FORT KENT, Maine — If Charlie Brown is right and happiness is, indeed, a warm puppy, then true bliss is an amped-up sled dog team.
Four-thirty a.m. and I’ve just come in from watering eight huskies. The sounds of happy howls are the soundtrack of my early morning.
Never mind what the calendar says about the seasons because while most mushers agree that August is the dog days of summer, now that the northern Maine mornings are cooling down to 50 degrees and below, we insist on referring to this time as “fall training.”
Sure, according to the calendar there are 37 more days of summer, but mushers, as a group, typically ignore details like that when the weather cools enough to hitch a team to the front of an ATV or similar style wheeled training rig.
Registrations have opened for popular races around New England and the country, such as the Can Am Crown in Fort Kent, the Irving Woodland-Mad Bomber in Eagle Lake, the John Beargrease Marathon in Minnesota and, of course the famed Iditarod in Alaska and Canada’s grueling Yukon Quest.
It’s the time of year when the whole mushing season is in front of us and all things and trails seem possible.
Of course, into such wide-eyed optimism reality is sure to intrude.
Like the reality, while it has been cool these past several mornings, by the time the sun has been up for a couple of hours it’s too warm for the dogs.
So, not long after the alarm goes off at 4 a.m. I’m out there hauling buckets of flavored water to entice my eight dogs to drink up and hydrate.
For the next two hours or so I stumble around getting the ATV into position, making sure it has gas, untangling the gangline, collecting harnesses and downing my own “baited” liquid — strong, black coffee.
The dogs know something’s up. In fact, I often wait to bring the harnesses out until the last minute as the moment one or more of the dogs spot them, it sets off a crescendo of excited barks and howls.
Amid that din I bring each dog to the picket line — a length of chain or cable mushers often use as a sort of staging area to harness the dogs and put on their booties, if needed.
Thus begins the three-ring circus.
Ever try to wrestle an alligator while putting a harness on a giant squid? That’s pretty close to the experience of harnessing a sled dog whose coming off a two-month summer vacation.
They jump, they roll on the grass, they twist — often simultaneously and all the while their eyes and expression are saying, “Let’s go!”
When everyone is dressed and ready I walk the dogs one by one to the gangline attached to the ATV.
This is when I thank my lucky stars for Apollo, my super leader.
Once he’s hooked on to his accustomed spot in front of the team, he stands still as a statue holding the line as I hook on the rest of the team.
Of course, he’s been on vacation, too, so it’s to be forgiven if his mind and paws wandered a bit these first couple of hookups.
I’m not sure what it is about that tree next to the driveway, but at this point it’s just easier to let him amble over to it, lay down and hold the line from there.
Mushing is at times, all about the compromise.
With the team hooked up and a few last minute instructions to Apollo, it’s time to take off.
I pull the chock-block out from in front of the ATV’s tires — yes eight sled dogs can pull a full-sized ATV even with the parking brake engaged — start the engine and give the command to go.
Down the driveway, left onto the dirt road and we are on our way and I remember why it’s all worth it.
In front of me is a team of dogs all with ears back, heads down and doing what they love to do — run. The morning air is cool and a bit dewy with sun just high enough to make the fields of oats, potatoes and winter rye we pass glow.
A hawk takes flight to our left and farther down the road a mother moose and her baby cross the road. The morning mist rises from the lake we just passed and I flash ahead in my mind several months when that same lake will be an icy plain along our trail.
When it goes right, there is no feeling in the world quite like running your own team of dogs.
Conversely, when things go wrong — and they do — we question our sanity.
But not this morning. This morning I count myself among the luckiest people on the planet.
Sure, there will be falls from the dogsled this winter and I’ll be dragged over the snow and ice. There will be mornings when I’m out there feeding in temperatures well below zero. Heavy snowstorms will mean shoveling out doghouses.
But mushing is the lifestyle I’ve chosen and I think I can speak for my fellow dog drivers in saying we wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Turning back into the driveway, the dogs trotting at a happy and healthy pace and with the knowledge a second cup of hot coffee is awaiting me, I know I sure wouldn’t.
Happiness is, indeed, a team of sled dogs.