June 23, 2018
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What’s in your bag for the sled dog race?

Julia Bayly | BDN
Julia Bayly | BDN
BDN reporter and musher Julia Bayly re-packs her dog sled as she prepares to run a past Can Am 30-mile race.
By Julia Bayly, BDN Staff

FORT KENT, Maine — There’s a sled dog photo making the Internet rounds showing a husky, head cocked and looking directly into the camera. The caption reads, “Oh, you ran a marathon? How heavy was the sled?”

Depending on the distance and requirements of the race, that weight can range from simply that of the sled and musher to several hundred pounds of packed gear.

Events like the Can Am Crown, which starts Saturday, March 1, require mushers to carry specific items of gear throughout the race, something race organizers take very seriously.

Ever wonder what’s in those sled bags as the teams speed down Main Street on their way out of town?

Open up one of those packed bags before the race, and you’d see a laundry list of required items mandated in the Can Am rules — all created with dog and musher safety in mind.

The mandatory gear list is along the lines of “the best defense is a good offense,” since every musher knows, when it comes to our sport, if something can happen, it will.

So the Can Am requires participants in the 250-mile race to carry a number of preparedness items, including a pound of emergency food for every dog on the team, one dog dish for each dog, a fire starter and cooker capable of boiling water, dog booties, food for the musher, snowshoes, axe, whistle, knife, cable cutters, first aid kit, headlamp, blinking lights for the dogs for night running and a sleeping bag.

It’s all the kind of stuff you hope to never need but are glad to have just in case.

Those cable cutters, for instance. A lot of mushers use ganglines — the line to which the dogs are harnessed — that are filled with metal cable. In the event of a bad tangle or other situation, we may need to cut that line to quickly free a dog.

Need to stop on the trail and work on the sled or address an issue with a dog? Every musher is required to have a “snub line” — a rope or cable with which they can securely tie the sled to a tree or other solid object.

Several years ago, when a major snowstorm stranded four mushers on the trail for half a day, those emergency rations, fire starters and cooking pots came in handy.

Distance mushers also often carry spare sled parts, tools and extra clothes.

My friend and 250-mile musher Jaye Foucher made a name for herself the year she packed a hair dryer in her sled, amid much laughter.

No one was laughing hours later at the Portage checkpoint as she dried out her gear with that blower.

Even for mushers like myself who do the shorter 60- or 30-mile races, the Can Am organizers want us prepared for anything.

And in mushing, as in life, some are better packers than others.

I still can’t figure out why it is some of the 250 mushers take off down Main Street with sled bags looking near-empty, while my own bag looked packed and ready for a year-long arctic expedition the year I did the Can Am 30-mile race.

Could it be my tendency to overpack?

Certainly my neighbor and past Can Am musher Shawn Graham would agree.

Shawn was a major help in getting my team trained the year I raced, and he was right there at the start the day of the race.

It was a good thing, too. Among his pre-race projects was going through my sled bag with an eye to lighten my load.

“Really?” he said, holding up the five-pound package of hotdogs I had tossed in. “A family pack of hotdogs? What do you plan on doing out there, having a cook out?”

Were not extra snacks a good idea? I asked.

Nodding, he said they were and the bag of frozen smelt I had also packed would do just fine should the dogs go on a hunger strike at some point over the next 30 miles.

“No, you don’t need six extra harnesses,” he said next pulling those out.

Digging deeper, he came out with the three, full tubs of dogpaw medical cream I had stashed in the sled.

“Dude,” he said, holding out all three, “It’s a 30-mile race, pick one.”

I will admit, zipping the bag shut was a heck of a lot easier once he was done with his inspection.

Next came the official inspection in which a Can Am official makes sure each item of required gear is in the sled.

The year my friend Barry Dana ran the Can Am 250 the officials discovered he was without the required signal mirror, but quick action on the the part of his wife Lori fixed that after she made a mad dash to the local drug store and returned with a makeup compact — complete with mirror.

Those items are re-checked at the end of the race and anything lost or missing can spell trouble for the musher since missing items mean time penalties.

A lost knife or missing snowshoe, for example, can and has dropped mushers several places in overall race standings.

As for me, should I ever decide to actually run the Can Am 30 again, we are pretty well set.

I never really unpacked from the last time.

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 jbayly@bangordailynews.com.

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