Thursday, April 30, 2009


Under the “General Rules” of the race, it is written –
“The spirit of this race dictates that drivers be self-sufficient. Therefore drivers should not help each other except to ensure safety and animal welfare. A driver will not be penalized for helping another driver whose life is endangered or for helping to recover a lost team.”
“A lost team will not be disqualified if the driver regains control, provided that the entire race course is covered by both team and driver. A driver may accept help from another driver in recovering his/her team without penalty.” Unquote.
A musher traveling at a speed too fast for trail conditions, crashes and looses his team and is left stranded in the woods.
A second driver, comes upon this person walking along and hitchhiking for a ride. He stops, picks him up and they continue on, both riding on the same sled.
About a mile and a half further, they come across the lost team. The snow hook fell from the sled and managed to claw its way into the snow, thus holding the dogs back. The happy and lucky driver thanks the person for the lift and they both carry on to the finish line.

The situation concludes where, the rescued driver has a faster timing than the rescuer, thus ends up with a larger portion of the purse money. The questions are - Is this fair and if you were in their shoes, what would you have done.
I’ll let you think about this one and we’ll get back to it later…

So it was the day after St-Pamphile and when I walked to the barn, the dogs weren’t as spry as normal and from the looks of things, I think they would have rather wanted to skip breakfast and keep on sleeping in the comfort of their own bed. The “Kid” had this bummed out look on his face that said it all. “Would you mind not making so much ruckus?” “Oh excuse me, there Buds! I’ll try to make it fast.” I could easily catch the drift of that message and that was all right by me. They deserved the three days off that they would be getting. But this was not a courtesy call. The drive back had been longer than anticipated and just like the trip out there, some of the dogs had been sick. Pile on top of that the fact that they had eaten very little if nothing in the last 24 hours and guess what? I had a situation where I had a dehydration problem and I needed to address this issue immediately. I let them all out and while he was doing his “cocking of the leg” thing, I could see “Sox’s” rib cage stick out and this did not really inspire confidence. The little trooper was skinny at the best of times and he was in a state where he had melted way past that comfortable level. My other white yearling had that “Ranger Rick” sunken cheek look that really emphasized his nickname “Jacko the Psycho”. When you pinch the skin in the back of the neck, raise it then let it go, it’s supposed to spring back to its original position almost instantly. If the skin doesn’t respond in this manner and takes its time to recover then it’s an indication that you have a dehydrated animal. The longer it takes to recover, the more serious the problem is. All, except for “Irving” and “Vixen” had failed this test miserably and I had to get them back up to speed. The concern was not necessarily attributed to the CAN-AM races that were now in less than two weeks but rather to the welfare of the animals. My “guys” had given it their best and it was my job to take care of them.

They wouldn’t drink their “tuna” baited water nor would they eat their “chicken and rice” soup. OK then, we had to come up with an alternative strategy. “So how are the dogs this morning?” Fran inquired soon after at the “Bunkhouse” after doing her round of feeding her stray cats. “I don’t think they’re in the best of shape.” I answered to then continue, “I checked the trailer and there’s vomit in most of the boxes. We need to get some water in them and this in a hurry.” “Well, we could always serve them cottage cheese for a couple of days. It’ full of proteins and has lots of humidity in it, so it might be a start.” she suggested. I thought about that for a few seconds and agreed with her. We would try to boost them with such an extravaganza. She went to town, bought ten (10) pounds of the dairy product and I fed it to them, first only cottage cheese then mixing it with their “Ol’Roy” professional dog food. It should be noted that yes I do buy the Wal-Mart brand because it is cheaper but also because it’s an excellent product that is “Made in Canada”. Within three days, they were back to eating normally and drinking their water. Once again, my native friend “Leonard” had been right when he had said, “When they’re overtired, they’ll take care of their fundamental needs first, that being getting enough rest and strength so to be able to fight off possible predators. When they’re strong enough, then they’ll go out and find food. I guess that basic survival instinct that their wild cousins, the wolves and the coyotes live by, is still entrenched in the domesticated canines and this after living with man for thousands of years.

It is amazing how tough these animals are and it is really astonishing how fast they can bounce back. The day after their “rest and relaxation”, we were back on the trail and again “doing it”. I could tell that they were eager to hit the trail but could also see that even though their hearts were into it, their bodies had not fully recovered. We were out for a twenty-five mile run and it didn’t take long for them to slow down to their “10 mph” comfortable trot. It was still a good clip but one that we would normally settle in at the fifteen (15) mile mark and not at the five mile (5) one. Looking at the “gang line” go from taunt to slack, in an up and down “snake like” motion, this was a sure sign that they weren’t pulling together. I guess the high mileage that I had asked of them was taking its toll and at this late point in the season, it was way past the “try to encourage them” stage. There was no sense in nagging at them to give me more. This was it. That’s all they had and I would have to accept these limitations. Strong and powerful, I knew I could depend on them and wasn’t afraid to go anywhere with the “Boyz”. They had proven that they could do the job on more than a few occasions during the winter and I was proud of them. Through thick and thin, warm and cold, they had gone and done what I asked of them, without ever caving in. That type of loyalty, to me, was simply remarkable. However, common sense dictated that I would have to look after the dogs and consider my options. I was faced with many factors and some adjustment needed to be done.

