Mitch Michaud put his daughter Madeleine onto her first dog sled when she was so tiny she had to be strapped into a car seat on the front. Now, after six years of mushing, Madeleine knows the most important rule of all: don't let go.
"(I) just let my dogs run and stop when I need to stop," said Madeleine, who placed first in the three-mile race at the Al York Memorial Junior Musher Sled Dog Race on Saturday. "We bring our dogs to run just for fun."
The roar of airplanes taking off and landing at the Soldotna Municipal Airport did nothing to drown out the cacophony of barks, yelps and howls from sled dogs eager to hit the trail and kick off this year's Peninsula Winter Games. Most dog races may award cash prizes to its competitors, but at the Al York Memorial race, it's not about winning or losing.
Jane Fuerstenau, Madeleine's mother, said the race is organized so there's only one racer on a trail at one time. Other races make competitors start at two minute intervals, but not this one. A snowmachiner accompanies the child so he or she isn't alone on the trail and each competitor has to wait until the previous one crosses the finish line before taking off.
"This is the most relaxed dog race you'll see," Fuerstenau said. "It's not competitive."
Each competitor was categorized according to how many dogs he or she would race and how far each race was. For example, the race kicked off with a one-mile, one-dog run. Three kids competed in the three-mile race with three dogs and four teams competed in the four-mile race with four dogs. Each team would be presented with a medal after finishing each race.
While the more seasoned dogs used their downtime to rest, Madeleine's dogs Tashi, Sheba, Ranger and Zuma were eager to hit the trail. Fuerstenau said that's because the dogs haven't been used for competitive racing so they don't know they're supposed to rest.
"You can tell which ones are race dogs," she said. "(Our) dogs don't understand why we have sleds out."
Michaud said he's been the race organizer for approximately seven years now, but can remember when Al York organized the race before him. Many parents cheering their kids on Saturday were junior mushers themselves when York organized the race. Dan Musgrove, whose daughters Mallory and Morgan won second and third place, respectively, in the four-mile race, and Brenda Cameron, who cheered on her son Marshal, can remember when York taught them to build snow shelters and other outdoor skills when they were kids.
"I won a lot of races in that exact bib," Brenda Cameron told her son Marshal when his team skidded to a stop. Marshal Cameron finished first in the one-mile race and third in the three-mile race and said he did a good job, but his lead dog slowed him down. This is Marshal's first race, but Cameron said she can remember when she put him on the front of her sled at 1 year old.
"It's an insano sport," Cameron said, spooning a mixture of meat and water up for their dogs Zoro, Eva and Berry. After 15 years skijoring and 10 years on the back of a sled, Cameron said the two most important pieces of advice she can give her son is never let go of the sled and always make sure your dogs are OK. "(Marshal) can harness his own dogs now and hook them himself."
Other racers include Kim Trefon, who placed second in the one-mile race; Jode Sparks, who placed second in the three-mile race; Amelia McDonnell, who placed first in the four-mile race and her brother Royal who placed fourth in the four-mile race. Regardless of how they placed, most of the kids joined in a snowball fight as soon as the race was over.
"Getting outdoors in the winter months is a lot of fun," said Elizabeth Fournier, who came to cheer Marshal on. "(Whoever thought) hockey arenas were noisy has never been to a dog race."
Jessica Cejnar can be reached at email@example.com.
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