The Longest Race
A 250-mile dogsled race around northern Aroostook County tests the spirits and bodies of mushers and their dogs.
By Paul Koenig // Photography by Michael D. Wilson
A lead dog for Julie Albert, who placed second in the 2020 Can-Am Crown International Sled Dog Race’s 30-mile event.
Ashley Patterson is clanging two frozen clips together with her bare hands so she can hook her dogs’ harnesses to the sled’s tow line. Spread out across a bank parking lot and a side street off Fort Kent’s downtown are dozens of dogsled teams connected to trailers, intermittent barks starting cascades of howls and yelps among the teams awaiting their start times. The mushers, dogs, and race volunteers have all been out here since early this morning, when the temperature just crested over zero. As dogs stomp the ground and jump in place, a cloud of frozen breath and kicked-up snow surrounds each animal.
Once at the starting line, Patterson leans down on one knee and puts hands on her two lead dogs, Mango and Pet. “It’s OK, it’s OK,” she says, trying to calm Pet, a one-and-a-half-year-old that has never raced before. The two lead dogs are critical to a team; they set the pace and direction. As mushers say, you can’t push rope. If a dog doesn’t want to pull, you’re not going anywhere.
It’s late February 2020, and over loudspeakers an announcer introduces Senator Susan Collins, who counts down from ten as Patterson returns to the sled, petting her dogs on her way by. Four men holding the sled’s runners down with their feet step back, and Patterson is off. The dogs’ paws pound the snow as they run along the fenced-in starting chute down Main Street, a wall of cheering and clapping spectators on either side.
Soon the thrum of the crowd and the sound of barking dogs fade, and it’s just Patterson and her team. By the time she reaches the first checkpoint in Portage, nearly eight hours and 68 miles later, it’s dark and the temperature is close to single digits, and plummeting. After a veterinarian checks the dogs, Patterson puts coats on them, gives them food and water, and lays them down on straw bedding to sleep. The Can-Am Crown International Sled Dog Race’s 250-mile trek around northern Aroostook County, a qualifier for the 1,000-mile Iditarod across Alaska, requires that dogs rest at least 17 cumulative hours at the four checkpoints. The mushers themselves aren’t required to rest, and Patterson won’t sleep much more than an hour and a half during this more-than-two-day marathon.
Patterson and her husband, Mark, who is competing in the 100-mile race, live in Shirley, just south of Greenville and more than a four-hour drive from Fort Kent. They’re both Registered Maine Guides and operate moose and wildlife tours in the warmer months and dogsled tours in the winter. Patterson, 35, has been training sled dogs since she was 12 and had a team of nine dogs by the time she was 14. She says no one thing or person led her to embracing this passion; as a kid she just wanted to train a team of sled dogs. “I was the weird kid who came home from school and went to sleep in the doghouse with the dogs,” Patterson says.
She first raced in the Can-Am in 2003 at age 18, and finished fourth. At the time, she was the youngest competitor and highest-placing female musher in the race’s history. Patterson has raced in nearly every Can-Am since then, never finishing better than fourth, and most often in fourth or fifth place. In 2019 she missed out on fourth by three seconds. With Martin Massicotte, a record ten-time winner and the Can-Am’s top musher for six consecutive years, not racing as he prepares for the Iditarod, this year may be Patterson’s best chance to crack the top three.
Mushers check in the day before the race at Lonesome Pine Trails, a small ski mountain in Fort Kent and the location of the 250-mile finish line. If you’ve never seen a dogsled race, you may be picturing teams of Siberian huskies—those regal thick-coated dogs that look like they would be on the cover of a Disney movie about dogsledding. But there’s a range of dog breeds at the Can-Am. The most popular sled dog is the Alaskan husky, a mixed-breed animal that has been bred specifically for pulling (“It’s a mutt with a pedigree,” Mark says). They’re leaner and vary more in appearance than a Siberian husky. The Pattersons have only Alaskan huskies, but the Lonesome Pine parking lot has teams with Siberians, hounds, pointers, and more, all waiting to be inspected by veterinarians. Olivier Giasson, a musher from Quebec City competing in the 100-mile race, is with his wife, Marie Eve, their son, and a team of Siberians and photogenic French spaniels in bright-red jackets.
Most mushers arrive in pickup trucks, with their sleds atop the trucks and their dogs towed behind in trailers, but Hannah Lucas, a 21-year-old musher with blue- and pink-streaked hair jetting out below her Pikachu hat, brought her team of Siberian huskies in a Jeep SUV. The 2019 Can-Am was her first race, and she hopes to build her way up to the 100-mile and 250-mile competitions after racing in the 30-miler again. She used to train her huskies for dog shows and moved from Virginia to Caribou to focus on dogsledding. “People would say, ‘Oh your dog can prance around a ring, but can it pull a sled?’ And I was like, ‘Well, let’s find out,’” Lucas says. Since starting to race her dogs, she’s felt closer to them. “It’s like they trust me more in decision-making and following my commands out there. It’s like a different level of respect,” Lucas says. “The energy they give off when we’re hooking them up to the sled, I’ve never seen them happier, not even for food.”
