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Classic: Worst 30 Minutes of My Entire Life

“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?”

Updated Monday, August 11th, 2008

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3 Responses to Classic: Worst 30 Minutes of My Entire Life

  1. Needel, Sylvia December 30, 2008 at 2:26 pm #

    Awesome story!

  2. Georgianna Rodman December 30, 2008 at 6:53 pm #

    Captivating. Found myself out of breath racing along with Sobi.

  3. Kathy Beliveau April 26, 2009 at 10:08 am #

    Hi Mel,

    One of my children sent this to me, she was the baby you heard crying when you went to bed after the first day of racing! It was wonderful reliving that weekend in Maine. It really was a great story and one I repeat to people who say “Gee, racing must be fun!!!” It was fun, but like you mentioned, it could be 30 minutes of shear terror when things go wrong.

    Always enjoy reading Yankee Magazine! I send it to my far flung family to keep them in touch with how special New England is. Thanks, Kathy

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