Yankee classic from January 1982
They told me later that conditions for racing had seldom been worse. It was bitter cold, nearly zero, that March weekend in Rangeley. Maine. A blustery wind gained force steadily, swirling the snow so dog teams seemed to disappear through a veil of white — a “white-out” they called it. The spruce cuttings that marked the trail on the lake (five and a half miles for five dogs, nine miles for seven or more dogs) became all but useless as a guide, and the experienced drivers relied on the instincts of their lead dogs to see them through, though I learned later that even veteran drivers struggled. Over 50 dog teams raced that Saturday, one being driven by me, the greenest of greenhorns.
After I left the starting line of my first sled-dog race, Ivan Beliveau a leading sled-dog trainer and racer, owner of my team, turned to his wife, Kathy (the publicist for New England sled-dog racing who had helped concoct the scheme
of letting me get the “feel” of the sport) and said, “We’ve made a mistake.”
But all of that I learned later…
I arrived in Rangeley just before midnight that Friday. It had been a desolate ride — for the last 75 miles I had passed by perhaps two dozen houses. There had been time — too much time — to ponder what Ivan had told me earlier. Weeks of rain and mild weather had wiped out the heart of the racing season, and had interrupted the training a racing dog needed to stay sharp.
“These dogs are going to be nitsy, sore, sour, and miserable,” Ivan had said. “There’s no telling what they’ll do. They’ll be so keyed up there could be a lot of interaction with other dogs — and that’s where the trouble begins. The biggest thing,” he added, “is not to be afraid. The dogs will sense if you’re afraid and they’ll take control of you — just bolt. If you’re fair with them they’ll respect you, but if you do something that makes no sense, they’ll look for a situation to get rid of you.”
The streets of the town were lined with trucks, with dogs sleeping two to a hut built onto the cabs. I checked into the inn, then walked down the street. The snow on the street crunched beneath my boots. I could hear dogs shifting in their boxes as I went past, and sometimes I caught a glimmer of eyes peering out. I went back to the inn. I awoke early from a fitful sleep to the sounds of barking as dogs were turned out up and down the street, and now and then a howling began in a pocket of town and spread. Then just as quickly as it began, it faded and died.
At about 9:30 A.M. Saturday, Kathy told me Ivan had agreed to let me run. It seemed a good day for the race. There were five inches of hard snow on the lake, and it was cloudy, cold, and tolerably windy, good weather for dogs bred for the cold. The trail seemed well marked with spruce cuttings. “Remember,” she cautioned, “If you get off the trail, you’re on your own. There’s 18 miles of lake, and we’ll just be waving goodbye to you.”
I began tingling with the curious mixture of fear and excitement that I hoped would be taken as a sudden case of the chills. I had two hours to wait before my race, and I spent much of it walking between the racing area and my room, trying on combinations of clothes, before deciding on long johns, wool pants, a turtleneck, a sweater, and a wool coat. Still I shivered as I watched Kathy and Ivan prepare my team.
Sobi, the leader, was let out first, and tied on a short chain to the truck; this set a dozen other dogs yelping with anticipation. Sobi had been debarked six years before, when neighbors complained about the steady clamor from the Beliveaus’ place that reached a crescendo every evening at feeding time, and as she strained against her leash a curious, rasping woof rose from her throat.
Ivan cautioned me. “My dogs know I’m the leader of the pack. I’m stronger and they know it because I’ve proven it. If I say ‘straight ahead’ they know it’s straight ahead. But you’re a newcomer, and you have to prove you’re the boss. Sobi’s the toughest. She’s the dominant leader. Sobi would just as soon thumb her nose at you — say ‘see ya later.’ When you give the commands (gee, right; haw, left) it’s not how loud you say it, it’s how firm.”
