ST. JUST DE BRETENIERES, Quebec — Maine mushers were up against some of the best their sport has to offer as they competed last week at the International Federation of Sleddog Sports World Championships.
More than 300 mushers from 21 countries participated in nine days of sprint, mid-distance, skijor and pulka races in the Daaquam River region of eastern Quebec.
“This is the highlight of my life,” said Bruce Swan, a musher from Springfield. “It’s an honor just to be here.”
Swan, 50, traveled to Quebec with 10 dogs to compete in the three-stage eight-dog sprint race, finishing in 20th place overall in a field of 34 mushers.
In a field dominated by Canadian sprint racers, the eight-dog race was won by German mushing powerhouse Rudi Ropertz with a total time of 1 hour, 31 minutes, 17.85 seconds.
Less than 30 seconds behind him in second place was the top Norwegian musher Hege Ingebrigtsen with Canadian Melanie Bellerive rounding out the top three.
Swan’s total time over three days of racing was 1:53:11.86 and he felt blessed in more way than one to finish that well.
“This past summer I didn’t think I’d be here at all,” the pastor of the Springfield Community Chapel said. “I was supposed to have a total knee replacement.”
Thanks to a high school football injury decades ago, Swan’s knee is, according to his doctor, “a mess.”
But for the last four months, Swan said he has been pain-free, a phenomena he chalks up to some divine intervention.
“All I know is my church has been praying for me,” he said as he took a break tending his dogs between races. “My congregation has been cheering for me all along.”
Swan has 34 dogs in his Kingdom Bound Kennel and was proud of his team’s performance at the world championships.
“When I made up my mind to do this I told myself I wanted to place in the top 20,” he said. “We did it.”
Parked several trucks down from the Swans’ dog truck was the father-son team of Ben and Alex Thomas of Blanchard.
“These sprint races are really great for families,” Ben Thomas said. “The races are on weekends and it’s something we can do together.”
Alex Thomas, 13, competed in the four-dog junior sprint and, before heading out for his race, took time to talk dogs and sleds.
“These are pretty good and fast dogs,” Alex Murphy said.
“Yeah, my dogs will pull up the rear,” his father joked.
The younger Thomas finished fourth overall with a total time of 48:56.12 in the three-stage event.
For his part, Ben Thomas took 20th in the three-stage unlimited class sprint race with a total time of 3:03:19.64.
Like Swan’s race in the eight-dog sprint, the unlimited field was heavy on Canadian competitors but won by Ropertz, whose time of 2:30:55.27 was more than three minutes ahead of second-place finisher and countryman Klaus Starflinger.
Jeff and Heather Brannen drove into Daaquam from Poland and from the moment they parked their dog truck, Heather was itching to size up the competition.
In 2005 Heather Brannen competed in the Dryland World Championships in Belgium in the one-dog bikejor event.
“This time we were close enough to drive to the world championships on snow,” she said. “I’m really anxious to see how my dogs do here.”
Turns, out, pretty well.
Heather Brannen placed eighth overall out of 33 mushers in the four-dog sprint race with a total time of 45:56:78.
Fellow Mainer Sadie Theriault won that class in a time of 43:56:08, just edging out Ingebrigtsen by less than three seconds.
All the Maine mushers were members of Mushing USA and had participated in qualifying races to earn a spot at the world championships.
Also running from Maine were Josh Mecure of Moose River, Tim MacMahon of Harrison and Norway mushers Betsey McGettigan and Aisling Shepard in addition to team members from Alaska, Colorado, New York, Vermont and New Hampshire.
Globally, mushers came to Quebec from Norway, Lithuania, Poland, France, Jamaica, Sweden, Finland, Argentina and South Africa to compete.
“We’re camping right next to where the Jamaicans are staying,” Swan said. “It’s been so great to meet and talk to all these mushers from around the world.”
For many of the international mushers, their races began long before they stepped on the runners in Quebec.
Ingebrigtsen traveled from Norway with 19 of her dogs — all of which required medical passports.
“There is no rabies in Norway,” Ingebrigtsen said. “The dogs have to be tested and certified before we can get back into the country.”
The cost of a canine passport in Norway is $500. In all, it cost the Norwegians close to $60,000 to participate in races in North America this year.
Ingebrigtsen’s dogs each traveled in their own kennel on the plane from Norway and upon arriving in Quebec she rented a large panel truck she transformed into a temporary dog truck.
“The dogs are used to traveling and it’s not a problem for them,” Ingebrigtsen said. “I get nervous [and] it’s good to see them loaded on the right plane.”
European mushing champion Igor Tracz of Poland came to Quebec with four dogs who had to spend 10 hours on a plane after an eight-hour drive to the airport.
“It was a very long day for the dogs,” Tracz said. “The first day here it was very cold for the dogs, but they are adapting well.”
Tracz said his dogs did fine on the flight, but he ran into a bit of trouble at customs when the Canadian officials confiscated 50 kilos of dog food.
“They took my special food,” he said. “I don’t know why and then I had to go out and find some food that was close to what I use.”
Luckily, Tracz was able to find a similar brand.
Taking the minimalist approach to the IFSS worlds was the two-man team from Argentina who traveled north from Patagonia with one dog — their beloved Alaskan Husky Colmillo.
“We flew to Buenos Aries to Toronto to Montreal to Quebec City and from there we took a taxi to the races,” musher Hugo Flores said. “Colmillo did really well mentally with the trip and he raced yesterday.”
Colmillo raced with Juan Pablo Lovece in the one-dog junior skijor event and together they took the silver medal.
“He’s a really good dog,” Lovece said. “He really liked racing here.”
Flores raced the four-dog sprints, leasing three dogs from a Quebec musher, and finished 22nd.
Back home in Argentina the two run a kennel of 90 dogs.
For mushers like Flores and Lovece, the world championships are about more than racing.
“It’s a place to share ideas and help each other out,” Flores said. “When I got here, I did not have a face cover for the cold [and] the Lithuanian musher gave me his.”
Lovece was equally impressed by the camaraderie.
“The Swedes helped me wax my skis,” he said.
Jamaican Damion Robb left his dogs back home and has been in the United States for several months training with Minnesota musher Ken Davis and his dogs.
“I’ve seen Damion race and work with the dogs, and I trust him completely with my dogs,” Davis said.
“This is something I said I would do,” Robb said of his World Championship debut.
“My countrymen think it’s great what I’m doing, but they have no idea what the cold is like,” he added with a laugh.
Maine mushers, events and times:
Sadie Theriault, four-dog sprint: 43:56.08, first place, junior skijor: 20:27.03, first; Heather Brannen, four-dog sprint: 45:56.78, eighth; Josh Mercure, six-dog sprint: 1:15:56.03, 16th; Bruce Swan, eight-dog sprint: 1:53:11.86, 20th; Ben Thomas, unlimited class sprint: 3:03:19.64, 20th; Alex Thomas, four-dog junior sprint: 48:56.12, fourth; Tim McMahon, one-dog skijor: 38:09.68, 11th, two-dog skijor: 35:53.54, seventh; Betsey McGettigan, one-dog skijor: 35:55.30, sixth, two-dog skijor: 35:44.67, fourth; Aisling Shepard, limited sprint: 44:21.36, second.