Tuesday, March 24, 2009


So if you recall when we left off, it was a cold blistering Sunday morning and the date was 24 Jan 09. This was it. It was “show time”. At this point of the game, all the ground work had been properly done and now it was time to check out what kind of reward stood at the end of this last six (6) months of training. The racing season was in full swing and now was the time to put up or shut up. In just over a month, the CAN-AM races would be held and I still had a whole bunch of unresolved issues to deal with. Oh for sure, when you’re out there in “your own backyard” and challenging wild rabbits, coyotes and moose, pretending that you’re the “King of the Mountain”, it’s easy to call yourself the best. However, you’ll never know where you fit in the scheme of things till you go out there and test yourself against other dog teams.

Since the first snows in early December, an average of six (6) hours per day had been dedicated to the “racing team”. It was a commitment that I had not taken lightly as on a previous occasion, a lack of preparation had left me in a perilous situation. This time around, I had set out on this challenge fully focused and well “educated”. The rumor or if you want, the joke circulating around the mushing community, was that I was training for the 1000 mile race called the “Yukon Quest”. Most of the other challengers running dogs, had half the “trail mileage” and considered that they were ready for Fort-Kent. That was their business and maybe they were right. However, there is no “set in concrete” training method and my program is quite simple and can be described by this basic statement. “In your mind, you might think you can run the “Boston Marathon” but it takes years of training and muscle building to achieve that goal”. For sleddogs, the same principle applies. As far as I’m concerned, if they have the muscle mass, they will have the needed stamina and as an added bonus, the chances of injuries will be significantly reduced. I only have to look at my dogs to know that I’m on to something. When I compare the seasoned veterans to the yearlings, it’s easy to see that even though they have the will and drive to run the distances, the two young lads, “Jacko” and “Sox” lack that accumulated trail experience. This is a factor that I need to consider as I can’t afford to “sideline” any of them as my total pool of race contenders stands at eight (8) dogs. If you compare this to some of these kennels that have some one hundred (100) dogs in their backyard, I have very limited resources to do the same job. But then again, those folks don’t have the same rapport that I have with my team and this by far, outweighs this somewhat of a disadvantage.

As for a strategy, well this was also another story. My game plan was to concentrate our efforts towards one single big event and see how we would make out. If one looked for them, one could find a race for each weekend of the winter months and when you checked the results, you could see that the same names appeared over and over. Now one has to question what this all means. Either, some of these people are hooked on racing or they’re using their dogs as a means to obtain financial gains. Whatever the case may be, one point seems to stand out. Some of these canines are being used as machines and are driven as such. The high intensity associated with racing mid-distance takes its toll on the animals and they are never given the chance to really recover from these demanding outings. Most of the time, towards the end of the season, they end up running with injuries and mentally drained. But, they keep running enduring the pain as they know quite well that this is much more bearable than the pain associated with the non-running aspect of things. I would not dare say that most mushers are inhumane as this would not paint a true picture of the people associated with the sport. But don’t kid yourself, there’s some in this bunch that although they portrait a positive public image, couldn’t care less about these athletes. They use the dogs to reach a certain goal and when the racing season is over, they discard of them just as if they were a piece of used toilet paper. That for a number of reasons, doesn’t sit well with me but I won’t be going there just now as this was addressed fully a few years back. Safe to simply say that my “Mob” would live to race another season.

This event was somehow a bit familiar as I had attended it four years ago. So when I got to the University Campus parking lot, I had a pretty good idea as to how things might transpire. Like the last time I had attended this race, I was way too early so decided to go and inspect the
0.7 km oval track. They had shortened the distance so this did not take long for me check it out. So standing there in the freezing cold, waiting for the officials to open the registration booth, I was testing and enjoying the warmth provided by my “Canada Goose” parka. I was “snug as bug” in it but as cozy as it was, I could not help but wonder as to what I was doing there. I knew I had no business in a sprint race but then again this event might just provide me with certain answers, answers that I needed to clarify before the race in Fort-Kent. Except for the “Kid”, this was a totally new team and although they all had seen a starting chute the previous years, they had never ran together as a unit and there were too many unknown factors to deal with to feel comfortable. Would the young dogs be distracted by the crowd? Would they be “gun shy” when it was time to perform? And what about “Oumak”? Would he work for me accordingly and lead this team as it was expected of him? Right now, these were all great unknown and today we would be testing the waters.