So Sobi, the lone female, would be my leader. Behind Sobi would run her son, Thunder, and alongside him would be Buzz, a buff-colored dog. They were both just two years old, in their first full year of racing. “They’re learning from Sobi not to make mistakes,” Ivan said. “They’re in training for my team and I can’t afford to have a young dog on my team make a mistake.” Pulling up the rear would be Streaker, once a member of the North American championship team and purchased by Ivan for breeding; and Lobo, Ivan’s $800 “mystery dog.”
“Impeccable genes,” Ivan said, shaking his head, “but I can’t unlock him. When I tried to make a leader of him, he
just turned around and wouldn’t run.”
Over the din of the barking and yelping the loud speaker boomed: “Twenty minutes until five-dog teams.”
Ivan reached into his pocket, took out a package of small matches, makeshift suppositories, and inserted them quickly into his dogs. “A dog that stops to poop,” he explained, “well, that 20 seconds can lose the race. I’ve lost a lot of money for 20 seconds.” There are other rituals. Kathy greased the paws to prevent snow balls, and most curious of all, Ivan began howling to the dogs, his cry piercing the air, and the team caught his cry with theirs — except for Sobi’s whispered effort — and they trembled with pleasure. “It’s how Ivan gets them to shake the kinks out,” Kathy explained.
The dog teams were started at two-minute intervals, racing against the clock rather than each other, and Ivan hurried over to the timekeeper to check my position. “Ten minutes,” he shouted on his return. He clapped his mittens together. “It’s wild, woolly, and cold,” he said. “You’re going to get windburn, sure. It’ll give you a feeling for how tough it is.” I knew he felt a certain satisfaction that his sport would not be a picnic for me.
“Don’t worry,” he shouted, “you’re sandwiched between people who know what they’re doing. Our friend Jo Ann is ahead of you. If you get in trouble, she’ll help.”
“Should I tell Jo Ann that Mel’s a beginner?” Kathy asked. “No reason to,” Ivan replied.
When the dogs were hitched to the sled they thrummed with tension. With the exception of Sobi, a Siberian husky, the remainder of the team was a cross between greyhounds, shepherds, and Siberians, in racing circles known as Quebec hounds. They are bred for excitability, for furious energy, and it showed as they howled and lunged. Sobi at the lead was straight as an arrow, and it took all of our strength to hold the sled still, until Ivan and I had grabbed the lines. By the time we had walked the dogs to the starting area, I was panting and perspiring from the strain.
Kathy shouted instructions. “If you fall off, never let go of the sled, even if they have to drag you. The dogs can really hurt themselves if they get tangled and panic. When you come upon another team you yell, ‘Trail,’ and they have to let you by. Then you say to Sobi, ‘Straight ahead’ and she should go by. She shouldn’t hesitate. And you’ve got to pump your foot because they’ll lag a little. If a team comes upon you and says ‘Trail.’ slow down, but don’t stop. The potential for getting in trouble is there when you stop. And don’t put Sobi’s nose up another’s rear end. You’ve got to give room.”
There were four minutes left. “What happens if their dogs attack mine?” I asked.
“They shouldn’t,” Kathy said.
“If,” I hissed, with a disquieting sense of rising panic, ”I’ve got to know the ifs.”
“Then you’ve got to plant the snow hook and separate them — but you shouldn’t have that problem. Jo Ann is a pro and so are the others in front. Just talk Sobi on by. You say, ‘Straight ahead’ and you say it rough, like you mean it.”
Ivan yanked us to the starting line. I watched the team before me speed ahead, the snow beginning to blow harder across the lake, and soon her dogs all but dissolved in the mist.
“Kathy,” I blurted, “if they went with you first, wouldn’t they know the trail better?”
She peered into my face, seeing perhaps for the first time its rigid, vacant look, surprised at how quickly it had been drained of confidence.
“You’re not seizing up on us, are you?” Ivan yelled from the point.
“You’ll be all right,” Kathy said. “You can’t let them know you’re nervous.
They can smell it, you know. Just pump hard, like you’re riding a scooter. Just pump hard.”
