Lake Placid looks to improve sled dog safety

John Houghton, the owner of Thunder Mountain Dog Sled Tours, poses with his dogs on Mirror Lake in 2015. (Enterprise photo — Matthew Turner)

LAKE PLACID — This village’s board spoke for more than a half hour at its meeting last week about whether new laws should be implemented to further help protect people and sled dogs during operations on the Mirror Lake ice in winter.

Trustee Jason Leon shared with the board a letter from a concerned resident who recommended to the board that they consider setting a minimum temperature for dogs to be out sledding on the ice and consider mandating straw or hay for the dogs to lay on during especially cold temperatures. The resident also had concerns about the sleds operating on ice that isn’t safe due to a lack of thickness and recommended a minimum of a foot of ice to be present on the lake before allowing the dogsleds atop the lake.

The discussion came up when the village board was discussing what has become its annual approval of two dog sledding operators on Mirror Lake: John Houghton’s Thunder Mountain Dogsleds of Vermontville and Michael Arnold’s ADK Wilderness Adventures of Saranac Lake. After much discussion all members of the board except for Leon voted for a motion by Deputy Mayor Art Devlin that added stipulations to the issuing of the permits to the two operators.

“I’ll vote for this provided we tell the operators we expect them to have a safe amount of ice,” Devlin motioned. “To treat the dogs humanely, and we reserve the right to revoke their license if proof can show they are not going to be good with that. Give them a year, see what happens, and if they really abuse it, no permit next year.”

Leon had initially raised concerns about the dog sled operation at the board’s previous meeting in November, and last week said he could not vote to issue the permits without a more specific and stringent minimum standard for ice thickness on the lake.

“The two major concerns were the ice thickness safety and subzero temperatures,” Leon said. “It’s just some small accommodations. Often times (the dogs) are picking up their paws because the ice is too cold on subzero days — negative-5 degrees, negative-10 degrees — they are just huddling on one another. And I know there is some concern. One of the recommendations is making sure the ice is a foot thick before we allow people on. And the second was to provide hay and blankets during subzero days.”

“I don’t feel comfortable letting people on, voting to allow a permit for someone to take a tourist or locals out onto thin ice for dog sledding,” he added. “Last year, we had the police go and ask (the dog sled operators) not to (operate with thin ice),” Leon said. “I’m looking to avoid that situation for the safety of the residents and tourists.”

Village attorney Janet Bliss had questions for Leon about how the village would enforce new rules and compared the issuance of a permit under Leon’s recommendations to an attempt to keep people off of the ice, which she said couldn’t always be prevented.

“What about if we say that the operators will take all of the necessary steps to assure that ice is of a reasonable thickness before operating?” Bliss recommended at last week’s meeting. “And that leaves room where they can take a sample — we haven’t defined reasonable.”

Mayor Craig Randall said he thought the application of hay or straw to the ice to keep the dogs warm was a bad idea, considering how it could effect the lake’s watershed. There was also discussion about if the addition of informational, historical or promotional placards about dog sledding on Mirror Lake at the two locations on the lake could help with informing the public.

“What’s more important,” Leon retorted, “educating tourists, or addressing when dogs are obviously uncomfortable?”

Speaking Monday, one of the dog sled operators, Houghton, said he works regularly throughout the winter season to test the ice thickness for safety and said in his 28 years operating on the lake he’s never had an accident.

“In all that time, I have never gone through the ice,” he said. “And I would not be out there if there was a chance of it. I’m not going to risk my life, my dogs’ lives or someone else’s life being out there.”

Houghton said the 20-or-so dogs that operate his sleds are all his own and all Alaskan Husky. The dogs sled a half-mile loop beginning from behind Player’s Sports Bar, he said.

Houghton said he had spoken with village clerk Ellen Clark since last week’s discussion. Houghton said he looks for a minimum of 4 inches of dense and solid ice before operating and tests multiple locations throughout an area of the lake to verify uniformity in the ice thickness by using a pry bar and chainsaw.

“What I find is Mirror Lake is a very uniform lake,” Houghton said. “Me and Mike (Arnold), the other operator, we always discuss ice also and we usually come up with about the same numbers for thickness. And in my eyes, 4 inches of good hard ice is plenty of ice to be out on. I cut a core sample out with a chainsaw. You can actually see what you have with the ice.”

Houghton said last year was his worst season for business ever and that he planned to return to operation by Christmas week. His business is usually open between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. Friday through Monday during the winter and extended days during holiday weeks and weekends. He said in the past his operation has stretched into April.

A phone message left for Arnold was not returned as of press time.

Houghton said the dogs that operate his sled are bred to withstand subzero temperatures.

“The dogs are sled dogs; they are bred, their coats — that’s their weather, when it’s zero or below zero they are fine,” he said. “If it’s 20-below zero the dogs are fine. When it’s 30 degrees out there those dogs are hot. I gotta give them more water.”


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $4.75/week.

Subscribe Today