Woog’s World: Westport’s Jim Blair is a man for all seasons
It may seem odd — with spring finally, fitfully coming to town — to now highlight the work of a dog sledder.
But Jim Blair is a man for all seasons.
In a world awash in accomplished Staples High School graduates, his may not be the first name that leaps to mind. But the 1973 hockey captain — and former cross country ski racer, Cedar Point Yacht Club sailing champion and motocross star — is a Very Big Name in the sled dog world. Whether on snow (winter) or wheels (the rest of the year), his Vermont-based Eden Dog program offers a rare, ethically tended, year-round opportunity to experience the power and wonder of a magnificent breed of animal.
Blair has always been an outdoorsman. His route to sled dogs included three years as America’s skijor champion. That is a sport — imported from Norway — in which cross country skiers are power-assisted by dogs.
His experience led to sled dog racing. As he learned more, Blair realized that sled dogs can be loving and joyful. They are gentle with children, and go fast. Most importantly, he understood, they do not have to be raised with chains.
That is not the prevailing view in most of the dog racing world. But Blair proved it can be done. He and his “Un-Chained Gang” are sprint race champions, in the 8-mile and open class (11- to 18-mile) divisions. Though semi-retired, he still competed in the United States and Canada.
Blair can only race in the winter. But he cares for his dogs all year long. With his sister Deborah, he has spent the past two decades building a canine consciousness center in the northern Vermont mountains. For years, he poured all the profits from his restoration painting center into building trails, and purchasing state-of-the-art snow and trail maintenance equipment.
Eden Ethical Dog Sledding and Eden Mountain Lodge cover 140 acres. They include miles of tracks, engineered just for dog sledding. They are free of snowmobiles. (The machines scare off deer, moose, bears, wild turkeys, hawks and songbirds — all of which are seen on Blair’s trails.) According to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, his are the only ethical dog sledding race and tour trails in North America.
In Alaska, and many Canadian provinces and territories — where dog sledding is especially popular — the animals are classified as “working dogs,” not pets. That allows them to be culled, chained and otherwise abused, Blair said.
He describes some of what goes on with other ski resort dog sled tours, and the racing sled dog industry. Dogs spend their lives on three-foot chains, making them “aggressive and/or shy.” They have little human contact, except for harnessing. They are not house trained.
When they grow too old to race or lead tours, it is often impossible to transition into becoming part of a family. Blair’s dogs do not have to worry. In retirement they still hang around, playing with visitors and enjoying the company of younger pups.
His dogs swim, play ball and tug, romp in the woods, sleep in beds — and socialize with humans. They are fed a hand-mixed menu of chicken, kibble, fish and egg meal, oil and supplements.
Blair’s Alaskan huskies “prove that sled dogs can be loving, furry, curious and joyful,” he says. “They love children and adults. And they can hold regional, national and international race titles.”
Blair raises his dogs with “love and respect.” As a result, they love to cuddle and play. He believes the intelligent animals are “co-species” with humans, and tried to educate the public about sled dogs’ contributions to society.
As part of the educational process, participants in Blair’s sled dog tours learn how to harness and hitch up a dog team. They are instructed in the sport of sledding, along with dog consciousness, social order and pack dynamics. They tour the “back of the house” too, learning about kennels and canine nutrition.
Blair is living out his life’s dream. He’s working now to make Eden Ethical Dog Sledding into a non-profit. His goal is to offer even more educational programming for children, adults and people with special needs.
There’s a special reason for that.
Three summers ago, the Burlington Free Press profiled him. The story noted: “Blair is writing a guidebook on how to raise sled dogs ethically, how to build a tour business, and win sled dog races while having autism. Blair is diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder.”
The paper said that he liked himself to Temple Grandin. A doctor of animal science and best-selling author, she is an austistic advocate.
Like Grandin, Blair said, Autism helps him understand animal behavior. And, he added, it has benefited his ability to give them “the respect and care they deserve.”