The dogs strained forward, like arrows drawn taut on a bow, and the starter counted down “four, three, two, one …” and we sprang forward. I was conscious of two shouts before all noise faded before the wind. One was the send-off from the starter, a burly man hooded in his snowmobile suit who yelled, “Don’t let go of the sled!” And the other was Ivan’s hopeful cry to Kathy, “Did you tell Jo Ann to watch out for them?” And his quick burst of distress, “You didn’t? You didn’t?”
Two hundred yards along the trail I saw to my horror that the driver of the team that was supposed to take care of me was herself in trouble, her team turned crossways to the trail, as we headed straight for its unprotected flank. The only call I remembered was “Straight on,” and I shut my eyes. When I opened them Sobi had veered away at the last instant. But relief was short-lived on that wild lake. We quickly gained on the team in front, one that had also become confused and that also lay crossways to the trail. This time we hit, becoming entangled in the lines. The other driver, a seasoned veteran, leaped into the fray, untangling my dogs, heaving Sobi towards the trail. “Straight on,” I hollered, as I murmured embarrassed apologies to the other driver.
We turned around an island that formed a hub for the course, Sobi hard on the spruce track until suddenly she followed the scent of an errant team, and ran towards an open expanse that for all I knew stopped in Quebec. A young man stood his ground, doing his job — which was to frantically wave dog teams back on to the trail. I pressed the brake hard and Sobi stopped.
“I don’t know what to do,” I shouted. His eyes grew wide beneath his enormous parka. “I don’t know either,” he said. “Can’t you get the dog to follow you?”
I asked him to hold the sled. He approached slowly, as though half expecting me to run off, leaving him to drive the dogs home. Ivan had told me to throw Sobi back on the trail when she got off, but I wanted to keep my distance.
“C’mon girl, here girl,” I implored, my arms motioning to the trail. I clucked as though I were calling my own dog. I whistled. Sobi stared at me briefly then looked off into the distance. Dog teams passed by 30 yards away, heading home. In desperation I grabbed Sobi’s neckline and yanked her towards the trail, pulling the team 30 yards until I was so winded I feared I would be ill. I rode the sled runners then, not even pretending to pump, When we turned the far point towards home, the teeth of the wind, now gale force, struck full-bore. It seemed to drain the will from me. Jo Ann’s team, which had had difficulty staying to the trail, came so close that I kept kicking her leader. Again Sobi veered off the trail, though there was nothing left of a trail except runner marks.
“What do I do?” I shouted. “Yell ‘haw,'” she answered. I yelled it over and over to no avail. “Get off and haul her over,” Jo Ann shouted. I yanked Sobi around, but confused, she headed back the way we had come, straight into Jo Ann’s team. The two teams, tired, irritable, and confused, began to growl.
“Oh,” Jo Ann muttered, “now we’re in a fix.” She yanked her team in front of Sobi, and for the last mile we crawled home following Jo Ann’s team.
I didn’t care. I just wanted what until then had been some of the worst 30 minutes of my life to be done with. A half mile from the finish I saw Ivan, his arms folded, his face tight, staring at me with what I imagined to be disgust.
“At least make it a good finish.” He said. “Pump it in.” Kathy was waiting. “I’ve been praying for the dogs to come back.” She saw my hands stiff from clutching the sled.
“You’re not supposed to have a death grip on it,” she said.
Later, after they had watered the dogs, my humiliation changed to relief. Time and again someone came over, clapped me on the shoulder. “You finished, that’s the main thing,” they said. I perked up. My time was 35 minutes and seven seconds. I felt better knowing one team was out nearly an hour.
Later, in the dark, in the cold, I found Ivan and Kathy tending their dogs. Ivan’s tattered gloves were off, one dog had wet in the stall, two others, Sobi and Cleo, both leaders, had started fighting and Ivan had separated them.
He knew their muscles would be sore and was dropping aspirins in their feeding dishes before scooping their homemade dog food — chicken breast bones ground up with chicken fat. It smelled like dried blood.
