SRU President Cheryl Norton considers many of the early years of her marriage to her husband Henry as a ‘Disney movie in the making’, although it wasn’t just the excitement of being newlyweds that made those years magical. It was because of the unique group of people the couple had come across while they were living in New York City in the mid-1970s, and the collection of four-legged friends that came along with them. The group, including the Nortons, formed a dog sledding team right in the center of the Big Apple, and it all began with a puppy named Miles.
Cheryl and Henry married in August 1971 and shortly following their honeymoon, Miles, an Eskimo dog, entered their lives. At the time, Henry was working at a private boarding school in Connecticut where a Canadian student had brought Miles with him to the campus. Apparently, the student had rescued Miles over the summer; the dog was abandoned in the student’s native Canadian village.
The student rescued Miles and brought him back to the school with him, but allowed the puppy to run free, causing a bit of a nuisance. The student’s dorm parent asked him to find a different place to stay, and both Cheryl and Henry stepped up, originally agreeing to keep the puppy for a few days until the student found a permanent home.
“The next thing we knew, we had the bed, we had the toys, we had the dog food bowl, we had the water bowl, we had the puppy,” Dr. Norton said. “You don’t just keep a puppy for a few days.”
In 1974, the couple, along with Miles, moved to NYC as Henry got a job and Cheryl began graduate studies at Columbia. The trouble was, Miles was a country dog, and he would only go to the bathroom if he saw green grass, meaning Henry and Cheryl would take turns walking him to Central Park from their apartment building on the west side of Manhattan. Central Park is home to a large dog play area known as Sheep’s Meadow, where dogs can run free while their owners watched them interact with other dogs from around the area. According to the couple, the dog breeds would tend to congregate together when they would play, which led to the owners of each dog breed getting to know each other while they watched their dogs play in the field.
“Most of the people in our group were involved in the theatre community,” Henry explained. “They had a lot of free time during the morning because they were working at night. One of them had actually run his dog on a dog sled team in Pennsylvania and suggested we create a sled dog team, and so we said ‘sure we’ll do that’.”
According to Henry, the biggest difficulty in training the dogs to run together as a unit was getting them used to running forward after feeling the resistance of the leash, rather than stopping like their natural instincts would tell them.
“We concocted various schemes to get them to start pulling,” Henry said. “They began pulling old tires and we looped a leash around a fence post so that when we pull on the leash it would force the dog to push forward.”
Despite their ability to build their own equipment, the entire group, which at this point had dubbed themselves as the “Central Park Mushers,” soon learned that some of their creations weren’t quite right, especially their gangline.
“Our gangline had enough room between dogs to put another pair of dogs,” Henry said. “Later we saw a real gangline and saw that ours was actually too long.”
So the Central Park Mushers would train right in the city, with Miles becoming the group’s lead dog.
“We were doing a lot of running at the time, and Miles would come with us, so he was in good shape,” Cheryl said. “The other dogs were pet dogs,” she laughed.
The couple and the other dog owners trained and trained, and eventually they entered their first dog sledding race in Long Island, which turned out to be chaos. When it came to the travel arrangements, the responsibility fell on the Nortons’ shoulders because they were the only ones in the group who owned a vehicle. The trouble was it was a Datsun 510 station wagon, and it wasn’t very big. The couple had to strap their sled to the roof of the car and jam four adults and six dogs inside of it.
“The first problem was that our dogs had never run more than a quarter mile, and now they’re going to have to run three or four miles,” Cheryl said. “We didn’t really know what we were doing, plus all the rigging, then we got to the race and all of these people had professional equipment. They had trucks with dog boxes on the back and they never let their dogs loose and their dogs were always tied up to the truck.”
