LIMESTONE, Maine — It’s not exactly a high-tech or scientific term, but for a group of young ladies from around the state, “mush” was the word of the week.
The middle-school-age girls were on the Maine School of Science and Mathematics campus last week taking part in the school’s annual summer camps.
Now in its 15th year, the camp this summer offered courses in human psychology, geometry, sensory perception, math, architecture, engineering, wildlife exploration, archaeology, survival, space, robotics, computers and dog sledding.
That’s right, for four weeks southern Maine musher Melissa Brandt has created a somewhat unlikely duo — science and dog sledding.
For those who think the science of mushing begins and ends with hanging on and praying, Brandt said nothing could be further from the truth.
“In dog sledding we use science and math every day from figuring out how much to feed, calculating training runs, learning how a dog moves,” she said. Understanding how snow conditions change in different temperatures affects what type of runners or wax you might use and also how the dogs will perform.”
The mission of the MSSM camp, according to Lisa Smith, camp director, “is to build confidence in campers and to further their interests in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.”
The underlying goal, according to camp organizers, is to balance hands-on learning with the fun of a traditional summer camp.
Hands on is what Brandt’s class was all about.
“The campers learn how to make [dog sled] lines, how to check [the dogs’] vitals and basic first aid, learn and practice the commands and even construct their own race bibs and sled,” she said. “On the last day they compete as teams running from one checkpoint to another answering questions or completing a task.”
The mock race even included a “mad moose” played by one of the camp staffers.
Most of the time the students practiced their newly found mushing skills on each other, but earlier this week three sled dogs — all Alaskan huskies from a Fort Kent kennel — made guest appearances.
“These dogs are really cool and big,” said Leea Moody, 11. “Some big dogs are not always friendly but the dogs that came today are really nice.”
The three dogs sat or stood patiently while the instructor demonstrated proper harnessing techniques, foot care and how to hook a dog to the sled line and allowed each student the opportunity to listen to the dogs’ hearts with a stethoscope.
Sled dog care and behavior was not totally foreign to Esme Power, 12, of Hope, who uses a small kick sled with her husky-mix dog Koko.
“She’s pretty hyper,” Power said. “I put her on the sled and she really pulls.”
Power said she first heard about dog sledding while taking an art class when she was around 6 years old.
“Someone in the class said they wanted to do the Iditarod,” she said. “Three years later I finally learned what the Iditarod was and started raising and saving money so I could go.”
Power has not made it yet, but for now, camps like the Science of Dog Sledding and working with Koko are pretty good substitutes.
Mackenzie Marks, 13, came all the way from Wells to take part in the camp and has her goals firmly in mind.
“I want to run and race with the dogs,” she said. “I love animals.”
Marks said she had not known how much actually goes into the mushing lifestyle, especially when it came to dog care.
“I didn’t know so many mushers do their own first aid,” she said.
“I really hope the campers understand how much goes on behind the scenes in the sport of mushing,” Brandt said. “Each dog has countless hours and many miles of training on and off the trails before we ever enter a race [and] we work hard to keep our dogs healthy and happy so that they enjoy running as much as we do.”
Brandt has a kennel of racing huskies in southern Maine where her two sons, Ethan, 13, and Braden, 10, are making names for themselves on the sprint circuit within the International Sled Dog Racing Association.
Ethan was the 2011 and 2012 ISDRA silver medalist and Braden took the ISDRA bronze medal this past season.
This year the MSSM summer camp attracted more than 400 campers from one end of the state to the other.
Most live in the campus dormitories for their week of camp, but Smith said some weeks were popular and space was limited, so parents came up to stay with their children in local hotels.
This summer marked the first time in the camp’s history all four weeks were filled to capacity, and school officials credit a combination of strong curriculum with Time Warner Cable Co.-sponsored scholarships and bus transportation to and from Limestone for the high enrollment.
Having time to hang out with some happy sled dogs did not hurt, either.
It was hard to tell who was enjoying whom more, but Moody and sled dogs Buddy and Patriot became good friends during the dogs’ visit.
“I’m saving my money,” Moody said. “I want to got to Kenya and help at an orphanage and I want to get a dog and sled, too, [and] I have to come up with the money for all that myself.”
That’s just the kind of commitment and enthusiasm Brandt said is needed in mushing.
“I hope they can learn how much the dogs love to run and how much fun it is to run dogs.”
Editor’s note: BDN reporter and musher Julia Bayly supplied the sled dogs used this past week during the MSSM’s Science of Dog Sledding summer camp.