The dark side of this racing game made it that if you wanted to stay ahead, you had to make a lot of compromises. In my case, I was no different. I had concentrated my efforts at preparing the “A” team and had run them through a heavy duty schedule. On the other side of the coin, the rest of the “family” had been neglected and left on the back burner. Every time I walked out of the barn, leaving the girls behind, I was reminded of this constantly and could feel this guilt trip come over me. Hearing “Gidget” bark and scream “not to go without her”, was a real ball breaker for me. One has to remember that the window of opportunity to enjoy your time with a team of the “same” sleddogs stands at the best, five years. Oh for sure, they’re going to be around longer than that but when you consider that their first year, is a development period, well that brings them at six years old if you go by the five year guideline. And at that age (equivalent to a 65 year old person), for an animal that runs an average of one thousand miles a year, it makes it that the body is well used if not abused and quite tired. I had planned to go exploring far away places and do fun winter camping trips with my dogs and I guess that’s why, I had an expedition team of twelve of them in the barn. However, with all the training, the girls were just sitting idle and vegetating. The season was again on its way to a conclusion and we had not done half the things we wanted to do. Also, that particular stint in St-Pamphile had made me realize that the new generation of racers were a completely separate kettle of fish and were totally different from what I remembered way back then when I used to dabble with the addiction. Where five years ago, my timing of 03:15:55 would have been considered a more than respectable time, it was now considered quite average as dog teams were clocking winning times in the ranges of 0:2:15:00. Where 30 mile races were then considered mid-distances, they were now raced like sprint events. Where at one point, you’d have to sometimes put on your snowshoes and “break trail” for your dogs, this was no longer required as the folks that put out these events made sure that the trails were properly groomed and hard packed. The traditional “Malamutes”, “Seppalas” and “Siberian Huskies”, although still around, had been sort of pushed to the side to make room for the “bred for racing Heinz 57 cocktails” of dogs. Most definitely, these were a lot faster but I had a hard time with the concept of having to put a winter jacket on a dog before going out. In a not so distant future, the “1150 mile Iditarod race” in Alaska would once again prove that these Arctic type working sled dogs were “Kings of the North”. An incident happened where a team of these short haired fast runners, was caught in a blizzard and extreme cold. From the information available, it is said that while the musher had to be rescued and evacuated, three of his dogs had perished during the ordeal. It kind of sets the tone and says a lot about “dependability” under harsh winter conditions, doesn’t it?

Anyway, this was the dilemma I was facing. I knew that the odds were stacked against us and that most likely we had no business in an event of such magnitude. We just didn’t seem to fit this so-called “new generation” profile. I was gambling rather I prayed that the weather would be on our side. For most of this winter, we had trained in deep soft snow and would only stand a chance of doing well if there was to be, oh let’s say, four (4) to six (6) inches of fresh white stuff. However, if it was to be iced packed trails, well the chances of winning would dwindle as fast as the life expectancy of a “snowball in hell”. Nonetheless, I had made a commitment and would see it to the end. I knew the dogs were tired and that I would be asking a lot of them but I was adamant about seeing this adventure through. The fundamental question had still not been answered and the inquiring mind needed to know. Right now, I was full of reasons as to why I was doing this but two main issues kept resurfacing and running through my mind. The first one, enjoying the limelight of being associated with the racing community was a possibility but not the main reason.. I had passed that period in my life where I needed to show my narcissistic side. Getting that free buzz from the “Adrenaline” rush might also have some merit but that was something that I could get anywhere in my own backyard, doing my own thing. As some of you old faithful readers might recall, I’m the guy that gets attacked by “bears” or goes walking on thin ice just to get the “fix”. No, for the life of me, I just couldn’t put my finger on it. It didn’t matter, we were on the final countdown and we would participate in the CAN-AM but not without making some serious adjustments. Instead of thinking of winning this at all cost, we would devote our energy towards accomplishing two main goals. We would try to finish and most importantly, we would enjoy ourselves. In the spirit of this new vision, along with the mandatory equipment, I would also bring along one single can of baked beans. If at one point I felt that the dogs had just about had enough, I would simply find a place to camp on the side of the trail, flip the sled on its side and eat my cold beans while they rested. There was no pressing matter waiting for me back in Fort-Kent and I didn’t know if I’d ever get the chance to come back and explore this beautiful part of Northern Maine. Besides, wasn’t there a “Red Lantern” prize for the last place? The thought of bringing that home had potential so it was decided. When we’d get there, we’d take the time to take in the scenery. Oh, just like the rest of you, I would have loved to see the story end with me winning the race and saving the farm but life has a strange way of being most unpredictable so better make the best of it while you can. That’s my philosophy anyway.

