Originally published in The Weekly Packet, December 10, 2015
Surry couple devoted to the care and training of sled dogs
by Anne Berleant
Tucked down a long dirt road that winds down to Toddy Pond, the sled dogs are at play outside. It’s not that much fun training in the rain, at least for trainers Henry Owen and Renée McManus, so the team has the morning off.
The dogs, thick-coated and heavily muscled, don’t seem to mind. Three of them, Montana, Mia and Ewok, dart from the garage into the fenced-in yard, sidle through an opening into a second play area, then nuzzle up to McManus’s hand and clamber up to the yurt that the couple calls home.
Inside, three more dogs lie on pillows, a futon, a chair. Retired from racing, they are now house dogs.
“You can have a smart, strong dog, but if they don’t want to [run], they’re not going to,” McManus said. Vinca, a house dog with gentle eyes and movements, flopped down beside her.
“Normally when people think of sled dogs they think of Siberian huskies,” McManus said. While Siberian huskies are “slow, but strong,” Alaskan huskies are the most consistent. “They’ll pull you the fastest over 1,000 miles.”
Sled dog breeders will also mix in a little hound, for speed, and some German shepherd or border collie.
And a little wolf, Owen said. “Wolves have tougher bones, and are less likely to get injuries.”
Maine has a healthy subculture of sled dog racing, partly because the Can Am Crown, held in Fort Kent, is the only qualifying race for the Iditarod on the east coast, Owen said. While McManus and Owen trained a team for a 14-year-old Mount Desert Island student for the Can Am Crown this year, they are not racers themselves.
“We really enjoy the training,” Owen said. “Racing isn’t what we’re about.”
The couple met over their love of sled dogs, with Owen training McManus to fill his position at a now-defunct youth and children sled dog program. This, despite the fact that they both attended College of the Atlantic at the same time without their paths crossing.
Now, they wake up at 5 a.m. and head with the dogs to Great Pond Mountain in Orland or Sunrise Trail in Ellsworth. Without snow on the ground, they harness the dogs to a golf cart, and, with six to nine feet of rope for each two-dog team, work the dogs a little farther each training day. When a new dog or dogs joins the team, the whole team winds back to allow the new dogs to catch up.
“You have to build the bones in their forearms,” Owen said.
The couple “baits” the dogs before the run with a mix of water and chicken stock, and kibbles and chicken giblets—“the bloodier the better,” Owen said—to keep them hydrated as they maintain a three-day-on, one-day-off training schedule.
The dogs, Owen and McManus said, love to run.
“It’s insane,” McManus said. “They’re super excited when you hook them up. They just have a drive to them. They just want to go.”
Basically, the sled dogs are draft animals, she explained. “They get sad when they’re not working.”
It takes about 60 to 70 days to work a team up to a 30-mile run, the shortest race at sled dog racing events, Owen said, although an untrained Siberian husky “who has never run” could probably go for 40 miles.
“A dog runs a mile in two minutes,” McManus said. “That’s how they cover ground.”
Each canine team member can pull 75 to 100 pounds, fueled by a diet of “a lot of raw meat, and rice,” the couple said, and with snow on the ground, can double their miles because snow gives less resistance than a hard surface.
Owen and McManus hold down jobs, he at Parker Ridge and she at Peninsula Metamorphic Arts and Learning, while nurturing their sled dog youth organization Camp Vinca.
The after school program will bring kids and sled dogs together for cold-weather runs at the Blue Hill Fairgrounds, with the students learning the commands, the gear and how to dress for the conditions.
The biggest rule in dog sledding “is never let go,” McManus said. “The scariest thing you can do on a run is when you lose your team. I’ve definitely tipped my fair share of sleds.”
“A dog isn’t going to stop for you,” Owen added.
More information on Camp Vinca is at facebook.com/campvinca.