ST. JOHN VALLEY - Although the first two mushers in the area during the first Can-Am Crown International Sled Dog Race in 1993 were men, John Kaleta and Steve Kennedy, the majority of the Valley mushers today are women. Of the nine mushers from the St. John Valley and Stockholm currently entered in the 20th anniversary of the Can-Am, six of them are women, and this number leaves out local female mushers not competing in the race including Penny Gray, Meg Burden, Marion Lugdon, and Julia Bayly.
Valley women competing this year include Jessica Holmes from Portage, Amy Beth Dionne and Holly Dionne, sisters from St. David, Lindy Howe from Stockholm, Sara Levesque from St. David, and Kim Paradis from Fort Kent.
Each woman has a story about her start in mushing and dog sledding, and for some of them, racing. As is common in the global world of mushing, they are stories filled with community and support.
Julie Bayly is a freelance writer/photographer. She has run dogs for 11 or 12 years recreationally. Her first lead dog was Prince, who she acquired from Penny Gray. He was originally owned by Tenley Bennett, a local retired musher who helped to organize the Eagle Lake Sled Dog Races earlier this year. He was one of three dogs with which she started mushing in 2001. Bayly received help in the early days from Kim Paradis and her neighbor and now-retired musher Shawn Graham.
Pooh Bear was her next leader, and Bayly said he had a special characteristic
"He went glacial speed. He was wonderful."
She found a special motivation to continue running the dogs in 2009, after her husband Patrick Ouellette passed away from cancer. Ouellette was never interested in running the dogs himself, although he helped Bayly in her hobby as part of her support team. One of the last conversations Bayly had with her husband was about the dogs.
Apollo, a dog Bayly acquired from John Osmond and Amy Dugan's Mountain Ridge Kennels in Shirley, Maine, led her team that helped her find her way back on the runners after the loss of her husband. She described the experience of mushing with Apollo up front as "push-button mushing."
"Once he'd run the trail once, I could sit back and read a book," she said. "If I stopped the team, he lay down."
This is something known as "holding the line" in the world of mushing, and it keeps the team from running off if the musher has to step off the runners for a moment.
"He's goofy off the line, but he's all business outside."
In 2010, Bayly ran the Can-Am 30 and encountered two skidder trenches along the trail, which can be several feet deep and can cause serious injuries if a team hits one at a good clip.
"Apollo never broke stride. It was like something from a movie."
Bayly said he leapt the first trench, then the second, and kept right on going. The rest of the team just followed his lead.
Apollo has since been retired from running due to arthritis in his feet, and Bayly now runs with Cannon up front, another dog acquired from Osmond and Dugan. Bayly said Cannon is 'alpha,' meaning that she likes to lead and she also likes to boss the other dogs around. She's the first leader Bayly's had that is both. Cannon's gift is running "a hard right." She keeps the dogs to the far right of the trail, which helps to prevent running into another team or having a passing team's dogs becoming tangled up with the team they're attempting to pass.
Bayly describes the dogs as "endurance athletes that will do anything for you." With this devotion comes extra responsibility for the owners, because the dogs, like children, are unaware of their own limits.
The only hard and fast rule in the world of mushing is to never let go.
"The myth of "whoa?" It's more of an optional plea," laughed Bayly. "If you let them pull, they'll pull you out of anything."
"The worse part of the sport is the dogs get old," she added.
Bayly said she'd originally planned on racing in the 30-miler this year, but she pulled out of it because her "heart just wasn't into it this year." She explained her philosophy on mushing.
"Just because you drive a car doesn't mean you have to drive NASCAR."
Despite her decision to opt out of the race this year, Bayly said, "I have a huge respect for people who race."
About the St. John Valley, Bayly said, "It's an amazing, supportive community, even as competitive as it is."
Bayly praised local musher Kim Paradis, who she says is one of the best mushers she knows for "reading" the dogs.
Paradis owns the Century Theater in Fort Kent. She and her husband Mike have run dogs since 2000. Two years ago, she raced in the Can-Am 30, and Mike has raced in the Can-Am 30, 60 and in the Eagle Lake 100. She handles most of the training and all of the dogs' daily care, spending between two and five hours each day with them.
"My dogs are spoiled." She laughed, but added that all of that time "pays off."
"If I fall, if I yell "whoa" enough, they'll stop. They actually listen." The Paradis' have two teams at the moment, an older team of six dogs who she runs recreationally to give them some exercise and to help keep them from getting bored, and a younger team of eight dogs who will be racing in this year's anniversary race. She calls the older team her "geriatric team."
She said she and her husband began dog sledding as a substitute to the skiing they'd done out west, where she and her husband met.
"We live out in the woods. Originally, we were two miles from a plowed road."
Dog sledding may have become a practical matter as well, a way to haul freight up and down two miles of unplowed access road. Like Bayly, Shawn Graham helped her started out in the sport. She said they began with four rescue dogs, and most of their 16 dogs are still dogs they acquired from mushers leaving the sport.
"It's not going to make us win a race," she said, "but it's a nice feeling."
Both Paradis and Bayly spoke about the role that nutrition plays in the world of dog sledding. The dogs' diets and health are monitored like human athletes. Among other things, Paradis keeps extensive records of each day's training, feeding schedule and types of food eaten, each dog's feet, the team organization, weather conditions, and training speeds.
She said part of bringing out the most from the dogs is paying attention to whether the dog wants to run that day or not. "Reading" dogs is about paying attention to the dogs' behavioral reactions.
She added, "Not every dog is a leader, but not every leader wants to lead every time."
Paradis said a musher wants to avoid burning out the dogs. What she looks for is signs that they're all "in a zone." What that means is the dogs' heads are straight forward toward the trail in front of them and their ears are turned back toward her.
One of her sled dogs decided 5 years ago that she was done pulling, even though the dog was very fast.
"She just didn't really enjoy the team aspect of the sport," Paradis said.
Paradis retired the dog to be a house dog, although Paradis said there was a learning curve as she trained her not to eat their cats.
"Her sister did great [on the line]. Not every husky is meant to be a sled dog."
A musher's state of mind is an important part of the team's performance. Like Bayly, Paradis said the dogs can sense the smallest change in her attitude right through the dog sled and traces.
"I've always been into animals," she said. "If anything, [dog sledding] has just made my life better. It's my recreation. Some people ski, some people run. My feet stay on those runners."
For a virtual trail experience, click the image to the left, video courtesy of Julia Bayly.
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