ELLSWORTH — Emma Rea was 5 months old the first time she took a ride in a dog sled.
Her maternal grandmother, Rema Mitchell, put the baby in a helmet, strapped her car seat to a sled and did a gentle turn around the driveway.
Emma’s father was more than a little surprised when he arrived on the scene.
“I looked at my wife and said, ‘Honey, what’s happening?’” David Rea recalls.
Mitchell hoped an early introduction to dog sledding would instill a lifelong love of the sport in Emma. It’s working.
Now 4 years old and a preschooler at Cave Hill School in Eastbrook, Emma loves dog sledding and recently participated in a couple fun runs.
“Are dog sports the funnest thing in the world?” Mitchell asks her granddaughter.
“Yep,” says Emma confidently, her cheeks still red from a recent practice session in her grandmother’s driveway.
Mitchell runs Our Furry Husky Kiddos Kennel in Ellsworth. The organization rescues huskies, providing shelter, medical care and behavioral training. When possible, kennel supporters find new homes for the dogs, but many will live out their lives there. There are currently 11 adult dogs in residence.
The first things Emma wants to show off to a visitor are her future wheel dogs. Ten-week-old Siberian husky puppies Glacier Miser and Mr. Diesel will one day be the dogs on her team positioned closest to the sled.
Next, Emma introduces Pickles, a visibly well-loved husky stuffed animal that goes everywhere with her, including the dog sled.
After suiting up in purple snow gear, she heads outside to the kennel to greet the adult dogs and hook up a sled.
As a toddler, Emma practiced with a kicksled, which consists of standing handle bars attached to two runners. She can glide around on the snow by pushing off with her feet.
These days, she has graduated to the real thing, although she still enjoys playing with the kicksled.
After harnessing one of the dogs, checking her lines and positioning the wooden dog sled just so, Emma calls “Line out! Let’s go!” and the pair are off.
Dog sledding is good exercise for the dogs and fun for both them and their mushers, says Mitchell. She learned years ago from a friend.
“She put me on a sled and just said ‘Hang on,’” Mitchell said
Learning how the brakes worked would’ve been helpful, she recalls with a laugh.
Safety is her primary focus with Emma. She has her granddaughter perform safety checks before each run and calls out instructions to her. Emma wears a helmet, and the dogs don’t run fast or far. Most of her practicing is done in Mitchell’s driveway.
Mitchell also enjoys taking the dogs for runs on the Sunrise Trail. In the summer, she goes bikejoring. She rides a bicycle as the dogs pull in front.
Recreational dog sledding is for anyone and almost any dog — including poodles, Mitchell said.
Huskies love physical activity and being outdoors.
“They get bored when they’re alone for long periods and then they chew things up,” Mitchell explained.
The breed isn’t for everyone, which is why some huskies wind up at her kennel.
One dog was living outdoors in a small kennel in all conditions. It came to the kennel underweight and with health issues. Another dog’s owner was homeless and wouldn’t go into a shelter until she found a good home for her pet.
The kennel got its start in 1998, when the Mitchells adopted a mixed-breed named Saboo from the Bangor Humane Society. Next, Mitchell’s daughter, Sasha, Emma’s mother, convinced her brother to pool his video game money so they could adopt another dog from the shelter. Soon enough, Mitchell’s husband Lewis decided he wanted a full-blooded Siberian husky, so they connected with a rescue organization in Kentucky.
Mitchell was originally interested in becoming a breeder. Instead, they’ve had just two litters, but no shortage of rescues over the years.
“This is what happens: we get attached to them and they never go anywhere,” Mitchell said.
The kennel’s canine residents plow through a 50-pound bag of dog food a week.
Ellsworth High School students volunteer to walk the dogs and help around the kennel.
Emma isn’t afraid of playing favorites when it comes to the dogs. She adores Princess Meesha. The pair has grown up alongside each other.
While Meesha is full grown, Emma still has plenty of growing up to do. She intends to keep dog sledding and hopes to one day compete in the Can-Am International Sled Dog Races in Fort Kent.
She is a proud member of the Maine Highlands Sled Dog Club and recently took part in two of the group’s races. Emma participates in the fun run, a mile-long stretch of which she completes about a quarter.
“Everyone just cheers her on because it’s fun,” Mitchell said.