Classic: Worst 30 Minutes of My Entire Life
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.