FORT KENT, Maine — As a musher, I’ve been asked on more than one occasion by a wide-eyed lover of dogs who “always wanted to get into dog sledding,” what the best piece of advice I could give is.
Frankly, it would come down to this: Invest in a good pooper-scooper and don’t give up your day job.
And when it comes to working to support a sled dog habit, these jobs are often as varied as the mushers who hold them.
If I needed a reminder of that, I got one several weeks ago when Rusty Metal Kennel hosted several teams participating in the annual Eagle Lake Sled Dog Races.
That weekend I had in my house a former rock ’n’ roll singer, two guides from central Maine who had spent the previous days with a German reality television production crew, and a South African musher who also is a ninja in training.
A mushing South African ninja? I mean, you can’t make this stuff up.
Jean Bollweg is 18 and lives in Johannesburg. A few twists of fate led him to Maine early this year to spend a few weeks volunteering to help New Portland musher Jaye Foucher prepare to run the Irving Woodlands Mad Bomber 100-mile race in Eagle Lake.
It rarely gets below freezing in his home country and Bollweg said most of the mushing in South Africa is with wheeled carts — or rigs — on dirt in the cool morning or dusk hours.
Ten years training in Shotokan Karate and the past year in Bujinkan Ninjutsu also may be giving Bollweg a bit of an edge in mushing on snow and dirt.
“I will not deny that being able to perform a dive roll instead of a handstand on your face when you have a flying fall while mushing is useful,” he said. “Having the basic balance learned in martial arts can also keep you on a rig or sled when taking sharp turns.”
Handling for Foucher at the Eagle Lake race gave Bollweg the opportunity to experience some cold-weather mushing with a woman whose sled dog racing career almost didn’t happen.
Some years back, Foucher, a singer and musician, was sitting in a hotel room in Minnesota waiting for a callback to an audition with megastar Prince, when it hit her:
“I realized I was more excited at the thought of being in a state where so much dog mushing occurred up north than I was at the possibility of getting my big break in music,” she said.
Foucher had already released two solo CDs when she got her first sled dog — a Siberian husky named Mikayla.
“I had no intention of being a musher and didn’t even know dog sledding existed outside of Alaska,” she said. “I just loved the breed.”
Foucher got hooked on the sport and now breeds racing sled dogs at her Sibersong Kennel. Two of those dogs are right now leading fellow musher Rob Cooke’s team as he runs the grueling 1,100-mile Yukon Quest Sled Dog Race.
These days Foucher pays for her mushing habit as the owner of a Web development and video editing company her father and brothers started in 1996.
“I find it incredibly hard to juggle work and training in the winter, and am more often than not out there on the runners feeling pressured to get back and go to work,” she said. “I’m lucky in that I can make my own hours so that I can train during the week and in the mornings, which is what I prefer, and then work late into the evenings and on weekends as needed.”
Some mushers, like husband and wife team Ashley and Mark Patterson of Lone Wolf Guiding Services out of Greenville, are able to combine work and mushing.
The couple arrived at my house quite late the night before the Eagle Lake race, as that day they were finishing up with a production crew from Germany that was filming a reality television show.
“I have no idea who this guy was they were following around,” Mark Patterson said. “All I could think is he looked like the German version of Ozzy Osbourne.”
The two guides took the German Ozzy lookalike, his entourage and the production team dogsledding and touring around central Maine over three days.
Working with that group had to be easier than — after making the offer to do so — cooking supper at my house following the race.
With my stove on the fritz, Mark Patterson did not skip a beat as he dashed out to his truck and snagged his backpacking stove.
“I love ‘camp’ cooking,” he said as he balanced a giant Dutch oven on the portable stove that he had set up on my living room hearth.
Never let it be said mushers are not up for challenges on and off the trail.
Just ask Becki Tucker who came up from Volluntown, Conn., to run the 100-mile race in Eagle Lake.
About halfway into the first leg Tucker came upon a group of skiers in the trail.
Stopping 10 amped-up huskies is no easy thing, so to avoid a dog-skier collision, Tucker tossed her snow hook — the metal anchor we use to hold the team to the trail — and hoped for the best.
Now, like a lot of us, Tucker uses something called a Critterwoods Hook, made right here in Maine and guaranteed to sink in and hold a team.
In Tucker’s case, however, the hook took a bad bounce off the ground and the pointed ends indeed sank — right into her gluteus maximus.
A survivor of a very serious ATV accident a few years back, Tucker was not about to let a little thing like a snowhook stabbing her rear-end keep her from finishing the race.
Drawing on her skill as an emergency veterinarian triage nurse [see, day jobs are handy resources for mushers] she used one of those chemical boot-warmer pouches to pack the puncture wound until she could get medical care at the checkpoint.
She then went on to complete the 100-mile course in 10 hours, 14 minutes.
In my book, that makes Tucker one bad-ass musher.
There is no doubt mushing will take you places you never imagined.
Hanging out with tough-as-nails singing reality television star mushing Ninjas is just a bonus.
Julia Bayly of Fort Kent is an award winning writer and photographer, who writes part time for Bangor Daily News. Her column appears here every other Friday. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.