sled demo teams.

“They just physically have to be able to run,” Hussong said. “I’ve run pit bulls before. I’ve run a couple of different breeds out there. Last year, one of our new volunteers brought a Great Pyrenees.”

Becoming a musher simply takes practice, he said, and a good teacher.

“It’s a learning process that pretty much never stops,” Hussong said. “It takes time. It takes patience. You’re going to make a ton of mistakes. … I still learn to this day. The minute you think you’ve figured this out, you figure out how much you don’t really know.”