After registering and while waiting for the race to start, I let my dogs out so that they might get the opportunity to stretch their legs. From the way they were reacting, it became obvious that they were excited about the prospect of racing. I just couldn’t tell if it was because there were bunches of dog teams in the immediate vicinities or the crowd walking about but they seemed to be quite comfortable with the entire situation. While “Jacko” and “Sox” were enjoying being petted by passer-bys, the “Kid” was making sure that he got his share of the action. He was rolling on his back, trying to draw extra attention with his “look at me, I’m so cute” act. And to think that some folks out there badmouth him and consider him dangerous. As for “Oumak”, he knew what it was all about and was jumping and barking his head off, telling the other competitors that the “Mob” was in “town”. “JR”, well what can I say. He remained as he was, cool, calm and collected, waiting to get this show on the road. However and most surprisingly, was to see how “Irving” reacted. Where at the best of times, my tall and quiet “lanky guy” didn’t say much and just did his job, in this atmosphere, he had totally transformed. With this sparkle in his eyes, he was smiling and barking excitedly letting me know that he was the “Man” and he was in his element.

This really hit home when his previous owner showed up at my truck. “So, you’re the guy that ended with “Irving”, he said after introducing himself. “Where is he?” he inquired. Pointing towards him and thinking that it was kind of strange that he did not recognize him, I said, “He’s right there, next to you, sniffing your butt.” He looked at him and still not sure that it was the same dog, he went to reach over to touch him. Contrary to him, “Irving” remembered who he was. His ears immediately folded back on his head, he bore his teeth and started growling at the individual. This “Michel” character recognized this as a threat and cocked his fist to retaliate. Having heard of his track record and knowing that this was not the place to be airing out dirty laundry, I defused the situation by loudly yelling, “Irving! Behave!” This shocked both of them and they both backed off. Figuring out that hitting “my dog” might not be a good plan, the previous owner unfolded his fist and attempted to get on my good side by saying, “For some reason, me and that dog have never seen eye to eye.” “Yeah, sometimes, these things happen.” I continued. “You can’t get along with everybody.” However, what I really meant to say was “What do you expect, you “dick head” of a moron? You can’t beat up on an animal and expect it to respect you afterwards. Now get out of my face before I make this issue a real personal one.” No, this was not the place to set things right so I swallowed those words and made polite conversation to eventually find out that this dog had quite the vast and impressive racing portfolio. Noticing that I was not too receptive to his small talk, Michel started to feel quite uncomfortable and decided that it was better to leave matters be and simply said “Goodbye”. During all this time, “Irving” never let him out of his sight and with his hair straight up on his back, always kept an eye on him. I didn’t know if he would have taken this to the limit and would have bitten this guy but one thing was for sure. There was no love lost between the two of them. Walking over to the white dog, I brought him back to the “now reality” by talking him down. “It’s OK Buddy! It’s over. Nobody’s going to hurt you anymore.” After repeating this more than a few times and scratching him under his chin, he soon felt reassured and the smile came back.

“Hey Roger, isn’t that your friend over there?” somebody shouted out for everyone to hear. “Why don’t you go and say hello.” they continued, teasing this particular person. When I looked up to see what the fuss was all about, I recognized who they were talking to. By his nodding in my direction, he also recalled our past meeting but there was no way he would come and speak to me. Instead, he disappeared behind a parked vehicle, ensuring that he would avoid me. “Humm!” I asked myself. “Have you beaten up on dogs, lately, Roger? Hopefully not and if so remember what I said. Don’t do it in my presence.”

You see, I had come across that brute the previous year at another racing event. For some reason, this macho had the reputation of torturing animals and apparently got his “rocks off” by punching innocent dogs in the head. He had done this twice in front of me that day. The first time, I let it go as it was not my place to say anything. But on the second occasion, I came to realize that he was just showing off to his friends and that the poor helpless dog he was pounding on, didn’t deserve it and didn’t even belong to him. This sent my “spider senses” tingling and I decided that enough was enough. Finding the appropriate moment, I had gone to visit this individual. “It’s Roger, isn’t it?” I had asked. “Gino Roussel”, I continued, extending my hand. “Could I talk to you?” Putting my right arm around his shoulders, I casually guided him to the back side of somebody’s dog truck where it would be safe to have a private “conversation”. Having led my little “Napoleon” of a fool right where I wanted, I checked and made sure that nobody would be witness to the event. Grabbing him by the back of the neck, I seriously squeezed it with my right hand. I knew he could feel it as his knees were starting to buckle. “Roger,” I quietly whispered in his left ear, “I’m only going to say it once. If you ever touch another dog in my presence, I will personally break every bone in your body.” Making sure that he could feel the pain from the squeeze, I tightened my grip on his neck even more and shook him a few times. “Do you understand what I’m saying? I hope so because next time, it’s not going to be this pretty. Now, grab your stuff and get out of here. You’re done for today.” For some strange reason, this sadistic “prick” didn’t even offer any resistance or argument. He just nodded in agreement and acknowledged my request. We parted company with no further incident and just to make sure that he would not stick around, I went and reported him to the “Race Marshall”.

