Bill Helman and the Art of Urban Mushing
By Leslie Joyce
Bill Helman, an urban musher—an offshoot of a dog sled musher—has devoted his life to dogs. An owner of huskies, Helman has developed his own brand of urban mushing, incorporating specialized equipment, one-of-a-kind bikes and his own sense of fun. He calls this “WooFDriving,” and you can learn it, too.
A serial optimist, animal advocate and outdoorsman, Bill Helman is on a quest to help people make positive changes in their lives—and their animals’ lives—by directing them how to enjoy the outdoors together.
“By sharing my experiences and knowledge, my goal is to encourage others to find their sense of adventure,” says Helman. “There are plenty of activities you and your dog can get involved in together.”
Scenery and landmarksHelman inspires dog owners to learn urban mushing as a way to experience outdoor exploits with their pets. Also known as “bikejoring,” this recreational activity involves training dogs to pull a bicycle as they might a sled. Some mushers place the dogs ahead of the bike. Others—including Bill—attach them alongside the bike.
The WooFDriver has designed his bikes and systems so that even small dogs like Gigi, Bill’s Chinese Crested, get out and run. Bill’s favorite trails are soft, paved paths that take him past both beautiful scenery and historic landmarks. He has traveled the Great Allegheny Passage, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and many other routes and trails in the mid-Atlantic region. He has also taken the dogs on trips to the Assateague National Seashore, the Cape Cod Rail Trail and to Washington, D.C.
His top-six dog trails, in no particular order, are:
- Swatara Rail Trail
- Lebanon Valley Rail Trail
- Lancaster River Trail
- Conewago Trail
- Pine Creek Gorge, a.k.a. Pennsylvania Grand Canyon
- The Ghost Town Trail
“As an urban musher, the best places for me have wide trails,” said Helman. “I bring water for my dogs when I am out, but it helps to have water access—particularly in the summer, of course. I also like the places I take my dogs to be more secluded.”
Exercise cautionHelman says dogs have the potential to surprise you—in both good and bad ways—when exploring the outdoors together. “While it may be tempting to let your dog off leash, there are all sorts of ways they can get themselves into trouble. Whether they run into wildlife, other people or dogs, these are situations you might not have been expecting,” he cautions.
Some question whether urban mushing is harmful or cruel to dogs. “Huskies are a very energetic breed,” Helman explains. “They love to run, but often are uninterested in playing fetch or engaging in the type of play other breeds may enjoy. Urban mushing allows huskies to get exercise in a safe, controlled way. The dogs wear special harnesses designed for the activity, and they are extensively trained to obey the musher’s commands.”
Bill’s bikes also include small, battery-powered motors to reduce the stress on the dogs. The motor allows the dogs to trot easily alongside without having to pull the full weight of the bike and its cargo. If a dog is tired, Bill will harness him or her to a specialized seat on the back of the bike, allowing that dog time to rest.
“Dogs are my life,” he explains. “I’ve spent the last 20+ years as an urban musher and rarely a week goes by when I don’t go out on an adventure at least once. My dogs are high-energy and I got into this primarily to fulfill their need to run. As a result I have been to some amazing places and seen some of them most incredible sites.”
The takeawaysIn fact, being in nature, and witnessing animals in their native habitat and, also, the joy it brings his pets are big allures for Helman. One of his favorite parts of exploring the trails is learning about the history that can be found there.
“I love when we catch a glimpse of wildlife, and seeing my dogs with a smile on their face after a good run,” he said. “Urban mushing also is a good way to work on building their confidence and in working on some of their training. I typically like to go to trails that are less populated, but I’ve also enjoyed meeting so many people out on the trail who are curious about what we do.”
Ultimate, he says, you don’t have to do go far to see some incredible things. “Exploring trails is good for your and your dog’s mental and physical health,” Helman notes. “The world has so much for us to be in awe of, in the wonder of nature.”
Dos of Hiking with your DogWhether hiking with your dog on foot, or engaging in bikejoring, here are some tips to help keep your dog safe and happy. More information is at WooFDriver.com.
- DO hydrate. Bring along plenty of water for yourself and your dog.
- DO make sure you have adequate insect and sun protection.
- DO use a hand-free leash (dogs hook to your waist) to allow your two hands to be free.
- DO provide your dog with a cooling vests, especially for dogs with thick coats, like Huskies. Bill Helman created a special water mister to cool the dogs down when it’s really hot. People can carry water packs for their dogs, too.
- DO bring along a doggie first aid kit, which you can find at any pet store.
- DO bring a camera to document your exploration.
Visit SusquehannaLife.com/WebExtras for more information about Bill Helman’s five favorite dog trails. A complete list of trails Bill has explored with his dogs is at wikiwoof.com/wiki/Category:Trails
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