MONTGOMERY — When you arrive at the backwoods Montgomery house, you’ve entered dog’s domain.
“This is their house,” said Keith Sampietro, co-owner of the outdoor “green fun” company Montgomery Adventures. “These are our kids.”
In the entry to the Sampietro home, an Alaskan Huskie puppy – Quanikk, which is Eskimo for “snowflake” – ran and jumped around while Keith’s mother, Eve, had her Shitzu “Sofia” sitting on the couch in the main room.
Photos of dogs and their accomplishments cover the walls, and conversation was interjected with barks from dogs in an enclosed area right outside the window.
Keith and his wife Lori – 55 and 53 years old respectively – have 23 dogs, all Alaskan Huskies. Friendly, high-energy and always ready to run, the (housetrained) dogs are inside their home, outside in the yard’s large pen, in the large dog barn Keith built, and – most excitingly – hooked up to handmade wooden sleds that pull people through Montgomery’s winter wonderland.
On the back of a sled, snow-covered trees rush by as the dogs run speedily along. Keith will call “Come-Haw!” or “Come-Gee!” to tell his team of six or 12 dogs to turn left or right. The two sounds – “Haw” and “Gee” – are on opposite ends of the tonal spectrum, and are therefore easiest for the dogs to hear.
And sure enough, at a fork in the trail, the dogs easily turn according to Keith’s vocal command. When it comes to stopping with a “Whoa!” command, the dogs do it, though grudgingly. So, they look around with tongues out, ready to go again.
“This is not something they’re forced to do,” said Keith.
“They really, really enjoy running,” said musher Kate Longcoy, who is working for the Sampietros this year.
While Keith took six of his dogs and this reporter out for a 20-minute sled ride on Monday, he said his dogs, in a pack of 12, can easily go for 60 miles on a flat track on a daily basis, getting up to 35 miles per hour.
Dog sled rides for the public are typically five miles and about 45 minutes to an hour long.
On any sledding run, Keith said he’s always paying attention to the dogs – when they stop, if they need a break, if they’re working together.
“You have to know your dogs, you have to know your team,” said Keith.
In return for care and attention, the dogs show their love by barking, putting their paws up on Keith and Longcoy, and licking them and anyone else nearby as much as they possibly can.
“If I gave them the chance they would like the skin [right] off,” Keith said, laughing.
Keith and Lori’s beginnings in lots of dog love and dog sledding began nearly a decade ago when they purchased their dam, Natasha, and sire, Naugh-Tue, from Iditarod runner lineage in Alaska. They trained them with their first makeshift sled – two cross-country skis with a lawn chair on top.
“When we started, we were just doing it for ourselves,” said Lori.
It originated with Keith deciding to do the Iditarod – an almost 900-mile sledding race across Alaska done with 16 dogs over nine to 15 or more days – when his nephew, Russell Sampietro, was killed in Alaska in 2006.
According to news stories about the incident, Russell – who was 40 at the time –was shot by an unnamed Arizona man when Russell was involved in a confrontation.
Now, nine years later, Keith builds all his sleds from wood, and he and Lori have bred their dogs into the current sledding team. While Keith hasn’t been able to do the qualifying races he needs to get to the Iditarod – weather in recent years hasn’t permitted them to be held – he still has that high aim for his near future.
“Just once,” said Lori, “to commemorate his nephew who died in Alaska.”
In addition to their interest in dog-sledding, the Sampietros also have been dedicated to outdoor activities – archery, snowshoeing, canoeing and kayaking, camping, among others – that embraced and protect the natural environment.
Put all together with their home in the woods Mongtomery – hand built by Keith in the early 2000s while he and Lori camped on the property – the Sampietros saw an opportunity to share what they knew with others through Montgomery Adventures.
“We basically just started doing it and the business just started to grow,” said Lori. The Sampietros welcome visitors easily into their home and into their backyard with their family and their dogs, and now they offer dog sled and cart rides, snowshoeing, guided hikes and camping trips, canoeing and kayaking, and other activities.
Keith also works in local schools with children on outdoor activities, and Montgomery Adventures participates in a number of local events, collaborates with local businesses such as the Phinneas Swann inn, and it has various special offers.
“We want people to realize what an enjoyment the outdoors still is,” said Lori.
While making money is nice, Lori said they run their business simply because it’s what they love to do.
“It’s not a way to get rich,” said Lori. “It’s a way of living.”
She added, “And we just love dogs. Dogs, dogs, dogs.”