FORT KENT, Maine — When Ashley Patterson ran her first Can-Am Crown 250-mile sled dog race in 2003, her mushing mentor John Osmond told her to hold the dogs back for the first 150 miles and then “start to race.”
That advice took the then 18-year-old rookie musher to her first Can-Am 250 finish and fourth place.
On Saturday Patterson was back in Fort Kent for her fifth run at the race known as “the Iditarod of the East” and said that 12-year-old advice has stuck with her.
“I can’t get that out of my mind,” she said after crossing the finish line in Fort Kent on Monday. “I feel that is how I will always race.”
Patterson placed fourth overall in the race this weekend and was happy with the 12-dog team and how they overcame obstacles on the trail together.
“Out there you deal with conditions you just can’t simulate at home,” she said. “You have to be prepared [and] you can’t go into a race like this half prepared and think you are going to finish.”
Trail conditions this year were hard and fast with temperatures dipping down well below zero on Saturday and climbing to above freezing on Sunday.
“This is never an easy race by any means,” Patterson said. “But the conditions were ideal for mushers’ comfort.”
Patterson, who operates Lone Wolf Guiding Services with her husband, Mark Patterson, in Shirley, began training for the Can-Am in September and estimated she had about 2,000 miles on the dogs by the time they got to Fort Kent.
“I was really training full time,” she said. “This was the first time I have trained and raced with a team that was all mine [and] that I had raised from puppies.”
Every musher trains differently, Patterson said.
“It’s really kind of neat to be able to see and respect the different challenges we overcome to make this happen,” she said. “It’s such an incredible feat to take these athletes you perfected all season, put them in a race situation and see them finish happy and healthy.”
Finding her dogs a constant source of entertainment, Patterson said it’s the time alone on the trails with them that keeps her mushing.
“I really can’t blame anybody for why I got into this or why I continue to want to go and be with the dogs out there,” she said. “But I will say each dog is entertaining in their own right.”
The dogs and Patterson also share a very real communication, like the instance this past weekend when she spotted a large animal ahead of them on the trail.
Right away, she said, her team’s submissive attitude told her she was looking at some sort of predator.
“When they see a moose or deer, the dogs will speed up,” Patterson said. “But if it’s a predator, they slow right down.”
It was at dusk and the light was fading, but Patterson is certain the large, lanky animal that left tracks the size of her hand and bounded away through the snow was a wolf.
“It was definitely not a coyote,” she said. “And the musher behind me saw it, too, and agreed it was an awfully big creature.”
Experiences like that, combined with the atmosphere of the musher and dog-friendly Can-Am Crown will keep her coming back to race in Fort Kent, Patterson said.