January 21, 2018
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Maine mushers prepare for sled dog racing season

By Aislinn Sarnacki, BDN Staff

Riding an ATV behind an 18-dog team, Ashley Patterson navigated a network of unplowed logging roads on Dec. 20, in Shirley, cruising over a fluffy layer of fresh snow. The team covered more than 20 miles that day, which was just a short distance in the scheme of things. After all, they were practicing for an upcoming 100-mile race, followed by a 70-mile race and 250-mile race later in the season.

“You’re always saving the race for the race,” Ashley Patterson said.

Experience mushers and dog handlers, Ashley Patterson and her husband Mark Patterson own and operate Lone Wolf Kennel at their home in Shirley, a small town south of Moosehead Lake. They currently have nearly 50 sled dogs, and each winter, a portion of those dogs participate in at least three major long-distance races.

“We teach them everything from little puppies,” Ashley Patterson said, “from the point of crossing bridges to the point of seeing a large crowd of people all cheering them on.”

The first race the Pattersons will be participating in this year is the Eagle Lake Sled Dog Races from Jan. 12 through 14 in the Aroostook County town of Eagle Lake. Drawing about 200 dogs, the event includes a 100-mile race and a 30-mile race.

Next, they’ll participate in a race close to home, the Wilderness Sled Dog Race, scheduled for Feb. 3 and 4, in Greenville, with a 30-mile race and a 70-mile race.

And as is tradition, the Pattersons will be competing in the 250-mile race at the Can-Am Crown International Sled Dog Races, scheduled for March 2 through 7, in Fort Kent. The event also includes a 100-mile race and 30-mile race.

A number of other sled dog races scheduled for this winter throughout the Maine are listed at www.sleddogcentral.com. But many of the state’s smaller races are not listed on the popular website, including the Sunset Ridge Snow Race on Feb. 11 in Westbrook, and the Farmington Frolic sprint races on Feb. 17 and 18, both organized by the Down East Sled Dog Club. In addition, the Maine Highlands Sled Dog Club has three races on their 2018 schedule: races in Bradford on Jan. 20 and Feb. 10, and a race in Brownville on Jan. 27 and 28.

Spectators are always welcome.

“The desire to try to go faster … and do better and better, that’s really why we have almost 50 dogs,” said Ashley Patterson, “because you’re having the young dogs that are up and coming, [and] the older dogs that are already experienced. At the Wilderness [Sled Dog] Race that we have here, there will be certain dogs that will do really well with 70 miles, but they wouldn’t do well with 250 miles.”

Ashley Patterson began handling sled dogs when she was 12 years old in the Moosehead Region. At age 18, she became the youngest person to come in fourth place in the 250-mile Can-Am race.

“Don’t forget, that’s a male-dominated sport,” said Mark Patterson, “so to have a little blond girl place fourth in that race was impressive. And she did it again at 19. So now that we’ve got our own kennel, we’ve been consistently fourth and fifth [in that race], always the first Mainer, always the first woman, and usually the first American.”

Now 32 years old, Ashley Patterson is the musher of their team for the 250-mile race, and Mark Patterson is the dog handler, driving from checkpoint to checkpoint on the race course and making sure the team has everything it needs.

“When I first investigated the sport and did it recreationally, I had no idea what I was getting into,” Ashley Patterson said.

It takes a lot of preparation to get to the point of racing a 250-mile race or even a 30-mile race, she said. Training for this year’s race season started at the beginning of September for the Pattersons, and it continued throughout the winter. And as would be expected, they started their teams with short distances, then slowly worked their way up to longer runs.

Because they started training long before the first snow fell, they hooked the sled dog team up to a four-wheeler rather than a sled, and they outfitted their dogs in booties made for gravel surfaces rather than snow booties. They then continued using the ATV, even in the snow, until the snowpack was thick enough so they could use the dog sled without fear of damaging it.

“The ATV is a great training tool, but you have to be really good about not just driving it like a machine,” she said. “A lot of times you’re giving just a bit of gas, but everybody is pulling up the hills, everybody is maintaining about 8 to 10, maybe 12 miles an hour in some instances.”

“I think they have to pull harder against the ATV [than they do a sled],” Mark Patterson said. “Once we get snow, then it is like running in sand, so they still have to work hard, but using different muscles.”

During this time of year, when daylight is at its lowest, they often don’t finish training until well after dark. Sometimes they’re out on the logging roads for 12 hours or more at a time because they not only need to cover a certain distance, they also have to practice rest stops just like they would have in a race. Rest stops, which are mandatory in long-distance races like the Can-Am, involve an important routine that includes the dogs drinking plenty of water and broth and sleeping on beds of straw, wrapped in warm dog coats.

“You have to teach them to sleep, as weird as that sounds,” Ashley Patterson said.

Already this year, the Pattersons have had to pull a dog of their “A Team” because he wouldn’t sleep at rest stops during practices. This can be dangerous for the dog because they need sufficient rest to restore their energy and keep up the pace in a long distance race.

Whether the Pattersons are in the midst of the Can-Am or simply training on the logging roads near their home, one of the key aspects of the sport is being in tune with the dogs and their needs.

“We’re always looking at them, feeling them,” said Ashley Patterson, running her hands along the back of one of the dogs on her A Team on Dec. 20. “We even had to go up in harness size today with some of the dogs because they’re muscling up.”

And when it comes to her own physical conditioning for the races, Ashley Patterson said she gets a lot of exercise simply handling the dogs, wading through the dog yard in the snow, and standing on her sled runners for hours upon hours as they practice. One of the most important things she needs to practice is being alert while exhausted because during races, she rarely gets rest. In fact, at rest stops, she’s busy feeding the dogs, covering them in jackets and making sure they get rest. Long practice runs are great for developing that type of mental endurance, she said.

“People always ask, are you gonna win this year?” she said. “And it’s like, we’re going to always finish strong.”

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