FORT KENT, Maine — There comes a time for many mushers when we question exactly why it is we hook a group of amped-up huskies to a sled, step on the runners and give the command to go.
It was one of those moments about 10 miles into the Pepsi Bottling Group Can-Am Crown 30-Mile Sled Dog Race last weekend as I was being dragged face first, hanging on to the sled, down a narrow trail toward Wheelock Lake.
Everything had been going along fine until then. Sometime earlier that morning my six-dog team and I — with the help of a lot of friends and volunteers — had managed to get ourselves into the race start chute, down Main Street past the estimated 8,500 people on hand for the race and out onto the race trail.
The first seven or so miles were along the old railroad bed making for a smooth and flat course.
As number 29 in a field of 31 competitors in the race, I had a pretty good idea I’d be passed by only two mushers, the first of which — mushing phenom 12-year-old Bailey Vitelo of Brookfield, Mass. — caught me less than a quarter of a mile outside of town, passing me like I was standing still.
After the final musher whizzed by, the trail was mine and I settled in to enjoy the ride and my first race.
As a recreational musher, I’ve been running dogs for about nine years and never imagined entering a race, much less the Can-Am, an event which draws up to 90 mushers and hundreds of dogs annually to its three races, the 30-miler, the Willard Jalbert Memorial 60-miler and the grueling Irving Woodlands 250-miler.
But, I’ve also learned with dogs it’s a wise thing to never say never and sometime late last spring the notion was born to train the team and myself for at least one race.
Luckily, I was not alone in this plan. Mushers are a tight bunch, and with the mentoring of past Can-Am musher and dog driver Shawn Graham, the support of fellow musher and Can-Am rookie Kim Paradis and the addition of three amazing dogs — including superstar lead dog Apollo — from Mountain Ridge Kennel in Shirley, training began in earnest last fall.
As soon as the weather cooled to below 55 degrees, the dogs were hooked up to an ATV for runs that began with 2-mile jaunts until we worked our way up to 10- and 15-mile training runs.
Early on, that meant getting up at 3 a.m. to make sure the dogs were properly hydrated two hours before taking off. Those, too, were times I questioned what I was doing and why.
As soon as there was enough snow on the ground, out came the dogsled and runs ranging from 8 to 25 miles right up until the week of the race.
There was no doubt the dogs were ready. These are incredible athletes who are doing what they love and do it with a level of dedication and enthusiasm that is hard to describe.
On more than one occasion during Saturday’s race, that dedication brought tears to my eyes.
Turning from the railroad bed on to the trail that would take us into Wheelock, it all seemed to be paying off.
Temperatures were above normal for northern Maine in early March, but my dogs were keeping up a nice pace on a trail that was close to perfect.
But one should never get too comfortable on a dogsled.
We’d just finished climbing a series of hills and were cruising along a gently rolling section of trail when things suddenly went awry.
Don’t ask me how it happened — one minute I was on the runners enjoying the scenery, and the next thing I knew I was dragging face first, on my stomach hanging on to the sled’s handlebar.
This, I knew at once, was not good.
There was no stopping a team this fresh. My cries of “whoa!” were falling on 12 deaf ears, even when I added “please.”
I had one chance to stop them before I ended up going over Wheelock Lake face first, a specter I did not welcome.
Last fall at a sled dog trade fair I had purchased a Critterwoods Snow Hook. Every musher carries a snow hook of some kind used to anchor the sled when stopped on the trail.
The Critterwoods hooks are touted as “self righting,” meaning if the sled tips and the musher falls, it will bounce a few times and dig in.
It was time to find out if it lived up to its promise.
Holding on with one hand, dragging all the while, I reached up with the other hand, grabbed that hook and flung it off the sled.
It bounced a few times, dug in and everything stopped – except me as I rammed headfirst into the sled’s bar brake. Luckily — thanks to Kim Paradis — I do wear a helmet.
While that was not my only mishap of the day, it had to be the most comical, and I was vastly relieved there were no spectators on the trail to witness it.
From Wheelock to about five miles out of Fort Kent we had a blast. We certainly were not the fastest team on 24 legs — 26 when I was off the sled and running — but we kept up a fairly constant speed averaging about 8 mph.
The night before the race we had been warned re-routing of the traditional trail would take us through a working logging operation about five miles from the finish. Gosh, that was fun.
Five hundred feet to a half-mile — depending on whom you listen to — of a snowless trail of mud. The dogs must have thought we were back to ATV training.
Two crashes later, we could actually see snow again — just across two of the biggest, deepest skidder trenches I’d ever seen.
Apollo never broke stride. He vaulted himself over those trenches, the rest of the team followed suit and we flew over them.
Did I mention he’s a superstar? And yes, this was one of those tearing up moments.
That trail took us right into the 10th Mountain Lodge Ski Trails and I knew we were almost home and I felt myself starting to relax.
Which of course meant near-disaster struck.
Passing in front of the stadium bleachers, a musher just ahead of me signaled for me to go by.
As we did, Apollo decided it would be super fun to slalom his way through the wooden red lane markers separating mushers from skiers.
I managed to guide the sled through two passes before the next marker wedged itself up and under the sled.
With visions of dragging the marker all the way to the finish line I noticed race photographer Matt Michaud on the side of the trail.
In an instant, he was up, grabbed the offending lane marker and it was clear sailing to the finish line — possibly the sweetest sight I have ever, ever seen.
It took us 3 hours, 52 minutes to get from Main Street to Lonesome Pine, good enough for 24th place and I couldn’t have been happier.
The dogs looked good, and I was beyond humbled at the dedication and enthusiasm with which they carried me to the finish line.
I, on the other hand, was a bit battered, sore and tired, but by that night we were already planning for next year.