“He’s getting back up,” Erin Noll said as she watched her friend from a distance.
Across the snowy field, Joe Albee dug his poles into the snow and righted himself on his monoski. The two sled dogs, Manny and Beckett, waited patiently for their driver. They’d stopped as soon as he fell.
“You OK?” yelled Colby Briggs, who was driving a classic dog sled on the trail ahead.
“I’m good,” Albee yelled back. Then, with a “hike, hike, hike,” he was cruising along the trail once more. The powerful Alaskan huskies kicked up snow as they picked up speed.
It was Albee’s third time “monoskijoring.” And he was loving every minute of it.
Skijoring, or cross-country skiing while being pulled by a dog, combines the peace of the former with the thrill of dog sledding.
No one said it would be easy. In fact, no one could tell him what to expect. Because as far as Albee knew, no one else had tried it.
A 27-year-old from East Vassalboro, Albee was born with spina bifida, a disorder involving incomplete development of the spinal cord. As a result, he can’t walk or feel much sensation in his legs.
But that hasn’t stopped him from being active and spending time in the outdoors. In fact, those are two of his favorite things in life.
Throughout his childhood, Albee played a variety of sports, including wheelchair tennis and basketball. Then, in eighth grade, he found a sport that better fit his love for Maine’s great outdoors — skiing.
“Through Maine Adaptive Sports, I was hooked up with a monoski so I could go up to Sugarloaf and join my classmates up on the ski slope for the first time, and absolutely fell in love with it,” Albee said. “It was incredible.”
A monoski, also known as a sit-ski, is a molded seat mounted on a metal frame to a wide ski. A shock absorber beneath the seat eases riding on uneven terrain and helps the skier maneuver. Instead of using ski poles for stability, monoskiers use outriggers — poles that attach to the forearm and have small skis on the end.
Albee picked up the sport quickly and was soon competing on the Maine Adaptive Sports downhill ski team, which he continued for eight years. Then health issues got in the way. At age 26, he had a surgical procedure to mend a pressure sore that he developed during skiing. It was the 25th surgery of his life.
“When I was younger, I had a lot of surgical procedures to do with my disability, spina bifida,” Albee said. “So I’d come home and be recuperating for sometimes weeks, and I’d always have a dog laying at my feet or by my side when I was having those hard times. I really felt like it was very therapeutic.”
Now that Albee’s injury has healed, it made sense to him that his next outdoor adventure involve dogs — an animal that has offered him comfort and companionship since he was a little boy.
It all started at Heywood Kennel Sled Dog Adventures in Augusta, a family-owned dog sledding outfit owned by Lindy Howe and operated by a team of experienced Maine mushers, including Howe’s son, Colby Briggs.
Albee, good friends with Briggs, visited the kennel a few months ago to do some photography, and the rest is history.
“The energy of the amount of dogs here is unbelievable,” Albee said. “I really feel it gets you going, gets your blood going. And makes you want to participate in what’s going on and try things out. I think that’s what led me to do it.”
The kennel, currently home to approximately 35 dogs, offers sled dog rides and educational programs, such as “Mushing 101.” The dogs also participate in a number of races hosted throughout the state during the winter months.
All along, it has been Albee’s intention to enter such races. In fact, he plans to attend and perhaps even participate in the Farmington Sprint Sled Dog Races on March 1 and 2 at Sandy River Farm. Several teams from Heywood Kennel will be competing.
Monday, Feb. 24, was a practice day. The sun was shining, the temperature hovered around 30 degrees Fahrenheit, and Albee was ready to “make falling look like fun.”
First, he ran the trail hooked to a veteran sled dog — Manny, a husky-pointer mix. Then, to pick up the pace, they added a second dog — Beckett, another husky-pointer mix. Their power combined, the two black dogs swept Albee down the trail at a speed that had him grinning.
“Being on a downhill race team, we learned to do some pretty fast-paced skiing,” Albee said. “So this can be fast-paced, but it’s more of a level ground that you’re going on and it’s different. It’s fun and relaxing at the same time.”
While the experiment decidedly has been a success, Albee and his friends at the kennel are working to improve the sport by either modifying Albee’s monoski for a smoother ride or building an entirely new vehicle, such as a sled with hand brakes. Registered Maine Guide Kevin Quist, a musher at Heywood Kennel, is enthusiastic to work with Albee on the project.
“We’ve been talking about it, and with Kevin’s experience in making equipment and making modifications, we’re really confident that we might be able to come up with something,” Albee said.
By adapting a ski or sled, Albee hopes to make mushing a possibility for other people with disabilities. He already knows a handful of Mainers from his skiing days who he thinks will be interested in giving it a try.