FORT KENT, Maine — Put two or more mushers in a room of 100 people and, in very short order, they will find each other and the conversation immediately turns to dogs, feeding, training, racing and all things dog sledding.
The only thing better than talking about all this with fellow mushers is doing it, so when the opportunity arose this week to host several central Aroostook dog drivers here in Fort Kent, we leapt at it like a lead dog on a bone.
Four mushers plus 25 dogs plus two four-wheel training rigs equaled a day of putting training theory into trail practice.
All four of us — Lindy Howe and Kevin Quist of Stockholm, Tracey Ackerson of Woodland and I are currently training for two races each this coming winter.
Howe and Quist, who together own and operate Heywood Kennel Sled Dog Adventures, are signed up for the Irving Woodlands-Mad Bomber 100-mile race in Eagle Lake Jan. 15 and the Can Am Willard Jalbert Memorial 60-miler in Fort Kent on March 6.
Ackerson, who handles for Heywood Kennel, and I each are signed up for the 30-mile versions of both races.
We’ve been actively training our teams this fall on our own trails, but any musher will tell you nothing beats a dog sledding play date to work out any kinks in trail etiquette and manners.
“There are many pros and some cons to running outside of your kennel,” Howe said. “The only downside really is the extra work it takes to transport the dogs to the other location.”
For the Stockholm mushers this meant packing up their dog trailer with enough harnesses, lines, snacks, bowls and other gear for the 17 Alaskan huskies and husky-German shorthaired pointer crosses.
For Ackerson, it meant loading her beloved husky Tinder into a kennel in the back of her jeep.
Not the biggest fan of road trips, Tinder was a bit nervous, but Ackerson by chance discovered the dog is a huge rock ’n’ roll fan.
Apparently, music hath charms to not only soothe the “savage breast” but also the carsick sled dog.
“Everything you need in your kennel must be packed and taken with you when you travel with the dogs,” Howe said. “This includes harnesses, ganglines, necklines and all the other safety lines. You may have to bring water, extra protein mixture, treats, straw, medical kit, rabies records and most importantly the pooper-scooper and bag. A responsible musher always ‘leaves no trace.’”
Packing up, as mushers know, is only the first step. Once the Heywood crew arrived at my own little Rusty Metal Kennel, the two-legged team members immediately swung into action tending to the four-legged athletes.
Dogs were removed from their boxes — what’s known as “dropping” a dog in musher lingo — checked over, given water, a snack and harnessed up for the first run of the day.
What a run it was! I with my eight-dog team on one ATV leading the way for Howe and Ackerson on the second ATV with a string of nine dogs.
Conditions were perfect, which is to say the trails were far from ideal — dogs and mushers got plenty of opportunities to deal with trail challenges.
Let’s start with mud. There’s plenty of it these days thanks to a rainy October that followed a rainy September here in northern Maine.
A quarter-mile into the run everyone and everything were coated with the goop.
Then there was the water. There is standing water everywhere — in the woods, in the fields and in the ruts in the roads.
Speaking for my team, the dogs could not care less. In fact, I have one dog in particular that, like the character Pig Pen in the Charlie Brown cartoons, seems to have a constant swirl of dirt and dust around him.
By the end of the run his white face was black with two bright blue eyes peering out from behind his mud mask in an expression of pure sled dog bliss.
Howe’s and Ackerson’s team faired little better as we splashed along through puddles and crossed small streams.
In every run on Tuesday we all took turns passing each other’s teams from behind or head to head and, I have to say, the dogs came through like champs.
“The dog teams themselves gain great trail experience by practicing some planned passing,” Howe said. “In races and other dogs sledding events teams often meet each other on the trail [and] trail manners are of most importance when running with other teams.”
The third team out of the yard was Quist’s husky-pointer crosses, and if the Alaskans are the stock cars of the dog sledding world, those crosses are the Indy cars, as they are built for speed.
Cruising down a straight, flat section of trail, Quist opened the team up and I clocked them easily going 15 mph. At the end of the run those dogs still were jumping and more than ready for another go at it.
Back at the kennel, between a little friendly trash talk and teasing, we analyzed the runs, praised the dogs and compared trail notes.
“It’s fun and gives you the opportunity to see where and what type of terrain other people train on,” Ackerson said. “I also find it interesting to see how other people do things.”
Indeed, from harnessing to leading dogs to the line, each musher has their own style and we all like to learn from each other.
As a sport, dog sledding involves a rather small percentage of the general population, so we tend to be a pretty tight group.
This can be a good thing when you look at the world through dog hair-tinted glasses.
“Lindy told me when I first showed interest in mushing that friends either hang around and get involved or decide it’s not for them,” Ackerson said. “I think it’s the passion of the sport that allows us to be able to stand around and talk about all things related to it. I call it a passion, some might call it an obsession.”
When it comes to directing that passion toward races, for a vast majority of the participants it’s not so much about winning as it is about being out on the trail to see how your team stacks up against the others.
And I’ve never met a musher yet who would not choose to sacrifice a finish time in order to help a fellow racer in need on the trail.
Hanging out with other mushers and their dogs for a day is just an added bonus of the sport.
“When a group of mushers can get together and share their love of the sport and work while the dogs learn the valuable social skills that go with being a responsible sled dog, it is a win-win situation for all,” Howe said.