While tending to my dogs, that’s the incident I was revisiting in my head. Once in a while, I would gaze in his general direction and questioned if my “talk” had had any effect on this guy when some young cute little girl with a bright innocent smile and her father approached my location. “Look Daddy! That’s the man that rescues dogs!” she said excitedly, holding her father by the hand and pulling him towards me. “Come on, come on,” she commanded, “Let’s go and see him.” When she got to my dog trailer, she let go of him and dashed right over to the “Kid”. She reached over, grabbed him by the head and gave him a big hug as if they were long lost friends. As for my “bruiser” well he just took it all in stride, looking happy, as if he was rekindling old acquaintances. I was a bit puzzled by all this and just couldn’t make heads or tails of the whole situation. “So, you’re the guy that saves dogs, are you?” the father said. Not really knowing what to say and feeling more than a bit embarrassed, I snickered “Yeah, something like that.” “Boy, am I glad to finally meet you. We’ve been coming here for several years now, just so to see if “Julie” could meet you and your dogs again. I guess, you’ve made quite the impression on her as she keeps talking about the man who rescues dogs every time she sees sled dogs on TV or wherever.” After speaking with “Julie’s” dad for a while, I finally found out that I had met her way back then when I first ran this race. He explained that since then she had developed a sincere fondness towards animals and if it had simply been up to her, she would continue adopting a whole bunch of critters. At the moment she owned two dogs, one cat, seven hamsters, a parrot and a whole slew of fishes. For her age, at nine years old, she was quite responsible with the taking care of all of them but there were limits. The house was just not big enough to run a “Zoo”, the father joked. Meanwhile, this little girl went around and was visiting all my dogs, asking a whole bunch of questions. They were coming so fast and furious that I wasn’t getting a chance to answer most of them. When it came to the subject matter of “Mr Tibb’s” status, she could not comprehend the concept that he was retired and had been left behind at the barn. I supplied her with some sort of explanation as to why he was not running anymore but I could tell that she was disappointed with not seeing him. So, trying to make things right, I suggested that her father bring her to “Baisley Lodges” and visit with all my dogs. This seemed to satisfy the cause and on that note, at her father’s insistence, she left. And this, just in time as my number was coming up real soon and I hadn’t even started “dressing” the dogs.

There was no panic to be had and we managed to get ready with more than a few minutes to spare. Hitched to the sled that was tied to the back of the trailer, they were jumping up and down and slamming forward in their harness. They were raring to go and putting on a quite the show for the crowd. Usually, this would not have sat well with me as I expected them to behave and conserve their energy before taking off but what the hell. This was their moment. They had worked hard all winter and they deserved to take in this euphoria. This was fine till someone grabbed me by my right sleeve and yanked on it to get my attention. “The dogs are pulling your truck.” he shouted over the noise of barking dogs. Sensing that something was not right but not being able to put my finger on it, I hadn’t noticed that we were moving, dragging the “Dog Buggy” with us. Someone was coming with a piece of wood to jam the back wheels of the “Suzuki” but this proved to be not necessary. It was our turn to attend the starting chute so I pulled my snug line and we were off. I called for “JR” and “Oumak” to ease trail and they slowly entered the staging area. I called for them to stay and like real pros, the entire team did. Proudly standing on the runners with the brakes on, I was impressed as to how they were behaving. Not intimidated at all by what was happening around them, they seemed to be focused on one thing and one thing only. They wanted to race. We crept up to the starting line and faced the countdown. Ten (10) seconds went by and “uptrail”, we were off. “Humm” I pondered, “that went without a hitch. Now let’s sit down and enjoy the ride.” While I crouched down real low, to cut the wind resistance, I whistled to the team to pick up the pace. They did but “JR” was holding back. He didn’t understand why after training so long to gradually ease into a running speed, we were today doing a completely different thing. He couldn’t comprehend why all of a sudden I was asking him to “open the machine” so early in a run. I whistled again and he finally responded, putting it in “high gear”. The team answered accordingly and we were off, leaving this “rooster tail” of flying snow through the curves. In the last corner, I pushed the envelope and never considered using my brake. I trusted it and my “Lanteigne” sled just hug that corner as if it was a train on rails. Seeing the time clock approach at quite the clip, I knew it was over and I had to take control of the team. “Easy guys, easy!” I called to them. There was no way they would ease off. As far as they were concerned, we had just started and it was too early to call it a day. Braking as hard as I could, I had to slow them down. We were going for a second turn and this was not in the “cards”. I managed to reduce our speed so I called for a right turn. “Oumak”, “JR”, Gee, gee turn.” Without hesitation, they turned into the staging area and passed uncomfortably too close to the other team waiting to go out on the track. It was a bit too fast for my liking but I aimed and squeezed my sled by them without “checking the other driver into the boards”. Half worried, half laughing, I happily shouted, “Stay you guys, stay!” To my great satisfaction, they did. “Good job, boys, good job. Now, let’s go home.” With that behind us, we made our way back to my truck where they were entitled to a well deserved congratulatory hug, some water and of course a good serving of Fran’s liver treats.