I thought of something he had told me the night before. He was racing once in Vermont over a course laid out across a field. Barbed wire had been hidden by the snow and nobody knew it. Another racer had gone over the wire, hooked it with his brake, and lifted it up enough to catch Ivan as he passed close behind. He wouldn’t let go of the sled and as the dogs lunged the wire ripped through his jacket. cutting his stomach open. Nevertheless, he had finished the race.
“Ivan,” I asked, “why do you do this?”
“We were just talking about that,” he said. “You know somebody said a few years ago we were just chasing a fantasy. Mine is to have a sponsor someday, to be able to retire into sled-dog racing. Who knows,” he shrugged, “maybe
someday people will get bored with golf, maybe this will take off one day.”
He told me of friends who had lost their houses and their families to pursue sled-dog racing in Alaska; of a nonstop l,200-mile drive, 20mph for 40 hours, bringing the dogs from a race in Wisconsin; of 200-mile drives to find enough snow for 30-minute training runs; of the meager winnings and the tremendous expenses. He explained it simply. “A lot of people in our sport are obsessed,” he said.
Saturday night we sat in the bar of the inn, and every so often a driver would go outside to check the dogs and when the door opened you could hear the dogs yelping as they dropped to the ground from their boxes.
Ivan came in on one occasion from dropping his dogs (letting them out of their boxes). “It’s really wild out; it’ll be awfully bad tomorrow. And they’ll be sore — and they may decide this isn’t any fun. So the real test may come tomorrow.”
I yawned and stood up. “Well, folks,” I said cheerfully, “I can go to bed knowing as bad as it was today, at least tomorrow will be worse.”
“Don’t lose your nerve,” Ivan said. “They allow a change of drivers only for heart attacks.”
“Well, at least there are alternatives,” I said, then went to bed, where I drifted to sleep to the sound of crying from a baby next door.
Sunday came clear and cold; by 6:30 Ivan had dropped the dogs and was waxing the runners of the sleds. “I want you to cut five minutes off,” he said.
We started slowly, the dogs and I, heading into the wind, and I braced for the worst. But Sobi knew the trail now, and with every stride I realized we would be all right.
We rounded the island and Sobi kept her nose low to the trail. My spirits soared. It didn’t even matter that inexplicably I forgot Sobi’s name. My mind searched madly through a collection of names until I settled on Lobi.
”I’m helping Lobi,” I shouted, “here we go, move it! He wants five minutes — we’ll give him ten off! I’m working Lobi,” surely one of the stranger cries heard on the lake that day. I pumped the sled hard and when I approached the finish I saw Ivan smiling and I didn’t care that at least I had survived.
I wanted to know my time. I had come in at 28 minutes, 11 seconds, nearly seven minutes faster, good for 15th place!
Ivan clapped me on the back. “For a cheechako (greenhorn), you did all right” he said. “I wasn’t sure you could pull it off. If you’d had a whip to crack, you could’ve taken two more minutes off. I’ll make a sled driver out of you yet.
“But you have no sense whatsoever of a big dog learn. I mean 16 dogs, 64 legs, over 1,000 pounds of dogs. Very few drive them successfully. You have to dominate all 16.”
We said goodbye after lunch. Ivan had finished with the day’s second-best time. He was satisfied. The drive home seemed an eternity when darkness came on and weariness replaced my euphoria. The roads were narrow. hugging the woods, and there were few lights or passing traffic.
I remembered reading in a sled-dog book what a young Danish soldier had written upon learning to drive a dog team in Greenland: “Nobody who has been admitted to that mystery is ever the same again.”
I knew the mystery was far from my reach — if anything the dogs had controlled me. But for many days afterwards I was haunted by the demonic yelping of the dogs as they braced to race; of the moment when we would pass another team and the heads of the dogs would snap to the side, and sometimes there would be a low growl and a fleeting nip and then we would be past. And there was a dream of another race, when I would have 16 dogs, their string reaching so far in front I could barely see my leader as we raced furiously, noiselessly, across the snow.