FORT KENT, Maine — For mushers, the start of summer means only one thing — how many more days until snow?
Whether it’s a small recreational kennel with a handful of dogs or a larger, race-proven enterprise, putting away the dogsleds does not mean training is over for the year.
“The number one question people ask us after ‘how much does it cost you to feed?’ is usually ‘what do you do with (the dogs) in the summer?’” said Lindy Howe of Heywood Kennels in New Sweden. “We let them off their tethers to free play (and) in the summer we have smaller sections of the kennel fenced off so we can have controlled play groups.”
Temperatures, conditions and nutrition all change in the mushing world come summer but one constant remains — all eyes, ears and paws are looking toward the next sledding season.
“We always try to keep them going until we can’t go anymore,” Amy Dugan of Mountain Ridge Kennel in Shirley, said. “If it’s in the high 40s we can run because our dogs are already in such good shape they can do it.”
Dugan and her husband John Osmond have been mushing more than two decades, participating in races around New England and Canada.
At Mountain Ridge, like sled dog kennels everywhere, it’s a year-round lifestyle.
“Right now we’re hooking up 12 to 14 dogs at a time for four miles,” Dugan said. “It’s keeping them happy and loose and they love it.”
Instead of a sled Dugan and Osmond harness the team to an ATV, a move that affords a bit more control than the smaller – and much lighter — dogsled.
With that many dogs pulling, the ATV’s engine is used to slow the dogs down to a steady and manageable pace.
“Having a team that much more in control is really beneficial,” Dugan said. “It’s such a great time to train as opposed to conditioning (because) you have that hunk of iron they can’t move.”
Often, finding those cooler, dog-friendly temperatures means hooking up the team in the predawn hours, before the sun starts warming things up.
That, in turn, means being out in the dog yard two hours prior to the run’s start serving up a tasty serving of “baited” water to each dog — water that has been flavored with anything from canned salmon to yesterday’s leftovers.
The important thing, Dugan said, is getting them to drink between one and two quarts of water to ensure proper hydration for the upcoming workout.
Lindy Howe and Kevin Quist run Heywood Kennels in and Howe agrees summer activity is crucial in preparing for the next season, but stops short of running the dogs in harness.
“Running keeps the dogs in shape and limber,” Howe said. “But I feel they get this in free play without the pulling and they go control how much they put into it.”
Of course, reduced running does present some other challenges.
“Not running all summer means the dogs are crazy in the fall,” Howe said. “Another one is weight control (and) I always have someone that is not here every day come and check the dogs (because) it is impossible to tell how their weight really looks when you live with them.”
In Madawaska, Amy Dionne and her younger sister Holly are busy this summer training their racing kennel of 13 dogs throughout the summer.
“In the summer we have to deal with the smells and grass the dogs either want to pee on or eat,” Amy Dionne, said. “If it’s below 60, we try to run.”
The Dionnes use woods trails when the temperatures begin to rise toward 60 to take advantage of shade.
“If it’s too hot I’ll use the trekking belts and walk them one at a time,” Amy Dionne said.
Dugan employs the same strategy, preferring to walk each of her 27 dogs on a leash rather than letting them “free run” on their own.
“Taking dogs for a walk is really the only option when it warms up,” Dugan said. “I don’t believe in free running because there are too many opportunities for things to go wrong (and) I don’t want the dogs to run off.”
Summer training also means summer diet — not that the dogs are worried about bathing suit season, but a reduction in fat calories helps keep their body temperatures cooler as the thermometer rises.
“We feed about half as much now because of the heat they don’t have to expend so much energy to stay warm,” Dionne said. “And we don’t run as far.”
Howe and Dugan cut back on meat and fat in the dogs’ diets as less activity means they need fewer calories for energy.
Here at my Rusty Metal Kennels I’ve noticed the United States Postal Service could take a few lessons from a dog team — neither rain nor sleet nor gloom of night, nor snow, hail, wind, fog, mud or dust will keep a sled dog off the trail.
As long as they are harnessed up and on the move, all is well in their world. Eventful, at times, but well.
Last year it was the moose.
Every morning at the exact same spot we spotted anywhere from three to eight moose in a field not far from the road.
On one memorable morning in the first three miles of the run we came across 23 moose and while there was never any confrontation between dogs and moose, it was definitely unnerving.
When it gets too warm to run my dogs, I’ll walk them down to a pond for some water aerobics.
Sled dogs, I’ve found, are funny about water. Some will lunge in with wild abandon while others dip in one toenail and call it good.
“Sometimes I go out and spray the dog with a hose,” Dugan said. “Some like it more than others, but it helps cool them down.”
There does come a point every summer when it’s simply too hot to run at any time and the dogs are on holiday.
“It’s good for them to have a break in the high summer for a month or two,” Dugan said. “It allows time for muscle recovery and any soreness to get out of the way.”
Those truly are the dog days for mushers and the four-legged team members when all there is to do is shovel poo and cast our eyes skyward, waiting for those first flakes to fall.