Surry couple devoted to the care and training of sled dogs | Community News

by Anne Berleant

Tucked away on a long dirt road that winds its way to Toddy Pond, the sled dogs play outside. It’s not much fun training in the rain, at least for coaches Henry Owen and Renée McManus, so the team has the morning off.

The dogs, thick-haired and heavily muscled, don’t seem to care. Three of them, Montana, Mia and Ewok, rush from the garage into the fenced yard, squeeze through an opening into a second play area, then snuggle into McManus’ hand and climb up to the yurt that the couple calls home.

Inside, three other dogs are lying on pillows, a futon, a chair. Retired from racing, they are now house dogs.

“You can have a smart, strong dog, but if he doesn’t want [run], they won’t,” McManus said. Vinca, a domestic dog with gentle eyes and movements, dropped 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 shoot you 1,000 miles fastest.”

Sled dog breeders will also mix a small hound, for speed, and German Shepherd or Border Collie.

And a little wolf, said Owen. “Wolves have stronger bones and are less likely to get injured.”

Maine has a healthy sled dog racing subculture, in part 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 teamed up for a 14-year-old student from Mount Desert Island for the Can Am crown this year, they are not racers themselves.

“We’re really enjoying the training,” Owen said. “Racing is not what we are.”

The couple met for a love of sled dogs, with Owen training McManus to take up his position in a now-defunct youth and children’s sled dog program. This, despite the fact that they both attended Atlantic College 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. With no snow on the ground, they hitch the dogs to a golf cart and, with six to nine feet of rope for every two-dog team, push the dogs a little farther each training day. When one or more new dogs join the team, the whole team folds up to allow the new dogs to catch up.

“You have to build their forearm bones,” Owen said.

The couple ‘bait’ the dogs before the race with a mixture of water and chicken broth, and kibble and chicken giblets – “the bloodier the better”, Owen said – to keep them hydrated while ‘they maintain a three-day, one-off training schedule.

Dogs, said Owen and McManus, love to run.

“It’s crazy,” McManus said. “They get super excited when you hook them up. They just have a drive for them. They just want to go there.

Basically, sled dogs are draft animals, she explained. “They are sad when they are not working.”

It takes about 60 to 70 days to work a team up to a 30-mile race, the shortest race at sled dog racing events, Owen said, although an untrained Siberian husky “who never raced” can probably run 40 miles.

“A dog runs a mile in two minutes,” McManus said. “That’s how they cover the ground.”

Each member of the canine team can pull 75 to 100 pounds, fed a diet of “lots of raw meat and rice”, the couple said, and with snow on the ground can double their miles because the snow gives less resistance than a hard surface.

Owen and McManus hold jobs, he at Parker Ridge and she at Peninsula Metamorphic Arts and Learning, while tending to their youth sled dog organization Camp Vinca.

The after school program will bring kids and sled dogs together for cold weather races at the Blue Hill Fairgrounds, with students learning commands, gear and how to dress for the conditions.

The most important rule in dog sledding “is to never let go,” McManus said. “The scariest thing you can do while running is when you lose your team. I’ve definitely dropped my fair share of sleds.

“A dog isn’t going to stop for you,” Owen added.

More information about Camp Vinca on facebook.com/campvinca.

Bette C. Alvarado