FORT KENT, Maine — Running sled dogs can be a somewhat solitary lifestyle, but for a handful competing in this weekend’s Can Am Crown International Sled Dog Races, it makes for a match made in mushing heaven.
“Yeah, I married into it,” joked Can Am 30-mile racer Mark Patterson.
“I remember asking him, ‘Do you know what you are getting into?’” said Ashley Patterson, a longtime musher and past Can Am 250 finisher. “I don’t think it sank in until we had our first litter of puppies.”
Together, the husband and wife team own and operate Lone Wolf Guiding Services out of Shirley. The two were in Fort Kent to run the Can Am, Ashley Patterson in the 60-mile race, where she finished in seventh place, and Mark Patterson in the 30-miler, also placing seventh.
The two were among 58 teams participating in this year’s Can Am Crown Main Street start Saturday morning.
As of Sunday, 18 teams taking part in the event’s flagship 250-mile race remained out on the trails spread out between the second checkpoint at Rocky Brook and the third checkpoint at Maibec.
Sharing that 250 trail are Can Am 250 veteran and Yukon Quest finisher Denis Tremblay and longtime partner Julie Albert of St. Michel des Saints, Quebec.
And while Tremblay, after placing second last year and fifth in 2011, is looking for his first Can Am 250 win, Albert is content to ride the runners and enjoy her time with the dogs.
“I train and take care of the puppies,” she said. “When I have them all perfectly trained, he takes them for his race team and I have another puppy team.”
Albert laughs as she says this, adding she is more than happy to let Tremblay chase first-place finishes in the races.
“I am racing for the ‘red lantern’ this year,” she said.
In sled dog races, the last musher to cross the finish line is traditionally given a red lantern.
Tremblay — speaking through a translator — said Albert’s style of training and running is ideally suited for getting a dog started for a life in competition.
For her part, Albert said Tremblay is able to bring a little something extra out of those dogs.
“The dogs are not stupid,” Albert said. “They know me too well [and] they know they can walk for me, but they go fast for Denis.”
Working with the dogs since they are pups gives Albert a pretty good eye for each team member’s individual quirks and styles, something on which Tremblay relies.
“When we talk at night I take the recommendations of what she says,” Tremblay said.
“If Denis has a problem with the dog I can suggest how to adjust things,” Albert said. “And if I have a problem with the puppies he makes good recommendations.”
Tremblay has mushed dogs for 25 years and Albert has been at it for nine years.
“He does have more experience than me but he is ‘old school,’” Albert said. “I often go in a new way with new ideas.”
The two often share the same training trails, but rarely run together.
“Denis likes to be by himself and to go fast,” Albert said.
Married mushers Rico and Paula Portalatin, on the other hand, are always together when it’s time to step on the runners to train the team.
“We bought a double-driver sled last year,” Rico Portalatin said. “It’s the single best piece of training gear we have ever bought.”
A double-drive dogsled is actually two dogsleds in one, allowing two mushers to drive a single team.
The two work full time, but dedicate all spare time to their Westhampton, Mass., kennel.
This year Rico Portalatin had hoped Paula would race the 30-mile race while he competed in the 60-miler, but problems with several dogs meant only enough for a single team and on Saturday he placed first in the Can Am Crown 60-mile race.
“We don’t take vacations over the summer,” Rico Portalatin said. “Our co-workers know once there is snow on the ground that’s when we start taking time off.”
He said having his wife along for “an extra pair of hands” is a huge help. “And I don’t pretend it’s not nice to have the company,” he added with a grin.
For now, Paula Portalatin is content to help her husband train and on race day, but Rico does speculate about the day his wife steps on the runners as a fellow competitor.
“She would probably end up with the better leaders at that race,” he joked. “It would make for some interesting dinner conversation.”
When it comes to conversation, for Ashley and Mark Patterson, it often revolves around one topic — their 42 dogs.
“It’s what makes it fun training together,” Ashley Patterson said. “We can sit down at the the table and have a talk about the dogs and how different dogs did on the run that day [and] it’s outright fun to have someone to talk to after a 50-mile run.”
The two are able to combine work and training, offering sled dog tours throughout the winter.
“We have a system that works,” Mark Patterson said. “Ashely will harness and get all the dogs ready and that allows me to concentrate on the people while she concentrates on the dogs.”
There is no way, Ashley Patterson said, she could work full time and train a race team on her own.
“No way,” she said. “Not at this level.”
For his part, Mark Patterson is happy to have moved from training partner to racer.
“For the first couple of years it was me riding in the [dogsled] basket for hours and hours and hours,” he said.
On race day Saturday, all three couples were happily looking down their respective race trails.
Before coming to Fort Kent, Tremblay prepared a run-rest schedule for her that will allow for ample down time and bring out the best in her team.
“I do worry about her when she is out there alone,” Tremblay said. “But not for the Can Am.”
The Can Am, he said, places so much emphasis on musher and dog safety, backed up by an army of volunteers on the trail and at the checkpoints, he knows Albert will be in good hands.
“If we were racing anywhere else but Fort Kent I would be worried,” he said. “But in Fort Kent they take such good care of us.”
As of noon on Sunday, Tremblay was taking a layover at Maibec with six other teams and Albert was resting at Rocky Brook with three teams. Five teams were on the trail between Rocky Brook and Maibec while two teams were still on the trail between Portage and Rocky Brook.
Mushers can be tracked on the Can Am website at http://can-am-crown.net/index.htm. The winners are expected to come in to Lonesome Pine Ski Lodge in Fort Kent early Monday morning.