Busy with clients who had taken time to really enjoy themselves over an extended vacation of two weeks, the waiting period was soon over and it was time to finally write that final exam. I was left with a glimmer of hope when on that Friday, the day of registration, instead of the forecasted snow, we received rain and lots of it. In Fort-Kent, over ninety mushers had amassed in the “Lonesome Pine Ski Lodge” parking lot to go through the “Vet Checks”. Watching all these veterinarians trying to make their way through the parked trucks, slip sliding away, was the first suggestion that she was going to be a fast one. When the chilly wind picked up from the north and started to freeze all that slush, this confirmed it all. Be prepared to run icy conditions where furious paces will be kept. “Not to worry”, I thought to myself, “we still have home ice advantage and the skis on my trusty sled can carve through the stuff like a knife through butter.” I went through the process of having my animals examined and was complimented as to their well-being. A negative point that she brought was the fact that some of them might have long nails. “Studded tires, my dear,” I rebutted, “when traveling on icy road conditions, you need studded tires. After some more inoffensive flirting with the cute vet and to the disbelief of my guest, Catherine, we headed back home, happy that the worst part was over with.

The day of the big event soon arrived and I hadn’t needed the alarm clock to wake me up, that’s for sure. I was all prepared and ready to go so when I headed out to the “Bunkhouse”, it was to see what the trail conditions would be. My suspicions were confirmed. They would be close to glare ice. Hearing Fran walk and curse through the darkness dragging her ski pole, amplified the statement that anybody racing this thing today, was crazy. That was one thing I was hoping for. Maybe some of the other competitors might just “choke” seeing what we would run on. “Slow down, there Buddy.” I commanded myself almost getting my hopes up. “You’re being lured into that false sense of reality again. Just make sure that you take care of the dogs. You wouldn’t want one of them to slide on the ice and injure himself now, would you?” Yeah, I was right. The adrenaline was already making its way through my veins and I needed to talk and bring myself back to the true focus of the mission. “You will go out there and you will enjoy. On command, the dogs didn’t waste any time to jump in for the ride and I got behind the steering wheel with my designated handler, Fran by my side with the thermos of the now baptized and dreaded “Jim Morton, not for Timmys” coffee. Driving with one hand and slurping the java with the other, I was just wondering when the last time was, me and my wife had gone out and spent the entire day together. It actually was nice to share the moment with her. Of all the people that had helped me prepare for this undertaking, she was the one that had mostly earned the “jump seat” next to me. Not only had she painstakingly prepared all these “exotic” dog meals during the last twelve weeks, she had stuck by me throughout all this time even during my worst hours. If there was to be some euphoria to be shared in this story, she was the one that was the most deserving. Besides, she kind of looked good with her red coat and “fake fur hat”. Yes folks, authentic acrylic fake fur. What did you expect from an animal rights advocator, mink?

It was around 0615 hrs, Saturday, 28 February 09 when we returned to Fort-Kent. This was it, I was here. Looking at that banner, I had to swallow hard because I was getting a lump in my throat. I just couldn’t believe that I was going to finally run the “CAN-AM CROWN International Sled Dog Races”. This popular event had been put on for the last seventeen (17) years and the volunteers could attest that they had reached the highest level of professionalism. Just like Swiss Clock makers, they swiftly directed us to the marshalling area and this in a most efficient and precise manner. Like usual and I guess it’s a force of habit, I was way too early and by the time I was ready, the other participants were just starting to pull in. The overnight chilly conditions had turned to frigid cold and judging by the accumulated ice on the asphalt, she was going to be treacherous out on the trail. I had lots of time to kill so while Fran retreated to the warmth of the heater in the truck, I decided to go for a walk and size up the competition. There were some big names out here today and amongst the racers there were professionals like “Diane Marquis”, the “top dog” of the Quebec Circuit. Although she had the fastest dogs and was considered as a “shoe in” to win this event, she personally still had certain apprehensions. Over the last three years, she had never won and had always managed to finish second. As she would put it, it was as if there was this “jinx” hanging over her head, in Fort-Kent. To make matters worse, her nemesis and arch rival, Geneviève Telmosse, was also part of the mêlée. From the same province, she was also a fast runner who had proved on several occasions throughout the season that she could outperform Marquis. Although very “politically correct” towards each other, there was no love lost between them. These two ladies were most competitive and had used different somewhat devious strategies to get here. I was amazed as to how far ahead they had planned their “mind games” of psyching each other out. Oh the spirit of competition… Then there was this “hot shot” by the name of “Rico Portalatin” who appeared out of nowhere last year and became an instant sensation. Apparently backed by “Big Bucks”, he was pegged as being the next “Great White American Hope.” You have to understand that there has been this particular rivalry between our two countries that has been standing since there were dog races way back then in the 1920s’. While the Americans raced the traditional sleddogs, their poorer Canadian cousins ran any dogs that they could put their hands on. While the sport was viewed as prestigious and reserved for the rich and famous of the American East Coast, the Canadians used their dogs in the winter as a “cheaper than a horse” mode of travel. Also, they were a common country sight as they were used on many farms so to help out with chores such as hauling dairy products and firewood. Because of these daily workouts, these “dammed Quebec Racing Hounds” were strong as bulls and as fast as jackrabbits. For a stint there, they had the upper hand but it didn’t take long for our neighbors from down south to catch on and they also started to do their own cross breeding. Today’s racing world reflected this evolution. These made to order genetically modified animals had become big business and if you had the “right name” attached to it, some of the prices for one single dog could stand at amounts exceeding over $5000.00. Walking amongst all those modern “state of the art” light sprint sleds with their stretched out fancy ganglines was a further reminder of where I was and sort of emphasized the fact that “I wasn’t in Kansas anymore” and that I might just be maybe out of my league. When you consider that my entire team (sled and harnesses included) is valued at approximately $900.00, well it paints a pretty good picture of what I’m talking about. Add to that all the other serious contenders, veterans and rookies from all over the two countries and this made it that you had all the ingredients to make this the best 30 mile race on the Eastern Seaboard.

