FORT KENT, Maine — With women comprising nearly half of the mushers slated to take part in the three Can-Am Crown sled dog races Saturday, it should be no surprise that mushing is a gender-neutral sport. It also is age-neutral, with racers as young as 13 and old as 73 competing in the 30-, 100- or 250-mile races this year.
The winner in each race is the one who crosses the finish line first, whether male or female, young or old.
When the mushers gather at the starting area or see one another on the trail, “we look at the dogs, not at the mushers,” Can-Am 250 racer Sally Manikian said with a laugh from her home in Shelburne, New Hampshire, earlier this week.
With so much time and attention given to their dogs, and the hours put into training, the mushers themselves are always more interested in the four-legged members of a team than the human who wears the bib number, she said.
“I always feel equality of gender from other mushers,” Manikian said.
Since 1994, the Can-Am’s second year, women have taken part in the races, with some becoming familiar faces.
Jessica Holmes of Portage Lake is racing in her sixth Can-Am race, but her first 250-miler, this weekend. Ashley Patterson of Shirley Mills and Jaye Foucher of Wentworth, New Hampshire, each will be bringing teams to the Can-Am races for a 10th time. Both also are in the 250 this year.
The Iditarod Trail Race, perhaps the most iconic sled dog event, which covers 1,000 grueling miles in Alaska, was dominated in the 1980s and early ’90s by Susan Butcher, who had 14 top-10 finishes from 1979 to 1994, including three second-place finishes and four first-place victories.
The Iditarod event itself was the brainchild of Dorothy G. Page, a resident of Wasilla, Alaska, who proposed the idea as a way to help celebrate her home state’s centennial in 1967.
No woman has ever won the Can-Am 250, but several different women have won the shorter Can-Am races.
Laura Neese of McMillan, Michigan, another racer in this year’s Can-Am 250, agreed with Manikian about the gender equity within mushing.
“The early women paved the way,” she said.
Her youth, however, has sometimes been an issue, the 19-year-old said.
“I don’t let it bother me,” said Neese. “I just go out and have fun.”
Any thoughts others may have of youth being a hindrance to being a good musher do not last long.
“That changes by the end of the race, though,” Neese said with a chuckle.
The youngster more than proved herself with a 13th-place finish in February at this year’s Yukon Quest, another grueling 1,000-mile sled dog competition that runs from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory of Canada.
A homeschooling project following the Iditarod race online 10 years ago sparked something in the then 9-year-old Neese.
“I thought, ‘This is amazing! I have to do it,’” she said.
One husky puppy as a 14th birthday gift soon turned into seven more dogs a few months later. A litter of eight puppies came shortly after that, and Neese was well on her way to not only racing, but making a living from handling dogs.
A little more than a year ago she moved from Ohio to McMillan, Michigan, and went to work for Ed and Tasha Stielstra at Nature’s Kennel, where she works with the dogs and guides clients on sledding excursions.
Having followed the Can-Am since 2009, Neese said she is looking forward to the challenging terrain the race offers.
With this weekend’s race serving as a sort of a testing ground, Neese said she intends to enter the Iditarod next year.
“I don’t plan on being very competitive at Can-Am this year,” she said. “But it will be great for getting my team ready.”
The distances traveled and the sometimes treacherous weather that racers encounter are what attracts many mushers to the longer endurance mushing events. Balancing the competitiveness of racing with the reality of survival is part of taking part in such events.
“It’s the really cool part about long-distance mushing,” Neese said.
When a competitor sees another racer in trouble, it is a “no-brainer” to stop and help them, she said. Even front-runners will provide assistance.
“It may be you in that position someday,” said Neese.
For Manikian, interacting with other mushers is a major appeal of the sport.
“I am so excited to see other racers,” she said. “I pull over and cheer them on [when they pass],” she said.
However, Manikian said she is not seeing that group of mushers growing.
“It’s sad, “she said.
While there are many people who own a few dogs and participate in recreational mushing, or who even compete in shorter sprint races, the community of long-distance mushers has not grown in recent years, she said.
Unreliable weather for training and even racing in the northeast is likely a contributing factor, according Manikian.
“It’s a big commitment of money and personal time to train these dogs,” she said, and with no guarantee you will actually be able to regularly train or race, it can become a losing proposition for some.
With fewer people involved in long-distance racing, Manikian said there are fewer people to learn from.
“There has been a huge boom in dryland racing, though,” Manikian said. “But the [winter] distance racing is dwindling.”
Those long-distance races, the ones that take mushers and their dog teams deep into the wilderness, where solitude and a need for self-reliance are norm, are what get Manikian and Neese excited about events like Can-Am.
This will be Manikian’s fifth consecutive year racing at Can-Am, and her third 250-mile race. She finished in ninth place last year.
“It feels like coming home,” said Manikian, who once again will be staying with local host family Laura and Don Audibert in Fort Kent.
“I am excited to see everyone. I know the folks at the checkpoint and I high-five them,” she said. “It’s a lot fun.”
This year’s Can-Am mushers were treated to nearly a foot of fresh powder just days before the start. This followed on the heels of a mild and relatively snow-free winter that had some concerned whether the race would happen at all.
“I am looking forward to snow,” Manikian said, after learning the race course received nearly a foot of snow Wednesday.
Local musher Amy Dionne of St. David was somewhat less enthusiastic about the new snow.
“I love snow,” she said with a laugh. “But all of this is way too late. I hope the volunteers can get out [to groom] all our trails.”
Crews were still working on those trails Friday morning, according to this year’s Can-Am president, Beurmond Banville.
“In some places, the guys said they had three-foot drifts,” Banville said Friday from Can-Am headquarters at Lonesome Pine Trails in Fort Kent.
The new snow also serves to soften the trails, he said, which makes it easier on the dogs and allows the mushers to more effectively control the sled.
Because of glare ice on Portage Lake, organizers had anticipated rerouting that portion of the 250-mile route that traverses the frozen lake, but that won’t be necessary anymore with the new snow.
Dionne, 26, who will be competing in her second 250-mile race and her seventh Can-Am race in a row, is an example of the young women Manikian is seeing more and more of becoming involved in outdoor pursuits and outdoor leadership roles.
Working for the Appalachian Club in New Hampshire, Manikian coordinates the management of remote campsites, and each season she is seeing a steady stream of young women on her backcountry crews.
“I expect to see that continue in mushing,” she said.
Like Dionne, Neese has taken to the sport with a passion. Each has already built relationships with mushers from across the U.S. and Canada.
“I am looking forward to meeting the community of mushers,” at Can-Am, Neese said.
This year, those mushers are a mix of familiar names like Andre Longchamps and Martin Massicotte, who has only missed two Can-Am events since 1995, and newcomers like Neese and Brian Kandler of Mason, Michigan.
The 2016 contingent of Can-Am mushers will feature a variety of ages as well as genders.
This year’s oldest racer is Paul Boudreau, 73, of L’Assomption, Quebec, Canada, who will be competing in the 100-mile race and his 19th Can-Am event since it began in 1993. Thirteen-year old Lara Renner of Alton, New Hampshire, one of four teenagers this year and the youngest in the field, will be racing in the 30-miler, her second Can-Am.
If conditions are good, the faster 250-mile race teams could arrive in the early hours of Monday morning. The 30- and 100-mile race teams are expected to finish Saturday afternoon.