According to the Henry, at dog races the mushers, a term for the dog sled trainers, would have pickup trucks with dog boxes on the back of them which compartmentalized all the dogs in one area, typically fitting about eight dogs at a time. Mushers would have these because when they got to the race, they would take each dog out of the dog box and put a short chain on them and attach that chain to the frame of the car, preventing the dogs from getting loose and running around. The Central Park Mushers, on the other hand, had none of this equipment and were oblivious to the custom.
“We just opened the car doors and the dogs flew out,” Cheryl said. “People were screaming ‘Loose dogs! Loose dogs!’, and we were all looking around like ‘Where?’. Soon after, we realized that we weren’t supposed to do that, and everyone that was there was quite mad about it.”
During that race, things got even messier. It turned out the people who organized the race incorrectly marked the racing trail and led every single dog sled team and their runners into a lake.
“It was kind of like that scene in ‘Animal House’ where the marching band just marched right into the wall,” Henry joked.
After the mishap, Cheryl, who was running with the dogs, and the rest of the dog sled teams just got out of the water and walked back to the starting line, putting an unofficial end to their comical first experience with dog sled racing.
After their first, the Nortons and the rest of the Central Park Musher’s got more experienced in the world of dog sledding, but eventually the couple found themselves moving out of the city and across the country to Colorado, where they founded the Rocky Mountain Sled Dog Club, which still exists today. In Colorado, the couple also developed their own kennel and began to breed and train sled dogs right in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. The first female the couple bought was a puppy named Beri, which they met for the first time as she got off of a plane from Renton, Wash. Beginning with her, the couple began breeding dogs that would be ideal for dog sledding.
According to Cheryl, the couple actually owned a total of 22 Siberian Huskies, but this was just for a short period of time because that included small puppies, which were eventually sold to other dog sled trainers. According to the couple, they’d normally own 14 to 15 adult dogs which they’d both train and breed.
In the mid-1980s, when the couple’s oldest son was about eight years old and the other was five, Cheryl and Henry decided it was time to focus on their family. And so an end was in sight for the Nortons’ dog sledding days as the couple became preoccupied with raising two boys rather than pups.
“[Our boys] enjoyed going to the races, but they didn’t enjoy standing around,” Henry said. “They actually expected us to provide entertainment for them,” he continued to joke.
So, after they decided to stop training for races, the couple dispersed their kennel, but decided to keep five of their females with the intent to breed their females and restart their kennel when their boys were older and out of high school. Unfortunately, none of the dogs lived long enough for this plan to be seen through.
By the time the boys were old enough, however, the couple found a new breed of dog that they loved to train: German shepherds. To this day, the couple, Henry in particular, trains their German shepherds, and Henry participates in a German sport known as Schutzhund, which means “protection dog”. The sport contains three phases to showcases a German shepherd’s abilities and training, including obedience, protection and tracking. In fact, Henry and the couple’s current shepherds are training and will be participating in the upcoming season which is expected to get underway at the end of March.
Over the years, both Cheryl and Henry Norton have experienced a wide range obstacles, both in their careers in education and in their dog training days, butneither would trade their dog sledding past for the world.
As for Cheryl, she’s always been thankful that little puppy, Miles, entered their lives just two weeks into their marriage. Those two weeks in 1971 are the only two in which the couple weren’t dog owners.
“We’ll always have dogs, I think. The question is whether or not we’d get a puppy again,” Cheryl said. “We’ll just try and stay with older dogs. We’re not puppies ourselves,” she joked.
As for their future, which includes Cheryl’s imminent retirement following the spring semester, the couple plans on returning to their former property in Colorado, but do not plan to return to dog sledding.
“When we originally did it in Central Park, it was a hoot and it was really fun, and Colorado as well, but you have to have the right equipment and spend a lot of time; it’s kind of ‘been there done that’, and now we’re on to other things,” Cheryl said.
Despite not making a return to the world of dog racing and sledding, the couple plans to enjoy their retirement at their former home in Colorado where they’ll gladly be able to reminisce on their adventures as young adults, and memories of all of their former dogs, including Miles and Beri, couldn’t be more prominent.