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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 Kirsten A. ConoverStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 22, 1991



LINCOLN, MAINE

`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.

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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.

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.