“You’ve got quite the team there. Real potential!” he said. Knowing that the compliment was being directed towards the “Mob”, I looked and noticed that this “jockey size” of a man was standing by my two leaders. “Yeah, they are.” I confirmed, continuing to take “Jacko’s” harness off. “And for their first race together, they made out all right.”

I had never met him before but recognized him and knew of his reputation. Ed Pelletier was a sprint racer from way back then who had been mushing for over 35 years. To have drawn his attention and for him to make such a remark sort of struck my fancy a bit. This competitor from southern New-Brunswick was as much a professional racer as you would meet in Eastern Canada and had always played to win. I hadn’t needed to ask as I knew he had won this event, hands down. However, I was starting to suspect that something might be up when he just came out and popped the question. “Would this guy be for sale by any chance?” I had been too busy trying to get the dogs in their boxes and out of the cold, to stop what I was doing. However, the fact that he might be interested in buying “Oumak” really drew my attention. So I turned around and was about to say “No” when to my surprise, I realized that he was not talking about my “gray wolf” but rather my “JR”. Looking at him hold my white leader by the head, I could tell that he had a genuine interest but that the dog was not comfortable by all the attention he was receiving. “JR” had this anguished expression that said “Oh no, you don’t plan on getting rid of me, are you?” To reassure and make things right with him, I walked over, bent down and called him over. He immediately came, reaffirming to this individual that me and him were an item. “I can’t say that the thought of getting rid of him ever crossed my mind.” I answered. “As a matter of fact, none of my dogs would be for sale. We’ve worked too hard to get to this point to start thinking about parting company.” I confirmed. “Too bad,” he pushed, “I’d pay top dollar for a dog like him. He’s got these rare qualities that you only find once in one’s life time. He’s intelligent and his behavior commands the respect needed to lead the other team members.” I knew I had a good leader but to have it confirmed by somebody who knew dogs, really made my day. “Yeah, he’s a good boy.” I said, fussing over him, “I’m lucky that he’s part of the team.” Seeing that there was no sense in trying to convince me, he changed subject and started talking about my sled. “You could cut a few seconds off if you changed your “freighter” for a lighter sprint sled. What does that thing weigh, 45 lbs?” He was more than likely correct in his assumption but this was not the reason I had participated that afternoon so while emphasizing on its origin, I rebutted, “Well, for what I do, my “Lanteigne” suits me just fine. I just came here today to give the “Boyz” some starting chute experience. Besides, I have a hard time justifying paying $2000.00 for one of these “high tech” jobbies, pointing to an adjacent carbon fiber contraption. I’m more of a go out there and do my own thing traditionalist.” “Yeah, it’s nice to hold on to certain values but you got to keep up with the times if you want to stay competitive. The racing world has changed a lot since I started this sport, centuries ago.” he added. Before leaving, Ed Pelletier winked and said, “You can’t stay in the dark ages, Gino. You got to move on. Oh by the way, good luck with your season.”

After attending the closing ceremonies where I eventually checked my timing, I was driving home, feeling quite satisfied as to how the dogs had performed. To my surprise, we had come in 4:26 seconds behind the winner and ended in sixth place. Finally, I was seeing positive results. All the training we had put in over the last two years was starting to really pay off. And like “Martha Stewart” would have said, “That’s a good thing.”

Peace on Earth to one and all. And Remember, collectively, we can make a difference.


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