JULIA BAYLY

Mushing retirement home not such a bad idea

Posted Jan. 26, 2012, at 5:15 p.m.
When it comes to control of a team, it's hard to beat a snowmobile on a solo run.
When it comes to control of a team, it's hard to beat a snowmobile on a solo run.
When it comes to running dogs, nothing beats the feel and satisfaction of a good  team hooked onto a dogsled.
When it comes to running dogs, nothing beats the feel and satisfaction of a good team hooked onto a dogsled.

Some day, someone somewhere is going to open an assisted living facility for aging mushers and their dogs.

When that happens, you can bet I’ll be among the first to sign up for a room.

Think of it — a fully staffed facility with plenty of room for old dog drivers and their dogs. Flat, gentle, straight trails suitable for walking or — for the more adventurous — hitching up one or two dogs to the wheelchair for a spin around the compound.

Seating for two- and four-footed residents in the dining hall where the word “mush” will refer not just to what we do, but what we eat.

Oh, and if the architects of this future mushing Valhalla are reading this, can you please locate it in a somewhat temperate climate?

Not that I’m quite ready to trade in my dogsled for a walker, but for some reason this season the re-learning curve involved in stepping on the runners and taking off down the trails with the dog team seems a bit steeper than in years past.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m still all about dog sledding and the dogs. I fully concur with those who profess a bad day on a dogsled is better than a good day in an office.

It’s just that, to put it bluntly, I am becoming somewhat of a fairy princess about the whole thing.

And apparently, I’m not alone.

The other day my mushing friends Kim, Penny and I were talking about this season and reminiscing about the days when, with little thought or concern, we’d hook up seven, eight, 10 or even 12 dogs and spend hours on solo runs out in the woods.

Sure, we had our share of crashes, falls and other mishaps, but since the dogs came out of it unscathed, frankly it was all part of the fun — or so it seemed.

The older we get, the easier it’s getting to find reasons to stay inside next to that roaring fire in the wood stove: it’s too warm for the dogs, it’s too cold for the dogs, the trail is too hard and will rip up the dogs’ feet, the trail is too soft and could lead to dogs’ shoulder injuries, there’s too much snow, there’s not enough snow. You get the idea.

All three of us are training teams for the upcoming Can Am Crown 30-mile race the first weekend in March and, in all honesty, it’s been a squirrelly year as far as the conditions go.

At least we have snow in northern Maine — mushers in southern New England are still training with wheeled carts on dirt — but what we have was late coming and set training schedules back weeks thanks to icy conditions.

There is now an excellent base on our trails, but rain earlier this week has left them hard and fast.

Now, there are some mushers out there who love nothing more than hooking up a team and screaming down a hard-packed trail.

I’m just not one of them. Nor are Penny or Kim.

Luckily, we’ve found a way around this situation. When the trail conditions are not optimum for our skill or confidence levels, we trade in our dogsleds for snowmobiles.

Hooking up my nine dogs to a Skidoo Expedition wide track is the ultimate in sled dog team control.

Or, it is when I remember to set the parking brake.

Think a 750-pound snowmobile can hold nine dogs? Think again.

The first time I stepped off the machine without setting the brake to attend to a dog on the line I’m not sure who was more surprised as the team took off down the trail with the riderless Skidoo — me or the dogs.

I know I shocked myself with how far and fast I could leap getting back onto the snowmobile. It may have even impressed the dogs.

Now, before you start thinking we are complete trail wimps, let me say right now for myself, Kim and Penny: Nothing beats the feel of dogsled runners beneath our feet or the silence that comes when running a team of good dogs through the northern Maine woods.

There is certain magic when driver and dogs are in total sync out on the trail.

But it can go haywire pretty darn fast and when training alone, as Penny, Kim and I are doing most of the time this year, safety for dogs and musher is a huge factor.

Without the backup support of a second dogsledder or handler on a snowmobile, a minor trail mishap can turn to disaster quickly.

There is a solid rule in mushing: “Never let go.”

Sled tips rounding a curve in the trail? Hang on and get dragged until you can regain your footing.

Spot a hundred-dollar-bill in the trail? Don’t even think about stopping and letting go of the sled to grab it.

A loose team is an injured dog — or worse — waiting to happen.

But when training with another musher or a handler there’s the added security of immediate help out on the trail, if needed.

Maybe that’s why, as much work as they can be, races are the best running scenarios.

Should anything go wrong out on the course — from a simple tangle to a lost team — there are scores of fellow mushers ready and willing to stop and lend a hand, regardless of what that does to their overall race time.

But for the time being, here at Rusty Metal Kennel, training is pretty much a solo venture and includes dog care, grooming trails and racking up miles running the team — be it on dogsled or snowmobile.

As for speed, well, I’m content to leave that for the new up and coming generation out there, such as Massachusetts musher Bailey Vitello.

Two years ago when I ran the Can Am 30, Bailey — then 12-years-old — had a start position two minutes behind me.

His team passed me on the rail bed about a mile out of town and I swear to God there were sparks coming off his sled’s runners as Bailey ran in perfect step with his team.

Kim also raced that year and took off about 20 spots ahead of me and, after the race, reported Bailey caught up with her team about 10 miles out of Fort Kent and the kid was still running alongside the sled with his dogs, grinning from ear to ear.

Next month young Bailey will compete with the big dogs in the annual 250-mile International Pedigree Stage Stop Sleddog Race in Wyoming before heading to Alaska to race in the 140-mile Junior Iditarod.

He’ll be missed at the Can Am, but there are a number of other young and accomplished mushers competing this year, including sisters Amy, 22, and Holly Dionne, 16, of St. David; Bethany Van Gorder, 19, of West Tremont; Gabriel DuPlessis, 17, of St-Zenon, Quebec; Jessica Holmes, 21, of Portage; Sydney Plante, 17, of West Brookfield; Eli Golton, 18, of L’Amable, Ontario; and Taylor Hersh, 18, of Elmira, New York.

Clearly, our sport is in good hands and paws.

Maybe they will even come visit us at the Mushing Retirement Home.

Julia Bayly of Fort Kent is an award-winning writer and photographer who frequently submits articles to the Bangor Daily News. Her column appears here every other Friday. She can be reached by email at jbaylybdn@gmail.com.

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