Another interesting fact is that while mushing is considered a tough “macho” sport, it is not reserved to that specific gender. Rather it is one of a rare few sports where women can actually battle it out against men and this in the same arena. There is to be no discrimination once one gets on those runners as both sexes know quite well the efforts it took to get there and treat each other equally. All can relate to the same pain and suffering associated with those long cold and lonely training runs. All had to make certain choices and sacrifice some other personal aspects of their lives. Yeah, these women deserve the right to be there and let’s face it. They are just as smart if not smarter and can be just as brutal as any of their male counterparts, except they might want to wear some perfume and add a bit of sugar-coating to the recipe. This event was a true example that strongly amplified this notion as more than half the field was of the female persuasion. So to respond to the eventual comments that were to be made by some of you non-mushers, I can only say that “Yes, I did get beaten by eight (8) women, but the simple fact remains that I got beaten by better teams. And for that I raise my hat to them.

I was tending to my dogs, asking them if they were ready to “rock and roll” when I heard somebody say, “Excuse me, Sir?” To answer my visitor, I turned around and noticed that it was the young guy from Ontario. “You wouldn’t happen to have an extra mirror? he politely asked. “I seem to have lost mine.” he added. “I don’t but I’m sure my wife does in that big purse of hers.” I answered and on that note it didn’t take long for him to have the item. I walked back with him and while killing time at his truck, I found out that this “Shane Cox” had driven all the way from Marmora, Ontario just to race this thing. A few of the other mushers had also gathered at the same spot by now and were teasing one another. I was enjoying this confident and cocky attitude that some of them had and I’ve got to admit, of the six drivers standing there, I was the “senior citizen” of the bunch and could have been the father to anyone of them. I knew where this conversation was going so I was getting well prepared to receive the volleys. “So, don’t you think you’re kind of old to be here?” one asked. “Those dogs of yours, aren’t they kind of big? That big black one, is he going to be able to make it past the bridge (talking about the International Border Crossing, maybe one mile up the road)?” The digs just kept on coming. I was aware that it was all done in good fun but what they didn’t know was that I have been known to be able to also dish it out. “Well guys, I’m not here for the glory but rather for the scenery. I might not have the fastest team but one that will get me across the finish line. The big bruiser over there, that’s the “Kid”. He’s the enforcer. I brought him along for two simple reasons. First, if you’re running alligators (dogs that bite), he’ll take care of them. Secondly, when you go by me out there today, you best be very polite and call for the “Trail”, otherwise I don’t know what can happen. He’s very unpredictable and loves to chew other sledders’ ganglines. “No problems,” “Shane Cox” piped up, “mine is made of aviation cables.” “Even better,” I concluded, “he loves those. He’s got jaws of steel.” Just so that they would get a real sense of what I was talking about, I gambled and yelled out, “Kid, gangline.” To this he stood straight up, growled then barked. I could have said “Kid you’re mother is an umbrella” or anything just as stupid and he would have responded in the same manner. While walking away, I was smiling within. I had laid it on pretty thick and knew by the puzzled stares on their faces that they were wondering if I was serious or not. “When you’re weak, make them think you’re strong…” I had just about reached my dog trailer when I just had to get the last word in. I turned towards the younger mushers, pointed to the “Kid” and winked at them, “By the way boys, Good Luck! And remember be careful out there.”

It was within one hour till go time when my entire family showed up to wish me luck. My mother, my three sisters, some of their kids, my aunt, her son and wife and their three sons (who by the way want to be mushers), Richard my friend and right-hand man, not to forget Catherine and Eric, all were crowded in the back of my dog trailer. When you’ve got fifteen mushers with their kits laid out, all doing their own thing in a small parking lot, it tends to be crowded on the onset. Put my fun loving, party going, boisterous and loud family smack in the middle of this, stepping and tangling some of their ganglines and it tends to rock the boat a bit. Don’t get me wrong, I was agreeably surprised and more than flattered to have my own cheering section. However when while talking to a complete stranger (we’re a friendly bunch, we are), my sister Josée accidentally rubbed against Telmosse’s sled and “this one” pushed it back oh maybe three (3) inches to its original position while glaring at her, I was getting the message that the Roussel Clan might just be too bubbly for this early in the morning. I gathered them together through hugs and kisses and directed them towards the starting line.