Any dog owner will tell you that the animals have individual personalities, but mushers need to understand the personalities more intimately in order to build a cohesive team. It’s a complicated jigsaw puzzle of evaluating the dogs’ traits and abilities, and testing different combinations to find out where in the towing line and next to which animal each dog runs its best. Since Patterson has spent hours and hours riding behind them, she knows every detail about her dogs, from their gaits to whether their ears flop to one side or the other. “I’m not really a mother because I’ve never had kids, but you’re around dogs just as much as you would be around kids you’re raising,” she says. “You’re looking at each one as an individual. I can remember every dog we’ve ever raised or sold.” To develop her lineup, she considers the dogs’ personalities, age, familial lineage, sex, and whether they’ve been neutered or spayed. Some dogs are more sensitive to their running partners, while others can run next to anyone. An older dog like Mango, one of Patterson’s leads for this Can-Am, can keep a younger dog from acting out. You can tell if a dog is too far up in the line if it looks sideways or back as it’s running. If it’s too far back, it may keep looking above the dogs ahead of it.
During the week before the Can-Am weekend, Ashley and Mark gather and pack all of the supplies she will need over the three days she’ll be racing. The supplies, including food for her and the dogs, are placed at the four checkpoints throughout the race. For the dogs, she brings blocks of frozen meat that Mark cut with a band saw into different shapes and sizes. Frozen chicken skins look like a bar of soap you may see at a farmers’ market; a combination called the Champaine diet that includes beef, liver, and corn oil is cut into cubes; and a mixture of water and meat to help hydrate the dogs is shaped into thin bars that they call biscottis. The different shapes serve two purposes: when Patterson is sleep-deprived late in a race, she can grab the right food without thinking too much, and the dogs are more likely to eat something if it’s presented in an appealing shape.
First row (left to right): Hannah Lucas, 19th in 30-mile race; Tara Crossman, 25th in 30-mile race and the youngest female racer; Lea Allen, 12th in 30-mile race; Matthew Black, 11th in 30-mile race; Noemie Crevier, 10th in 30-mile race.
Second row: Sean de Wolski, 8th in 30-mile race; Marilou Bastiani, 7th in 30-mile race; Neil Fisher, 6th in 30-mile race; Sara Levesque, 5th in 30-mile race; Alexander Therriault, 3rd in 30-mile race.
Third row: Rico Portalatin, 1st in 30-mile race; Lara Renner, 11th in 100-mile race; Melanie Tremblay, 10th in 100-mile race; Becki Tucker, 8th in 100-mile race; Tristan Laforce, 7th in 100-mile race.
Fourth row: Bailey Vitello, 5th in 100-mile race; Eric Chagnon, 4th in 100-mile race; Mark Patterson, 3rd in 100-mile race; Nathan Gratton, 2nd in 100-mile race; Sally Manikian, 1st in 100-mile race.
After training runs, Ashley and Mark prepare straw beds for the dogs next to their truck and go through the feeding routine, so the dogs will eat, drink, and rest when they’re in a race. If a dog doesn’t hydrate enough, it will try to eat snow as it runs, potentially injuring itself or its running partner by lunging to the side for fresh powder. If an animal is injured during the race, the musher has to put it in a bag and carry it at least to the next checkpoint, where veterinarians inspect every dog to ensure it’s fit for completing the race.
About 150 miles into Patterson’s race, just after she leaves the third checkpoint at the Maibec logging camp, she sees another racer coming toward her in the opposite direction and “bawling her eyes out.” Patterson says that the musher’s lead dog stopped wanting to pull, likely because she had been pushing it too hard immediately after resting. “Emotions get in the way sometimes when you’re racing to win it, and you’re pushing, pushing, pushing, pushing, pushing, and not recognizing when your limit has been met,” Patterson says. “Honestly, that’s why I’m never trying to win it. I’m always just trying to make sure we finish good, because I’ve seen a lot of people do what I just described. One hundred fifty miles into it, they think they’ve got a chance at winning it, and they just forget all about animals.”
Before leaving the final checkpoint in Allagash, Patterson installs new plastic sled runners, and discovers that the runners are about two feet too long for her sled. Because the plastic is so cold, she can’t put the old ones back on. She leaves with the long runners flapping behind, just before Tristan Longchamps, an 18-year-old musher from Quebec, departs the checkpoint. She looks back and notices that Longchamps, whose father, Andre, is a perennial top-three finisher, is just a couple minutes behind her. She can see the vapor coming from his panting dogs as the trees sparkle around her.
With 225 miles down and about 25 miles to go, Patterson turns on her GPS and starts paying attention to her dogs’ speed. She’s been averaging around seven miles per hour during the race, but on one stretch in the final leg, her GPS clocks 18 miles per hour. “That always gives me a smile,” Patterson later says. “Even after that long run, the dogs are still pumped up to go.” She ends up beating the younger Longchamps by more than ten minutes, securing another fourth-place finish.
A local TV station films her crossing the finish and interviews her after. Patterson’s red-faced and sleep-deprived but just as animated as ever. She says that her dogs smelled Fort Kent through the woods and knew they were heading home, and jokes that the race should start giving out plaques for fourth place. “It would be neat to have a plaque someday on the wall,” she says, “but I guess I’ve got to go faster or something.”