Hitching a few older Iditarod veteran racing Alaskan huskies with younger ones for touring and training helps keep the young dogs focused, long-distance sled dog racer Krister Raasoch said Tuesday in Newry.

“We often put the older and experienced dogs in there to keep the young kids in line,” fellow dog sled driver Chase Tingle said.

That strategy paid off Monday for the pair and a couple of guests taking a backcountry ride at the Sunday River Outdoor Center.

“Yesterday we had a young dog up front training with an older guy, and a chipmunk ran across the trail,” Raasoch said, laughing.

“The younger dog wanted to take the team into the woods after the chipmunk, but the older, experienced guy kept her moving forward, and he pulled the team on down the trail.”

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ATVs and sled dogs

Long-distance sled dog racer Krister Raasoch of New Hampshire educated me  Tuesday about dog sledding at the Sunday River Outdoor Center in Newry.

“The first three rules are never let go, never let go and never let go,” Raasoch said. “It’s not so much that I’m worried about me getting stranded, like they’re just going to go faster in most cases because (the sled’s) lighter.”

If he lets go, a dog could trip, get tangled in the harness lines or sled, and get injured. That’s why it’s imperative to not let go.

“You can stop and fix them,” Raasoch said. “That’s probably my main job.”

But the hardest things are teaching sled dogs patience and how to stop.

To learn that, a team is hooked to a four-wheel all-terrain vehicle in autumn until snow falls and they’re switched to sleds, he said.

The ATV is heavier than the lightweight racing sleds and has brakes.

“The sled just has the little claw that goes in there, and when the dogs are all jazzed up, that’s not necessarily enough to stop them,” he said.

Reminiscing, he said he learned that key tip in his first year as he was about to head out on a run with his employer’s sled dogs.

“So I asked the boss, how do you get them to stop? and he said, ‘Oh, you’ve got to do that on the four-wheeler,’” Raasoch said.

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Sled dog loves deep freeze, kids

Shorty is a special 70-pound white Malamute sled dog from Minnesota that sometimes gets mistaken for a polar bear by small children.

Tethered to a picnic table after taking guests on two sled dog runs Tuesday in Newry, he lay sprawled on crusty snow, seemingly basking in the sun on the 27-degree day.

Owner and dog sled team trainer and touring guide Chase Tingle of Hanover, N.H., said Shorty is happiest when temperatures plummet well below zero and when children are nearby.

“He knows when it’s time to rest, and he takes advantage of it,” Tingle said. “He’s actually pretty fast, too, which is surprising. The happiest I’ve seen him was at 40 below. Crazy cold day, and he was just lying there in the sun. Hardest I’ve seen him pull, too. We went out on a run that day, and he was all excited.”

Such excitement was evident on Tuesday morning. Whenever a curious child neared, one eye would open for a peek and his tail would begin to wag.

“He’s not a great sled dog,” Tingle said. “Not the kind of dog that’s going to go out there and run 60 miles a day. He’s just a dog that likes to go out and have a good time and sleep.”

“He’s the one that little kids say, ‘Look at the bear!’ and come pet and snuggle with him. He’s great with kids.”

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Silent running

Don’t believe everything you see in the movies, especially when it involves dog sledding.

Having covered sled dog races in Farmington and Rangeley, I asked sled dog trainer and tour guide Chase Tingle on Tuesday in Newry if the dogs are noisy while running.

“In a lot of movies you’ll see sled dogs running and, if you watch very closely, you’ll see those dogs are not barking,” he said.

“They put the sound in. If you hear a dog barking out on the trail while they’re running, something’s going on.”

He said the dogs usually only bark right at the beginning of a run or when they stop.

“All they want to do is go, go, go,” Tingle said. “When they’re going, they’re getting what they want and they’re quiet.”

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Littered themes

Harry, Gimli, Chong, Art, Kar and Big Ben all have something interestingly unique in common.

Yes, they’re all Alaskan huskies from Nature’s Kennel Sled Dog Racing and Adventures in McMillan, Mich., and they’ve run the Iditarod in Alaska more than once.

But the semi-retired Alaskan huskies all share a similar birth-naming pattern.

For instance, Harry isn’t just Harry. His last name is Potter from J. K. Rowling’s hugely popular book series about the boy wizard.

“Most sledding litters have a theme to them, so like Harry Potter and Gimli are in the book characters’ litter, Gimli being the dwarf from (Tolkien’s) ‘Lord of the Rings,’” Krister Raasoch, their dog sled driver and trainer, said Tuesday in Newry.

Chong, the Donkey Kong stomp performer, is named for Tommy Chong and is from the Cheech and Chong litter. And Art, who along with Harry are Raasoch’s dogs, is a nickname.

“Art is short for artichoke,” Raasoch said.  “Artichoke’s litter is all fruits and vegetables.”

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Spring is precious

The first distinctive whiff of spring hasn’t arrived yet. But it’s pretty darn close.

The chickadees are changing their song from the typical chick-a-dee-dee-dee, to the call of a phoebe.

Although it’s still a couple of months before the lilac buds will swell, and the nights are often still below zero, the woodpeckers, jays and crows are pairing up, and the sun rises higher and higher each day.

Daylight hours are nearly two hours longer now than they were at the winter solstice in December. Seed catalogs are coming in by the droves, and the hardware and department stores are filled with garden gloves, tillers, trimmers, lawn mowers, spades and every conceivable type of tool.

It’s a sure sign that this long winter will certainly come to an end.

Once schoolchildren return to classes after the winter vacation, it’s all downhill until summer. The month of March will pass in a flash. Seedlings may be started on the windowsills, growing until the time they can be planted in the ground. The inside of the house will get a good cleaning, and the outdoor yard and driveway will be cleaned of the winter’s accumulation of whatever got buried by the snow.

Mud season will come and go, then the black flies, and suddenly, we’ll be complaining about the hot weather.

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