I was going about my business of dressing my team of “misfits” (a term of endearment I had for the guys I served with in Bosnia) when I noticed these two women standing way back there across the street pointing towards me. This had been going on for a while till one of them eventually made her way to my location and engaged me in a conversation. “You’re that Gino character, aren’t you?” she found the courage to say. “Yeah, that’s me.” I said, not really knowing where this was going. “You’re the guy that protects dogs, aren’t you?” she hesitantly continued. “Yeah, something like that.” I answered getting a bit tired of hearing different versions of the rumor. Tired or not I wasn’t prepared to hear the information that she was going to provide me and I guess I was a bit floored by it. “You see that white truck over there, the one with the matching box trailer (for obvious reasons I will not identify the individual), well not only does he beat up on his dogs constantly but he beats up on his wife.” she said disgustedly. “She’s my sister and I’d really appreciate it if somewhere down the trail, you’d fix his clock.” I didn’t know what to say but knew that I was in the States and that kind of trouble would most likely end up with me in jail. Best correlate the information and save it for future reference. I had recognized the musher from a previous race and by pure coincidence, someone else had mentioned something about the mistreatment of his animals. The thought of what I’d want to do to this “gentleman” sent shiver down my spine and provided me with an extra boost of adrenaline. This caused my “combative personality” to resurface and put me in that “zone” where every thing non-relevant is put to the side and you concentrate on the job. There was not much I could do for the battered lady other than provide some caring words. “I’m really sorry about that but I can’t really do anything about that right now. I’m sure she knows that there’s agencies that take care of this. Has she talked to the police? They’d be in a better position to help.” I just didn’t know what to say. I sure as hell wasn’t going to go and beat up the guy (although I wanted to). “She’s gone through all those procedures and more. But you don’t understand, she’s stuck there with that asshole.” she exploded. “Yeah but I’m sorry but it’s not really my business.” I concluded. She knew I was right so conceded, wishing me luck, then left and rejoined her sister.

I was running that “breaking his legs” scenario through my head and wasn’t really paying attention as to what was going on around me. When I came back to the task at hand, it was time to hook up the dogs and go. They were ready so the driver also needed to be. Some might say that it quite noisy but to a dog lover like myself, it was a symphony. Picture fifteen (15) teams in a semi-circle, ninety (90) excited dogs jumping and barking and you know what? Not only did this chaos calm me down and bring me back to earth, a pair of sunglasses would have been nice just about now as I couldn’t hold back the tears of joy. My “Mob” was being just as unruly as the rest of them and to say the least, had thrown the “good order and discipline” out the window. I didn’t care. It was my day but it was their moment. They had earned the privilege to show the rest of the world what the “Canadian Snow Hounds” were all about. When the three handlers came to escort us, them and Fran tried to hold the team back but this was not to happen. The dogs were pulling too hard and they couldn’t hold them back on the frozen surface. Standing with both feet on my claw brake, I was only carving two lines in the ice. The situation was getting out of hand so I decided that “I” would run the team and not the other way around like they had done in St-Pamphile. “JR”, “Oumak”, stay!” I belted out. “Stay.” They didn’t hesitate and did what they were told. “Now that I’ve got your attention, “Haw, Haw trail.” With that we turned left and headed towards the starting chute, easing forward, waiting for our turn to launch. This didn’t take long and after the “Ready, Uptrail” commands we were gone, headed out of town, to the cheering and applauding of the huge, more than 5000 strong, crowd. This didn’t fizz me. I was more impressed as to the way my entire team was responding to all this noise and activity around them. They weren’t intimidated by this whatsoever and were concentrating on the task at hand. Like true champions, my two leaders took us all the way down Main Street. While “JR” set the pace to the desired speed, “Oumak” guided us through the twists and curves, passed a whole bunch of intersections, all the way to the snowmobile trail. From the way he was reacting, it was obvious that my gray wolf remembered being down this path before. When we got onto that straight and flat segment of abandoned train tracks, it seemed that the weight of the entire world had been lifted off my shoulders. What I had worried about all the time during the preparation stages, had gone without a single snag. Getting out of “Dodge City” without incident had been marked way up there at the top of the priority list. This had been done so might as well relax and enjoy the ride. I could see dot sized participants in the distance, mushers that had departed ahead of us. The dogs had also noticed them and started to augment their speed and play their “let’s chase and victimize that team” game. I was attempting to slow them down when I noticed that my sled was jerking out of control from side to side. I couldn’t comprehend what was going on but eventually remembered that the last time it did this it had to do with my brake. I looked down and to my great disappointment, I confirmed my suspicion. “Shit!” was the only word I could muster. “Not again.” Oh yes again. One of the two aluminum claws had broken off. It had happened once before early during the training season and knew that I might as well get used to it, the journey would be a long one. There was no way that I could properly control the “Lanteigne” at high speeds especially on this type of icy surface. The claws of the brake were mounted in such a fashion that when you applied pressure, they grabbed to the surface evenly. To have only one piece of brake mounted to one side of the sled made it that when you used it, it pulled the front of the sled in that direction. And to think that the night before so to reduce weight, I had the brilliant idea of removing my drag pad (a secondary brake). Oh well, my “Made in China” boots would be used to slow me down, just as long as the soles held out. So here we were, at the beginning of this trip already with a handicap. The boot method wasn’t working too “shit hot” and we were running at a speed that was too fast for my likings. The dot in front soon grew to the size of a dog team and I called for the “Trail”. No problems, we just went by them and continued on like real pros. “Good job you guys.” I congratulated them, “Good job.”

