Saturday, February 23, 2008

A Day at the Races
I went up to Oquossoc today to cover the dog sled races. Oquossoc is a little town just the other side of Rangeley, and they were bringing back dog sled races for the first time in more than a decade. It was very much a grassroots project, as most things are hereabouts, and somehow they only ended up with six registrations, of which four dropped out for various reasons. Disappointing, but they had a good crowd and it was a no-pressure way to test the system. There will be more teams entered next year.

These dogs were from Lincoln, Maine, and obviously took a lot of interest in checking things out. We'll get back to that issue a little later.
If you've ever wondered how they get the dogs out of those little cages on the trucks, this is one method. Anthony, the more experienced of the two drivers, lifted each of his dogs out. Lee, who has only been racing a year, let his gang leap out. Note that these aren't terribly big dogs. I don't know that anyone races the huge Malemutes, but there were some near-sneers about purebred Siberians among the aficianados. "They photograph really well," one fellow said. Real sled dogs, as in the Jack London book, are whatever you find, crossed with whatever else you find to produce what you need.

When we had races in the Star Lake area in the early 1960s, there was a fellow running pointers, and that's become fairly common -- they're long-legged, muscular dogs who love to run. The race marshall told me that there was a guy running ridgebacks a few years back, and he was quite impressed with their pulling power, but of course they can't take the cold and are only good for sprints. But he said there was also a guy with a team of Irish setters who had a wonderful time and apparently did stand up pretty well to the elements. You wouldn't use them for the Iditarod, but there may be some short-haired dogs at Fort Kent next week in the 250-mile race there.
As you can see, these are hardly the half-wild dogs of the Jack London stories. The two kids are strangers to them, just a brother and sister who had come up for the races and came over to play with them before they got into harness. This is Anthony's team, the more experienced gang.
And they're experienced with kids, too. This is Anthony's daughter, Delia, helping to hand out the harnesses. Anthony would ask her to get the red harness for such-and-such a dog and she'd pull it out of the pile. She had the right color but wrong harness a few times, but considering I think she was about three, she's a pretty capable partner. Anthony told me he was an avid racer some years ago, but since he's had the kids, he has cut back on the time commitment. Now he runs a dog sled tourist business in town, giving people rides or letting them see how the dogs work, and, as he says, paying for his habit. Obviously, Delia has picked up Daddy's matter-of-fact affection for dogs.
Not a bad crowd, as Lee, the fellow from Lincoln, takes off with his team on the 40-mile course. The teams started two minutes apart, but it didn't take long for Anthony to add some distance.

The course went through the woods and then came out on Cupsuptic Lake. This is Anthony's team in the lead. The dogs were aware of us, as they came up on the small crowd that had jumped into cars and gone up to the lake to intercept the teams, but they kept charging along with a little encouragement from him to stay cool.

Lee's rookie team, however, was much more distracted by finding people out on the trail. You can see the ears going up and the lead dogs slowing down to have a look, despite Lee trying to keep them on task.
Too late. The dogs have totally lost focus now, and it took him some effort to get them back into the race. On the way from the starting point to the lake, I had come across Lee's team at a road crossing and he was having trouble getting them to take the turn up into the woods.

All that curiosity that was so cute in the first picture I posted was killing him in the race -- he needs to find, or develop, a pair of lead dogs who know what's going on and will keep their heads in the game.

Anthony's team finished the 40 miles in 3 hr. 20 min. 1 sec., Lee's team didn't come in until 4 hr. 44 min 13 sec. This would not have been as noticeable if there'd been 20 teams, but it certainly showed this day. However, everyone had a good time and Lee and his dogs will learn, and will be back.
I went back to town and stepped over to Koob's Garage, where I had seen this cartoon original on the wall a few months ago, but Mike Koob wasn't around and I still don't have the explanation. If you click on it, I think you can read the caption, which says "We did everything modern science could do, but there are some things we just haven't learned."

More to the point, you can read the signature "Booth" in the corner, and the fact that this appeared in the New Yorker in 1971. There is a story here and I let you know when I find out what it is. Rangeley is a popular place -- William Wegman, the weimeraner photographer, has been coming here since he was a young lad and has a place up here -- but what George Booth was doing in town I don't know.
On the way home, I stopped at Small's Falls, which I had photographed last fall. Getting there was a little more challenging this time, mostly climbing over a nine-foot snowbank at the road's edge. The falls are only a quarter of a mile or so from the road, and a few people had been there, so I was able to walk in their footprints, but that didn't make it an easy walk -- just a possible one. And so I got a cover shot for the next issue of the Rangeley Highlander, where the dog sled race story will appear, too.


Sherwood Harrington said...

I'm chagrined that on the very day I blogged about how dreary February is, you post these wonderful images! Beautiful; thank you.

Did the crowd stick around for the full 4 3/4 hours of the race? If so, how did they keep warm?

Oh, and I think I know what George Booth was doing in town: getting his car fixed.

Mike said...

It was very cold when the racers took off, but warmed up nicely by 10:30 or so. The common response to any whinging about snow or cold is "Well, you live in Maine ... " and people really do have realistic explanations. That said, there were a lot of people who left after the racers were off, and just said to others "call me when they're coming back." With reports being called in from the various checkpoints, you could know when they were half an hour or so out.

As for George Booth's automotive experience, I suspect it was a good one. My suspicion is that it was his drop-in, buy gas, shoot the breeze location during a vacation.

Brian Fies said...

You have the best job in the world of journalism.