Caleb Hayes, 17, and Christian Hayes, 15, have an unusual hobby for high schoolers: they train and race teams of sled dogs. And for these brothers, the colder and snowier it gets, the better it is.
“It’s the place I like to be most. You know how people have their happy place? This happy place moves around,” Caleb Hayes, who will compete in next month’s 100-mile event in the Can-Am Crown International Sled Dog Race, said. “At night, I like to shut off my headlamp. It’s really dark, but you still can see the moonlight hitting off the dogs. I think it’s just crazy beautiful.”
Being on the trail with the dogs, even at night or in sub-zero temperatures, makes the Belfast Area High School junior and his brother, a freshman, happy. And more than that, it’s teaching them important life lessons about perseverance and dedication.
They come by their passion through their dad, Jonathan Nathaniel Hayes, who owns and runs Poland Spring Seppala Kennels in the Aroostook County village of St. David. The Seppala Siberian Sleddogs that their dad raises and trains are a rare working dog breed that excel at pulling a sled through cold conditions. The dogs are all descended from famed sled dog Togo and the heroic team that led Leonhard Seppala 261 miles through harsh weather to transport lifesaving antitoxin to the people of Nome, Alaska, during a 1925 diphtheria epidemic.
The Hayes brothers are proud to continue on the path their father has set, training the dogs and themselves diligently and seeking experience as young competitors on the sled dog circuit. They live with their mom in Northport, but every other weekend and on school vacations, they head north to spend time with their dad and the dogs.
“To see these boys take initiative, set these difficult goals for themselves, and then do the tedious work — countless hours and countless miles in sub-zero temperatures during the harshest months northern Maine offers — makes me very proud to be called their dad,” Jonathan Nathaniel Hayes said.
In 2020, both brothers competed in the Can-Am 30, a shorter race with a six-dog team. Last year, all Can-Am Crown International Sled Dog Races were canceled because of the pandemic. But this year, the brothers are looking forward to testing their mettle against other competitors.
Christian Hayes isn’t running the Can-Am this year, but will compete in this weekend’s Moosehead Lake Area 100 Mile Wilderness Sled Dog Race. He’s signed up for the 35 mile race, which starts and finishes in Greenville and involves an eight-dog team.
“I am extremely excited,” he said. “I definitely hope to do well. I’d love to place in the top five, and I really hope that the dogs perform extremely well.”
There are physical, practical and psychological components to sled dog racing. The brothers do a lot of running, so that they’re able to get out and help the dogs if, for instance, there’s a steep hill ahead of them.
“I just try to run. I try to do a mile in under seven minutes,” Caleb Hayes said. “I try to do that and build up my stamina, so I’m ready for this. I know I have to be as ready as the dogs are.”
They have to wear the right gear so that they stay warm enough even in the coldest conditions. Having really good gloves and warm boots is critical, as is wearing lots of layers of non-cotton clothing like wool, plus a warm hat and a face mask.
“The cold literally does take your breath away,” Caleb Hayes said. “I think the coldest it’s ever gotten was negative 29 degrees. It gets really crazy.”
And that plays into the psychological preparation, too. Dog sledding is a challenging endeavor that can require people to get out of their comfort zone. When Caleb Hayes was 10 or 11, he was afraid of the dark and the cold. One night, his dad woke him and his older brother, Asa Hayes, up so that they could do a night run.
“I was scared to do it,” Caleb Hayes said.
He and his brother were in the same sled, but he still felt alone and frightened.
“Then Asa said, ‘Hey look, watch this.’ He shut off his light. It was snowing at the time. We were in between trees, and it was insanely beautiful,” Caleb Hayes said. “All I can remember is looking at the dogs and thinking, ‘I’m not alone.’ I started feeling warmer on the inside. And being afraid of the dark kind of went away.”
Christian Hayes said he’s learned a lot from sled dog racing and training. In times of stress, when he’s tuckered out and the dogs also seem tired, it’s important to take a break, he said.
“You can give them a few minutes, give them some praise, hug and cuddle them,” he said. “Once they’re ready, they’ll let you know. They’ll be jumping and pushing and pulling the sled. It’s awesome.”
There’s a life lesson in that.
“Don’t quit. Take a break instead,” he said.
Both brothers hope to keep on dog sledding as a hobby for a long time to come.
“It’s pretty much a sport that me and my brother have done our whole lives,” Christian Hayes said. “Where we run dogs in sub-zero temperatures and have a lot of fun in the wilderness.”