The one thing that I don’t like about the Fort-Kent event is that the course is designed, where we have to share almost a quarter of the distance with snowmobiles. When I saw their headlamps and the snow dust blowing from the back of the machines, I was some glad that I wasn’t in the process of passing that other team. I will admit that the trail is wide enough but when these gas guzzling beasts ride two abreast at speeds exceeding 60 mph and coming in your direction, it tends to make you wonder what’s going to happen. When I met with those four machines, they didn’t even attempt to slow down. Confident or not, I was still worried of what might have happened if for some reason my dogs would have veered in their pathway. I couldn’t figure out as to where these guys were going in such a hurry. When I met up with her further down the trail, I didn’t know what had happened but recognized that this young girl was in deep trouble. She was sitting on the ground, half panicked/half crying, in this large pool of blood with a couple of dogs still dripping blood acutely. Seeing “Jillian Perron” sitting there in the middle of the trail covered in the red stuff, I thought for sure that her team had been run over and initially, I thought for sure that those snowmobilers were running away from the scene of an accident. Without hesitation, I told my team to “Stay”, planted my snow hook firmly and went over to render assistance. I asked her if she was all right and she said “yes” through volumes of tears. I knew she wasn’t and that she was just too proud to ask for assistance so I went about and assessed the situation. Here she was holding on to her two leaders by their tug lines wrapped deep in her bent left elbow while she had a good grip to the rest of the team with her right hand. Her two leaders just kept on pulling and wanted to go while her team dogs were being choked as their necklines were wrapped around their necks and she was pulling on them. As for the two wheel dogs, well they were in sad shape and needed some serious medical attention. Without hesitation, I pulled some spare rope from my pocket while I retrieved my knife. I pulled her two leaders back, releasing the pressure and cut the tangled lines from around the dogs’ necks. I fabricated/knitted an emergency gangline and ensured that the animals were safe. I talked to Jillian for a few minutes and noticed that she wasn’t hurt so asked if she was going to be all right to which she nodded “yes”. I walked to the back of her sled and made sure that her snow hook was well anchored then went back to mine. “I think you’ll be OK. Make sure you look after those two. I’ll go and see if I can’t find some help.” I told her pointing at the wounded ones. With that, I whistled and we uptrailed. Sitting there, playing cards on the trail, was not one of my ambitions of the day and besides, I needed to get to the next check point and make sure that she and her dogs would be looked after. I soon met with a volunteer and stopped. I told him about the incident and I found it strange that he didn’t know about it already. She had been the second musher out of the chute and I was the seventh. So, technically five participants should have gone by her. Add to that the two that passed us while I was helping her and you’d think he’d know about it. So why hadn’t anybody else stopped to help or at least report the mishap? Well, I guess when you’re in “racing mode”, nothing else matters. Yeah but where’s the sportsmanship in this?

