Four-Footed Athletes Dash Through the Snow

In `the world's fastest growing winter sport,' men and women drivers compete on equal ground, and age is no barrier

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

`HAW over a little, Poochki. Haw over. Good girl!'' Leaving a cluster of spectators and a whole lot of barking behind, a musher directs his team of 12 huskies on a 9.8-mile race. At the first quarter mile, only three sounds can be heard: panting, then paws hitting snow, then sled runners.

Here at the sixth annual Winter Carnival, the day is sunny and 10 degrees below zero F. ``It's so cold here in Maine, we had to shovel the smoke off the top of the chimney,'' quips Race Marshall Roger Ek.

Not much keeps mushers away from the meet, one of three held in New England on a recent Saturday. Of the 309 sled-dog organizations in the world, 101 are in the United States, says Donna Hawley, director of the International Sled Dog Racing Association Inc. in Nordman, Idaho. Last year, some 6,600 people competed in more than 316 competitions in the US.

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Billed as ``the world's fastest growing winter sport,'' sled-dog racing is receiving greater recognition as a sport, says Ms. Hawley. It's about time, say many mushers, for the sport is one of the oldest in the world.

Before, ``we would never see our results on a sports page,'' Hawley says. But now involvement is more international. Events have more television coverage, more spectators, more sponsors (such as dog-food companies), and more competitors. At the recent World Championships in Winnipeg, ten countries were represented. The Iditarod, the famous 1,158-mile race from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska (starting March 2), has its first entry from the Soviet Union this year. ``It's a long process, and we're working toward that goal of becoming an Olympic sport,'' says Hawley.

Here in Lincoln, the Olympics are far from drivers' minds. Their focus is on sustaining a speedy canine pitter-patter and following the course. With 42 entrants, this meet is small compared with the 200 or so entrants in bigger races. And unlike ``big league'' competitions, you don't hear talk of drug testing or see much buying, selling, or trading of dogs.

The action centers around sportsmanship and community spirit. When a dog team tied to a car bumper breaks loose, sending a dozen dogs into a friendly tangle, everyone lends a hand. Snowmobilers offer to help patrol the trail. Spectator Brian Strout says his family comes ``to watch the teamwork between the owners and animals.'' Many of the competitors know each other from previous races. There's even a ``Mushers' Ball'' in town tonight.

``It's like a No. 1 hobby,'' says musher Jeff Johnson from the Narragansett Bay (R.I.) Sled-Dog Club. Some drivers have seasonal jobs - such as commercial fisherman - that allow them to devote the winter to the sport. A few racers do it for a living. (Full-time racers often breed and sell dogs, and may be sponsored by dog-food companies.)

What's the appeal? The challenge, the competition, the peaceful feeling out on the trail, the camaraderie, a love of the outdoors, the family-style fun, and love of animals are common responses. Sled-dog racing is also one of the few sports where men and women compete on an equal basis and age is not a barrier.

``It's the only sport I do,'' says Raymond (Frenchy) LaBrie, a truck driver from Auburn, Maine, who owns 22 Alaskan Huskies and one big timber wolf.

``You couldn't wish for anything better than this,'' says James Ducette, from Prince Edward Island, Canada, who's here with his daughter Laurie and son Marc, also competitors. ``Love and attention'' are a big part of keeping his family's 19 dogs happy and obedient, he says.

Events here are determined by the class of competition (``pro'' or ``sportsman''), the number of dogs (four, six, or ``unlimited''), and the number of miles (4.4 for four dogs, 6.6 for six dogs, 9.8 for unlimited). There's even a one-dog race for children, and a $3,000 purse.

Sled dogs are athletes. They undergo serious physical training for speed and endurance. Most are Siberian or Alaskan huskies, though other dogs run. Sled dogs sell for between $300 and $6,000.

``They all have their own personality,'' says Laurie Ducette, 17, who placed second in today's four-dog pro event with a time of 14 minutes, 16.13 seconds. Lead dogs, especially, must develop a run-or-bust attitude and a close relationship with their driver. The two lead dogs must be three things, says Mr. Ek: fast, brave, and smart. ``I had a female,'' he says, recalling one of his two lead dogs. ``She was fast and smart, but just a little bit timid. Then I had a male. Now he was fast and brave, but dumber than a box o' rocks.'' Smart and brave made a winning team. ``You have to have all three skills up front,'' he says.

Drivers shout commands to the lead dogs: ``Ghee!'' (right) and ``Haw!'' (left). ``Knowing left from right is an enormous concept for a dog,'' Ek says. Contrary to popular belief, drivers do not yell ``Mush!'' They shout ``Hike!'' to get teams going. ``They call themselves `mushers,' but they never use the word `mush.' That's something out of Jack London,'' he adds. ``Mush'' is thought to be a corruption of the French word marche - to walk, move forward. During the race, the team responds to such commands as ``Pick it up!''

Top dogs can sustain a speed of 22 to 23 m.p.h. for short periods. Johnson says his team starts at around 20 m.p.h., but after 15 minutes they drop to around 15 m.p.h. ``But you strive to get better,'' he says.

``The driver should be the fastest dog on the team,'' says Ek. Mushers ``pump'' or ``pedal'' the sled along with one leg (much the way one rides a scooter) to increase speed.

The wooden sled weighs about 40 pounds and averages eight feet long. Runners are usually coated with polyethylene. There's a brake and a ``snow hook'' for stopping, though most drivers depend on ``whoa!'' The sled holds extra gloves, hats, and equipment. There's also room for a dog who might become injured or exhausted. During training, when there is no snow, drivers use wheeled rigs.

The dogs are well-treated, say drivers. ``If you don't take care of them - treat them right - they don't perform for you,'' says Johnson, gearing up for the six-dog race with Toast and Nellie (his ``lead dogs''), Sparky and Tippy (``point dogs''), and Ranger and Joey (``wheel dogs'').

``I love dogs, I love animals,'' says Dawn Smith, the 56-year-old 1989 Maine State Champion who says her huskies are ``wicked fast.'' She adds: ``It's an accomplishment to think that you're working with dogs and that they work for you.''

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