FORT KENT, Maine — At some point in the life of every musher, we and our dogs find ourselves at a crossroads. And the choices are never as simple as “gee,” “haw” or “straight-ahead.”
This season has found us at that fork in the trail here at Rusty Metal Farm where musher and dogs are not getting any younger and it is time to take a long, hard look at where our future trails will take us.
Looking at the life I share with these dogs — currently six out in the Rusty Metal Kennel — I honestly can’t imagine a day when I do not, in part, define myself as a musher.
In my 14 years of mushing there have been popped ribs, strained knees, pulled shoulders and countless cuts, abrasions and smaller sprains — and those are just my injuries.
On the dog side there have been foot issues, illnesses and countless hours of obsessing over proper nutrition, hydration and training conditions.
It’s the same with all of us mushers — a population my mushing friend Penny said were all obviously dropped on our heads at birth. How else to explain having kibble where our brains should be?
This year training got off to a slow and somewhat shaky start here on the farm, due in no small part to the fact that, the older I get, the slower and shakier I get.
But, finally thanks to my neighbor and recovering musher Sean, my trail was set and ready to run after the January thaw and subsequent ice-up last month.
And yes, I will fully own up to the fact we took the easy way out as we started to get serious about running.
Instead of hooking the dogs up to a dogsled, we are using the snowmobile for maximum control of the team.
As mentioned, we are a team of old dogs and an old musher — we need all the odds stacked in our favor we can get.
Because, believe me, the odds against us? Epic.
My lead dog Cannon, for instance, this year was diagnosed with an eye ailment that is slowly impacting her vision — something most unhandy for a leader.
However, given our trail this year is a simple two-and-a-half mile loop on the farm, I am content to let her choose which of the two turns on that loop she likes as she learns the trail.
Then there is Ginger with her thyroid issues, Buddy and his heart condition, Seamus with his sensitive tummy and … well, you get the idea.
Luckily, none of these issues preclude running. While we will never race again, these dogs still have plenty of drive and ability for shorter, fun runs.
“Running and racing are really two different things,” according to my friend and mushing mentor Amy Dugan of Mountain Ridge Kennels outside of Greenville. “They are just doing what they like to do, whether it’s 10 miles or a half mile.”
Most of my dogs came from Mountain Ridge and are of a line directly out of Alaska known for longevity.
“When we see the dogs are sore and stiff after a run, they are telling us they are done,” Dugan said. “Then we lean towards taking them for walks on the leash.”
From there, dogs at Mountain Ridge retire to a life of pampering and care until they decide to take that final run to that great trail network in the sky.
And that can be a long time.
Drill is a dog legend on Maine and Maritime race circuits and was Dugan’s husband John Osmond’s main leader for years, getting him out of more than one dicey trail situation.
“Drill lived a week short of being 17,” Dugan said. “We lost him three years ago Christmas Eve.”
Dugan’s former main leader Agassi got her to a fourth place finish in the 2005 Can Am Crown 250.
Now, fully blind, he is living out his retirement at Mountain Ridge.
“He was the man,” Dugan said. “He learned to listen, wanted to please and had incredible drive.”
Certainly, all of us who run dogs have memories of those lead dogs.
They are the “dogs apart” in the kennel. Not necessarily the alpha dogs, but the ones capable of cool, rational decision making on the trails.
Here on Rusty Metal Farm there was Prince, my first lead dog who taught me my gee from my haw. Bear, the toughest trail dog ever. Pooh-Bear who ran at glacial speed, but would do it all day. Apollo who got me back on the runners after the death of my husband Patrick.
And now, Cannon and her failing eyesight leading the rest of the Rusty Metal special needs team.
My friend Kim is facing the same situation with her aging dogs, half of which are in full retirement.
Among them is Maguire, a dog who came to Maine from Alaska directly from that kennel known for long-lived dogs.
At 17-and-a-half, Maguire looks like a 10 year-old. A somewhat confused 10-year-old.
And don’t the females in Kim’s kennel just love him.
We have decided he is the doggy version of Sean Connery and the Dos Equis “Most interesting man in the world” — the older he gets, the hotter he gets.
I won’t speak for any other mushers, but as for me, I really can’t see a life without these dogs.
That means, as members of my team age out, I am faced with adding younger dogs to take their places.
That, in turn, means at least another five to 10 year commitment per new dog — not a decision to be made lightly.
It may also mean as I get older retrofitting a wheelchair into some sort of dogsled, but at the end of the day, it really does come down to, “gee,” “haw” or “straight ahead.”
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 e-mail at email@example.com.