FORT KENT, Maine — It took a few years, but my late husband Patrick finally figured out why I chose to go away on vacation in early April, leaving him with sled dog sitting duties.
For that week or so, God love the man, he got a firsthand look at the side of mushing that never makes it into the movies.
Thanks to Walt Disney and movies such as “Iron Will,” “Snow Dogs” and “8-Below,” there is a somewhat romantic portrait of dog sledding out there in which mushers and dogs work as well-oiled machines gliding down trails in perfect harmony.
Ah, would that it were so.
In point of fact, while we have been known to glide down trails in between crashes, wrong turns and other hazards, about 95 percent of mushing takes place doing things that no one in their right mind would want to do and has even diehard mushers asking, “What the heck was I thinking?”
I was asking myself that very question Wednesday afternoon as I dug the dog yard out from under 14 inches of snow that fell that day.
And by “dug” I mean chopped, hacked and scooped away mounds of wet, frozen glop that forms when you mix snow, straw and things too gross to speak of in a family newspaper.
Pickaxe and shovel in hand, I slogged my way into the dog yard and attacked the mound in front of the first house.
By the time I was at house number-three out of nine, I’d shed several layers of winter clothing. I began to wonder where all the people were who had said “I really want to get into mushing” yet never seemed to materialize at times like these.
Mushing, you see, is a lifestyle. It is 24-7, 365 days a year and is not something to “get into” unless you are ready to take on the equivalent of a full-time job.
Every single day, regardless of temperature, conditions, personal schedule or work routine, the dogs must be fed, watered, examined and loved.
You have the flu? Too, bad, the dogs need water. Want to catch a few extra Zs on a rainy Sunday morning? Tough, one dog needs her medication. Just finished a long, hard shift on your day job and want to kick back and just chill for the evening? Right after you clean out dog houses and replace bedding with nice, clean, fluffy straw.
Don’t even think about going away for more than a day without first securing a backup team. Think finding a baby sitter for an evening is tough? Just try finding a willing volunteer to feed and clean up after a kennel of huskies.
And that’s just during the off season.
Come training time it’s long hours preparing the team, running the team and then all the post-run chores such as checking the dogs for any injuries, removing harnesses and putting away all the equipment.
On top of that are twice daily feedings and snacks that lead to perhaps the biggest and most unglamorous mushing-related jobs because what goes in one end of a sled dog, comes out the other, and it’s never pretty nor does it smell particularly nice.
In the winter it often means chipping away at frozen lumps of doggy-doo.
Come April, or “mud season,” everything we missed the preceding months is revealed as a soggy goo in need of removal.
This is why one year Patrick was heard to remark, “I see why Julie leaves this month, have you seen what’s in the dog yard this time of year?”
In fact, get a group of mushers together and talk sooner or later turns to the shape, color, consistency and frequency of what is coming out of the north end of our south-facing dogs.
Is it any wonder mushers tend to only hang out with other mushers?
The number of times we have stepped in, accidently grabbed something covered in, or otherwise come into contact with dog waste are beyond counting.
Which is why many of us have a small wardrobe of “regular” clothes for mingling with the nonmushing public and a much larger collection of dog yard wear.
Truth be told, even our good clothes eventually end up covered in dog fur, to the point that, regardless of what I have just put through the clothes dryer, there is always dog fur in the lint trap.
Then there are the joys of medicating sled dogs.
I once had a diabetic dog who for years not only had twice daily insulin shots, but was on a special dog food.
In fact, special dog food is a theme here at Rusty Metal Kennel and I dream of the day all my dogs are on the same food at the same time.
One of my least favorite dog-health related tasks is dispensing deworming medication. Bought in bulk, wormer is not inexpensive and dogs hate it.
So strong is this dislike among some of my huskies, that even if I hide the medication in a ball of hamburger, they refuse to eat it.
My neighbor and former musher Shawn had a good system for worming his team — he would use liquid medicine dispensed directly into the dog’s mouth by way of a needleless syringe.
Worked great right up until the day a dog rebelled and instead of swallowing the mixture, coughed it up into Shawn’s face and open mouth.
My friend Jaye has a similar tale of close doggy contact — she once had to give mouth-to-mouth to an ailing newborn puppy and said it took a dose of tequila to remove that particular taste.
Had she first rimmed the pup in salt and lime, she’d have had a puppy-shooter.
That’s a scene I’d have liked to see in “Iron Will.”
In the end, we go through it all because we love it and yes, there is no other feeling like hitting a trail with a team of dogs who love you as much as you love them.
Next Saturday is a perfect time to get a close look at the end result of all that hard work when teams come to Fort Kent for the annual Can Am Crown Sled Dog races beginning March 2.
Beyond that, anyone who really does want to get into mushing should give it a try and those of us who have sled dogs welcome the opportunity to share our lifestyle.
And if you ask really, really nicely, we may even let you try out the pooper scoopers.
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 email@example.com.