FORT KENT, Maine — Mushers finishing the Can-Am Crown 250-mile sled dog race with fewer dogs than they started with is nothing new.
A musher finishing with a surplus of dogs, however, is a bit out of the ordinary.
Becki Tucker, who was on the trail from Allagash to Fort Kent early Monday morning, is up seven dogs for her New Hampshire Outlaw Ridge Kennel thanks to the early arrival of a healthy litter of sled dog puppies Sunday.
Mother and pups were resting comfortably in a quiet, heated room at Can-Am Central at Lonesome Pine Ski Lodge on Monday morning, where Tucker’s boyfriend and dog handler David Barrett found himself abruptly playing midwife and nursemaid.
It was no secret that their sled dog Wicked was in the family way, Barrett said as he carefully placed the hours-old black-and-white squirming puppies in a box outfitted with hot water bottles and fleece blankets, but she was not due for another week.
Normally part of Tucker’s race team, the pregnant dog has been on maternity leave for the season as her due date approached and did not run in the Can-Am Crown 250.
Rather than leave Wicked with their house and dog sitters, Tucker and Barrett opted to bring her along to Fort Kent so they could keep an eye on her.
On Sunday, Barrett said, Wicked began displaying behavior indicating she was going into labor.
“I’m like, ‘Don’t tell me, now,’” he said. “I called a friend of ours, Kip [Bartlett], who is Christine Richardson’s handler and boyfriend, and he’s done this multiple times.”
Richardson was also out on the Can-Am 250 trail, so it was up to the two handlers to get Wicked the best care possible as soon as possible.
“I asked Kip, ‘Hey, I got a dog I think is going into labor here, what do you think I should do?’” Barrett said. “He goes, ‘You have all of these vets around here, go ask one of them and see if they will come help.’”
Barrett found race veterinarian Dr. Sheila Morrissey, who had been on her way to the Allagash checkpoint but came back just as Wicked’s water broke and in time to assist as one puppy arrived every 40 minutes or so.
Taking care of Wicked as she gave birth to six girls and one boy was probably the only excuse Tucker would accept for Barrett’s ultimately missing her arrival at the Allagash checkpoint, the final one before she headed to the finish line in Fort Kent.
“I was in hot water for not being there in time,” Barrett said. “But I made the decision I felt was best for the puppies [and] I didn’t want to leave Wicked alone.”
Barrett did arrive at the checkpoint soon after Tucker pulled in, where he shared the good news with her.
“When Becki got to Allagash that’s when I took off to tend to another dropped dog and to her,” he said. “Then it was ‘turn and burn’ back here to take care of these baby monsters.”
The couple presumably shared the news with the puppies’ father, Gage, who Barrett said was also on the trail with Tucker as part of her sled dog team.
A litter of puppies born during a race is a first for the Can-Am and Barrett said he suspects the timing will play into the naming of the dogs, who may well be running the northern Maine race trails themselves in a few years.
“On the way up [to Fort Kent] Becki and I were joking about what if Wicked did have the puppies early and how we could name them after checkpoints like ‘Allie’ and ‘Gash’ for Allagash,” he said. “What we didn’t know was Wicked was back there saying, ‘Chuckle it up, guys, I’m going to have the last word,’ and she did.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the names of dogs Wicked and Gage.