So we carried on tackling the ever so challenging mountainous terrain of the Allagash backwoods. Whatever they had said about this region, they were right. The place offered great steep upclimbs as well as deep ravines and was simply beautiful. For me and the dogs, we were in our element and enjoying the ride. There was to be a slight glitch when we came to where the 30 miler divides away from the longer races. As far as “Oumak” was concerned, he remembered that you had to go left and was adamant that he would turn there to continue his route down that trail. “No “Oumak” we’re not running the 60 this year. We’ve got to go Haw. Haw trail, buddy, Haw trail.” There was no way he’d cooperate. He had it imprinted in his mind that this was the way to go. I was starting to think that it might be possible that he wanted to follow Sylvain, his previous owner. They had turned here earlier this morning. That was a distinct possibility so I called to my white dog to lead the way. “JR” Haw trail, Haw.” He knew what I wanted and made sure that “Oumak” would follow suit. “Snap” he tugged on the neckline, jerking his neck sideways so to point him in the right direction. “Oumak” had gotten the message and we were back on the right trail. We were moving right along and when we got to the log cabin (midway check point), we had managed to pass three other teams. We had made up for some serious time through those hilly sections and were looking good. Back on another snowmobile trail, we started to faulter. It was sheer ice and my broken brake was making it hard to steer thus decided to slow down. I was glad that I was using my sled as the edges of the skis were doing what they designed for. They were stopping us from sliding sideways in these inclines. Then the faster racers came along and passed us. They seemed to be not deterred by the conditions. As it would turn out, most of them would eventually skid out of control, kiss trees and as for my friend “Johanne Cloutier”, she would lose her team. “Hey Gino.” I heard my name being called. “Is it safe to pass?” I turned around and here was “Shane Cox” behind me and asking for the trail. “Yeah, it’s OK. Come on ahead.” “What about the “Kid”? Is he going to let me by?” I started laughing. He more than obviously thought that I was serious earlier that morning. “Don’t worry about a thing.” I reassured him while motioning to come. “Just to make sure that a doubt still existed, I ordered “Kid, behave.” There was no reason to do this other than to play “mind games” with the young man but what the hell, I was giving him his change back from the morning’s ribbing. He came along and asked how many riders were ahead. “Oh maybe, six or seven.” I guesstimated. “How’s your run?” he asked while slowing down and traveling alongside me. “So far, so good but I’ve got no brake.” I said pointing to the defective thing. “Humm, could be a bitch.” he assessed. “Yeah, well don’t worry about me, we’ll make out all right. Now get up there and make us proud. It’s a bunch of women in front.” I said just to motivate him. With that, he whistled (got to love those guys that can do this) and he was off. He was way faster than us but then again, he maybe tipped the scale at a whole 150 lbs. That didn’t matter. Him passing us like that would provide my dogs the incentive they needed to push on. It worked and we were back at a clip that ranged in the 12 mph. It was too fast and the “Kid” was mumbling while I was fighting with my sled trying to keep it on the trail.
We turned left onto a “dog trail” and I was some glad. Although hard packed, it had only been used by dog teams and we didn’t have to fight the ruts left behind by snowmobiles. Still moving at a fair clip, I wasn’t aware that disaster was lurking around the corner. I was excited with the prospect that we only had less than ten (10) miles and had not noticed what lied ahead in the trail till it was too late. “Bang”, he fell down like a ton of bricks. “What the Fuck?” I said in alarm, seeing “Oumak” on his side, being dragged by “JR”. “What happened?” When I looked at the trail, I instantly realized what the problem was. Without me noticing (I was bent over my steering bow and trying to catch my breath), we had entered an area full of deep frozen moose tracks. He had stepped in one and had tripped. From the looks of it, it could be serious so I called for the team to “Stay”, again planted my snow hook and tended to my wounded dog. “Are you all right, buddy?” I asked, kneeling down and grabbing his head. Seeing him there, panting with his left front leg stiff as a rod and shaking, I could see where the injury was. I gently felt it up and down and from his moaning, I diagnosed that nothing was broken but that he had pulled something in his shoulder. I pressed on the area and rotated the leg from front to back and up and down and by his reaction, I could tell that he was in serious pain. While I was trying to keep him in that prone position, he was trying to get up so to continue. “Relax Mac, Relax. I got a feeling that it’s time to open that can of beans.” I told him and the rest of the team. By the stares they were giving me, it was without a doubt, certain that they were concerned about his well-being. “He’s going to be all right. We’ll just sit here for a while, get re-organized and then move on.” I was about to throw the towel in when I decided that I’d bag “Oumak” and continue on with five dogs. I put him in my basket, hooked “Sox” in lead and attempted to carry on. “Uptrail” I asked, “Let’s go, Uptrail.” Nothing, they just sat there in silence, staring behind at me and “Oumak”. “Let’s go guys, Uptrail.” I told them again, starting to get impatient. Still nothing. “Come on you guys, we can’t stay here all day. Let’s go!” “Calm down, Gino, calm down.” I thought to myself, “You’re not helping matters.” While they refused to move, “Oumak” was struggling trying to get out of the sled bag. He wiggled and jiggled so much that his efforts were rewarded and he managed to get out of his “straight jacket”. He shook himself off and with his tail straight in the air, he walked to the front of the team and squeezed right in between “JR” and “Sox”. The rest of the team started barking and banging in their harnesses as if to say, “We started this together, we’re going to finish this together.” The message was clear. “Oumak” had earned his position in the team and we were going nowhere without him. “Do you figure you can make it, Buddy?” I asked him while patting his smiling face. “Are you going to be able go all the way?” You know, when they say that they understand what we’re talking about, I’m convinced that it’s true. I think it’s a matter for us humans to understand “dog language”. When I asked him these questions, he leaned down on his front paws, rolled around on his back, got up and barked, as to say “Let’s go, we don’t want to be late for supper.” I repositioned him in lead, put “Sox” back to his original place and walked back to my sled and this in a hurry. They had pulled the anchor out and were going without me. Shoulder to shoulder, my two leaders leaned into each other. “Oumak” was definitely hurt and was limping and I guess this was a way to relieve the pressure. “Kid?” I said to my big bruiser. “I guess me and you are going to have to carry the extra load.” Yeah, they understand. He got the message and put in that 150% that I knew he could give me. I wasn’t too keen on continuing on as I didn’t know how much damage had been done to his shoulder. I was just hoping that this letting him carry on would not aggravate his injury and make it permanent.

