Spectators standing along the starting line at the Musher’s Bowl at Five Field Farms in South Bridgton Saturday morning said this is their favorite part: watching the excitement of the dogs right before the starting gun.
Minutes before a race, the dogs are straining at their leads, jumping and barking wildly. When given the cue to go, they take off, their legs pumping madly, kicking up snow as they run. They look nearly airborne.
About 30 minutes and more than 4 miles later, the teams are pushing up the last hill to the finish line. The dogs and mushers are fatigued, but no less enthused.
This year the event was a non-competitive “fun run,” rather than a race, due to poor snow conditions on the trails. Cash prizes were awarded to all participants in the race. Twenty teams entered the weekend’s various events, which ranged from skijoring (in which skiers are pulled by a single or team of dogs) to sled races featuring up to six dogs.
Tom Gyger, who owns Five Fields Farms and sponsors the event, said there were more than 200 attendees during the weekend.
Thomas Carroll, a junior at Windham High School, has been training and racing with his dogs for four or five years, he said. Readying the dogs to race is a lot of work, requiring not only physical training, but teaching the dogs to respond to a number of commands, including “haw” for left and “gee” for right.
Carroll said he has been racing with his lead dog, Dakota, since he began racing.
Many families are involved in the races, including the Carrolls. Thomas’ mother, Charlotte Carroll, is the secretary for the Down East Sled Dog Club, which puts on the race. His grandmother, Shirley Fields, organized the concessions provided by the South Bridgton Congregational Church.
The teen was inspired to try mushing when, attending the Musher’s Bowl several years ago, he “wondered if Dakota could do that,” Charlotte Carroll said. After the race ended, he borrowed equipment and went out on the trail. He’s been training with his dogs since then.
Thomas Carroll said despite the excitement and freneticism at the beginning of the race, his favorite part of mushing with the dogs is “the calm out on the trail.”
Mike Friedman, whom the race announcer described as a “local hero” as he rounded the end of the course, also competed in the four-dog sled race.
Friedman said he “caught the bug” after watching the Iditarod in 1994, and was inspired to start training dogs.
Several years later, Friedman had a six-dog sled team. He mushes recreationally, as “a way to get out into the backwoods.” Friedman said some people go to the gym for exercise, but he prefers to hit the trails with his dogs.
Friedman has been organizing the Musher’s Bowl since 2003. He said he enjoys the race because, unlike the Iditarod, which is held mostly on lakes far from civilization, the trails at Five Field Farms allow spectators to see the dogs at many different points during the race.
A few steps away from the finish line, mushers and spectators were warming up in a heated barn. The attendees mingled, talked and laughed with one another. Carroll said a lot of people come regularly to the mushing events, and many of them know each other.
Tina Granitsas, a photographer from Bridgton, said she came just to photograph the event. Granitsas said she liked capturing the action and the beauty of the dogs.
Granitsas is originally from Europe, so for her the event was a novelty.
Gyger said the event started at Five Fields Farm 10 years ago, although the mushing tradition dates back to the 1940s. His farm has 750 acres of land for trails.
Gyger said he likes the sport because it allows spectators “to get right up close with the competitors. In most sports, there’s a fence between you.”
Mike Friedman, a “local hero,” coming up the last hill to finish the four-dog sled race. A lead dog anticipates racing action at last Saturday’s Musher’s Bowl.With the crowd watching, Jake Turner taking off at the six-dog sled race.