The Waldo County brothers in their ‘happy place’ train and race sled dogs
Seventeen-year-old Caleb Hayes and 15-year-old Christian Hayes have an unusual high school hobby: they train and race sled dog teams. And for these brothers, the colder and snowier it is, the better.
“It’s where I like to be the most. You know how people have their happy place? This happy place is moving,” said Caleb Hayes, who will race next month’s 100-mile event at the Can-Am Crown International Sled Dog Race. “At night, I like to turn off my headlamp. It’s really dark, but you can still see the moonlight hitting the dogs. I think it’s just crazy beautiful.
Being on the trail with the dogs, even at night or in freezing temperatures, makes the Belfast-area high schooler and his brother, a freshman, happy. And more than that, it teaches them important life lessons about perseverance and dedication.
They come by their passion thanks to their father, Jonathan Nathaniel Hayes, who owns and operates Poland Spring Seppala Kennels in the Aroostook County village of St. David. The Seppala Siberian Sleddogs that their father raises and trains are a rare working dog breed that excels at pulling a sled in cold weather. The dogs are all descended from the famous sled dog Togo and the heroic team that led Leonhard Seppala 261 miles in bad weather to carry life-saving antitoxin to the people of Nome, Alaska during a diphtheria epidemic in 1925 .
The Hayes brothers are proud to continue on the path their father blazed, training the dogs and themselves diligently and seeking experience as young competitors on the sled dog circuit. They live with their mother in Northport, but every other weekend and during school holidays they head north to spend time with their father and the dogs.
“Watching these boys take the initiative, set these tough goals, and then do the tedious work – countless hours and countless miles in sub-zero temperatures during the harshest months northern Maine has to offer – makes me very proud to be called their father,” said Jonathan Nathaniel Hayes.
In 2020, the two brothers competed in the Can-Am 30, a shorter race with a team of six dogs. Last year, all international Can-Am Crown sled dog races were canceled due to the pandemic. But this year, the brothers are eager to test their mettle against other competitors.
Christian Hayes is not racing the Can-Am this year, but will be racing the Moosehead Lake Area 100 Mile Wilderness Sled Dog Race this weekend. He signed up for the 35-mile race, which starts and ends in Greenville and involves a team of eight dogs.
“I’m extremely excited,” he said. “I really hope to do well. I would love to get in the top five and I really hope the dogs do extremely well.
Sled dog racing has physical, practical and psychological elements. The brothers run a lot so that they can go out and help the dogs if, for example, there is a steep slope in front of them.
“I’m just trying to run. I try to do a mile in under seven minutes,” said Caleb Hayes. “I’m trying to do this and build my stamina, so I’m ready for that. I know I have to be as ready as the dogs.
They need to wear the right gear to stay warm enough even in the coldest conditions. Having really good gloves and warm boots is essential, as is wearing plenty of layers of non-cotton clothing like wool, as well as a warm hat and face mask.
“The cold literally takes your breath away,” said Caleb Hayes. “I think the coldest he’s ever had was minus 29 degrees. It’s getting really crazy.
And that also plays into the psychological preparation. Dog sledding is a tough business that can push people out of their comfort zone. When Caleb Hayes was 10 or 11 years old, he was afraid of the dark and the cold. One night, his father woke him and his older brother, Asa Hayes, so they could go on a night run.
“I was scared to do it,” Caleb Hayes said.
He and his brother were in the same sled, but he still felt lonely and scared.
“So Asa said, ‘Hey, look, look at this. He turned off his light. It was snowing at the time. We were between the trees and it was amazingly beautiful,” said Caleb Hayes. “All I remember is looking at the dogs and thinking, ‘I’m not alone.’ I started to feel warmer inside, and my fear of darkness kind of disappeared.
Christian Hayes said he learned a lot from racing and training sled dogs. In times of stress, when he’s been out and the dogs also seem tired, it’s important to take a break, he said.
“You can give them a few minutes, praise them, hug them and cuddle them,” he said. “Once they’re ready, they’ll let you know. They will jump, push and pull the sled. It’s awesome.
There’s a life lesson in that.
” Do not abandon. Take a break instead,” he said.
Both brothers hope to continue dog sledding as a hobby for a long time to come.
“It’s pretty much a sport my brother and I have played our whole lives,” Christian Hayes said. “Where we run dogs in sub-zero temperatures and have lots of fun in nature.”