Five, four, three, two, one. Those last miles seemed like they would never end. We were limping along at a “snail’s pace” and were passed by many other racers. It didn’t matter. I just wanted to make it back. My “Oumak” needed to put his feet up and so did the rest of the team. When we got to last 1000 feet, we were at the top of the ski hill. As it was sheer ice, I didn’t plan to “downhill” it. I applied the brakes and slowed us down but the incline kept pulling us to the left towards an area where patrons of the place had set up a ski jump. From the tracks that I could see, most of the contestants had ended up there and I knew if I also did, I would be penalized on my time. With the Finish Line in the other direction, my sister “Michelle” was standing by the jump and whistled in an effort to coax my dogs to go the right way. I got the drift of her signaling but I couldn’t help it, we were sliding and heading to face the same predicament. Almost in desperation, I yelled “Oumak, Gee Trail, Gee Trail, Buddy.”

Yeah, we didn’t win anything but the sight was a thing of beauty. He reached down his very soul and went way past that threshold of pain. He was going to show me why I had paid so much money for him. He was going to show the rest of the world that he belonged to and deserved the privilege of being called a “Canadian Snow Hound”. He pulled us to safety and guided us across that Finish Line and this in real style. To see them prance along towards it, I couldn’t help but think as to how proud I was of my “Boyz”. We had accomplished what we had set out to do. “Heads high, shoulders back. Be proud.” I whispered to them. “You’ve earned the right to parade in front of this crowd and show off who you are. You did your best and earned the right to now be called “Veterans of the CAN-AM”. And that “Gents” is something that no matter what, they’ll never be able to take that away from you.

The next day at the ceremonial banquet, I received quite the ovation for helping that young girl in distress. They had overly exaggerated my exploits and to my embarrassment, they made me to be a “hero”. From the amount of applauds that I received compared to the winners of the events, the people had sent the message that “winning at all cost” was not necessarily what this sport was all about. Getting a cheque for first place kept you in dog food for a couple of months, while showing compassion to a fellow musher would earn you the respect of that community. This was further brought into focus when after the brunch I was headed out the door to go back when I was accosted by an older man who introduced himself as a close friend of the “Perron” family. He thanked me for my kind gesture and asked me to go outside with him. I followed him to his truck where Paul Boudreau, Marc Allain and a few other mushers were standing. He reached into one of the dog boxes and retrieved a beautiful red Siberian Racing Husky. “He’s a great dog,” the elder gentleman said, “but I’ve got too many and I’d like to give him to you because I know you’ll give him a good home. I can recognize a real “dog man” when I see one and you’re one of us. So please do accept this as a token of our appreciation.” The offer was more than attractive but taking him would mean that I would have to sideline one of my guys and most likely, the “Kid” would be demoted to the “B” team. This was not in the cards for now so I came up with a bunch of excuses as to why I couldn’t take possession of such a fine specimen. “Don’t worry about it, one of the Quebec mushers said, “I’ll smuggle it across for you.” “You’ll have a much faster team.” this “Allain” fellow kept insisting. This was true but the drama of always chasing this faster team would always be there whether I took it or not and I wasn’t prepared to sacrifice any member of my “Mob” just to have the glory of a better standing at a race. We had done our best with what we had and as far as I’m concerned, the present “wedding arrangements” were quite satisfying. So as tempting as it was, I simply declined, saying “Sorry Folks but I just can’t. Besides, I’ve got a secret weapon back home. His name is “Leonard, the devil child” and get ready, he’s one of those “spirit dogs”. Watch out next year because we’ll be back and we won’t be coming for a “walk in the park”.

It was nice to have been acknowledged in such a fashion but if you recall at the beginning of this story, we opened up with a question and it is only fitting that another act of kindness be recognized. There is this other unsung hero by the name of “Shane Cox” who also decided that the welfare of a fellow musher was more important than racing. He’s the individual that picked up that other stranded musher and helped that person retrieve the lost team. Two things happened here. “Shane” never reported the incident and left the choice to that other person to disqualify herself. This never materialized and if this young man would not have stopped, the outcomes in the standings would have been different. Isn’t it just amazing as to how the “dark side” of racing can suck you in and test your integrity? As far as I’m concerned, this “Shane Cox” deserves to receive at least this honorary mention simply because he showed true signs of a caring person. And for that “my friend” I dedicate this story to you and invite you to pop in anytime at “Baisley Lodges” for a cup of coffee. In my books, you’re one of those good guys that wears the “white hat” in those cowboy movies and those “Boyz” are always welcomed to share “My Slice of Heaven”.

Well, it’s been a pleasure sharing this time with you throughout the winter. There’s still one more chapter that needs to be written but I’ll leave it at that for now.
Later Folks…

Peace on Earth to one and all. And remember, together we can make a difference.

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