NEWPORT, Maine — As soon as they were harnessed to Doug Butler’s dogsled, 16 lean and lithe canines were straining against their straps. If they weren’t tethered to the bumper of Butler’s truck, his sled would have vanished — whether Butler was on it or not.
These dogs clearly wanted to pull.
“That’s what they’re bred for,” said Butler during final preparations for a 12-mile race Sunday at the David D. Merrill Memorial Sled Dog Race in Newport.
Just a few minutes before, as they were unloaded from containers built into the sides of Butler’s truck, the dogs were mostly silent. As soon as they say Butler’s harnesses though, the 16 German short-haired pointer crosses filled the air with a bellowing orchestra of barks and whines.
“They know exactly what’s coming,” said Butler. “I’d like this to be my full-time job, and so would they, but I still have to work.”
Butler’s team was by far the largest competing at the weekend-long event and one of the largest he’s ever raced. His opponent, by comparison, had a team of 10 dogs, and most of the other racers used either four or six.
Minutes before the race, a dozen volunteers grabbed the rope and dogs in front of Butler’s dog sled for the short trip to the starting line. Stopping the dogs took all of them plus a spiked aluminum contraption that Butler pushed into the ground.
The dogs stopped gaining ground, but they were still pulling. When the timer counted the race down and the 12 people let go of the dogs, Butler’s super-sized setup was at once in motion with him at the back struggling to hold on.
“Yeah, baby!” he yelled as he careened forward at startling speed.
The 12-mile course featured many geographies — fields, forests, the frozen expanse of Sebasticook Lake — and started with a steep and winding downhill run through a stand of softwoods.
As the competitors whipped down the hill with plumes of frozen powder billowing behind them, it was clear that a mishap at this speed could be bad news. Luckily, said Mark Turner of Jay, the dogs know how to follow the trail and many are trained to turn right and left on the commands of “Gee” and “Haw.”
But no amount of training can prevent the unexpected, said Turner. Once on a 30-mile race, two of Turner’s lead dogs broke their harnesses and ran off. They had to be rounded up by snowmobile.
“That was a nightmare day,” said Turner. “We finished the race, but it was the race from hell.”
There were also a few mishaps in Newport over the weekend. A couple of sledders lost control and wiped out, but it was nothing serious. At least one dog — Bertha, who was five pairs back on Butler’s 16-dog team — suffered an injury. She returned with a bloody and ragged hockey puck-sized gash on her ribcage, even though Butler didn’t see her or any of the other dogs hit anything.
“In 33 years of doing this, that’s the first time I’ve ever had anything like that happen,” he said, as members of several of the other teams grabbed first-aid kits and clustered around the morose animal to clean her wound.
“Look at that,” said Butler with obvious concern. “A dog gets hurt and everyone is there to help. The race just stops until the dog is taken care of. We all love the dogs, first and foremost.”
Most of the mushers are friends, spending nearly every winter weekend together at races throughout Maine and beyond. Wins and losses for most are a secondary concern, though the Down East Dog Sled Club and other organizations award points that count toward the naming of a champion at the end of the season.
Near a toasty wood stove inside the Big A Snowmobile Club’s headquarters on Durham Bridge Road — the organization hosts the races — sat Carol Merrill of Newport, who has never been a musher and never will be. She was there because the event is named after her son, David, who died four years ago of walking pneumonia as he was preparing for the Can-Am Crown International Sled Dog Race in Fort Kent, which is Maine’s biggest event.
“He was splitting firewood when he collapsed,” said Merrill. “He would have liked that this race is dedicated to him.”