St. John Valley Times - Wednesday, February 18, 2004

From pet dog owner to sled dog runner in one easy step

by Andrew Birden

ST. JOHN VALLEY- Ruth Pelletier is one of the few women who participates in the sport of dog sledding, a sport long dominated by men. Although she does not race, her experience, dedication, and grinning enthusiasm are vital to the safe conclusion of all the Can-Am races, including the grueling 250. On Sunday, she will join an elite group of people who will depart to remote checkpoints such as Allagash, Machais, and Maibec in order to coordinate the Can-Am 250.

Pelletier's assignment will be at the Allagash checkpoint, where mushers are required to stop and take a short rest.

"I'll arrive around noon, and I usually get to leave around noon on Tuesday. I guess I'll get about one hour of sleep," she says without boasting. Her duties will include tracking the mushers as they approach the Allagash checkpoint, insuring the mushers follow the rules of the race, and helping in the coordination of any rescue efforts, if the need arises.

Pelletier, age 51, started her mushing experience ten years ago.

Her daughter, Danielle, and her daughter's boyfriend purchased a dogsled team, and Pelletier volunteered her time to care for the animals.

"I always wanted to do something like this, but my mother wouldn't let me.

"She'd say, 'Girls don't do that.'

"Well, I said, 'if I can't do that, then my daughter could do it, and I kind of egged her on." After the breakup between Danielle and the boyfriend, Pelletier took over the dogs and began making the payments on them.

At the time, she had very little experience with actually using the dogs to pull a sled. She recalls the first time she attached the dogs to her sled. She intended to simply take the sled out to the soccer field near the University of Maine at Fort Kent. She estimates the distance was less than 100 feet. "I had one massive ball-tangle of dogs. I never made it to the field."

But Pelletier was not defeated. Instead, this self-proclaimed tomboy harnessed her energy and began to learn as much as she could about dog sledding. She says, "I bought all kinds of books and read up on it. The more I read, the more I went out (on the sled) and I'd say, 'Ahh, that's what they meant."'

She says it took her a long time to earn the respect of the lead dog, Zuke. "It was difficult with the dogs because I wasn't male, and I was green." Eventually she settled her differences with Zuke, and the team began to come together. She says of this early learning experience, that she forever remembers Zuke as The Teacher.

Eventually she began training her dogs during the summer months by using a wheeled rig.

"People would look at me so funny." .

She recalls a run-in with the local police chief, Kenneth Michaud. She was driving her wheeled rig, attached to the vast energy of 10 dogs, and sprinting down Pleasant Street one spring morning, when she heard a siren and saw the ominous flashing lights. She says with disbelief, "I got chased down by a police car and got stopped. Chief Michaud just warned me that the town was not liable if I got hit by a snowmobile."

But the snowmobiles rarely pose a danger, says Pelletier. She says many of the snowmobile drivers help her to cross streets by keeping an eye out for traffic as she guides her long team to safety.,

She has been riding her sled for over 10 years,' and many of her dogs are from the original team.

"'I do, miss having a young team," she says.

One of those dogs, Kiska, receives the special privilege of living in the, house because of a difficult skin condition. He greets visitors at the door, and welcomes them inside with a wagging tail and alert eyes.

In another story, Pelletier recalls becoming lost in a blizzard. The snow was coming down so thick, and the wind blowing so hard, she soon lost track of the trail. And when she looked behind, the parallel tracks of her runners, as dependable as her own shadow, had disappeared.

"Everything was covered, but I didn't panic.

"I trusted the dogs."

So she spoke to her team as if this were the most normal thing to do in the world, "Come on, guys, let's go home." .

Pelletier smiles as she remembers that day, then she adds, softly, "And they got me home."

This incident, and others, honed her experience, and forced her to remind herself, "Okay, Ruth, I'm not doing a little backyard run."

And she kept with it, spurred by the well-meaning restraint of her mother, and supported by the influence of her grandfather, Amie Labbe.

Asked why she doesn't race in the Can-Am, Pelletier replies, "I'm not competitive, so that saves me from all the machoness. The guys in Can-Am call me chicken."

She thinks men may have a small advantage handling the dogs because of their gender. Still it wasn't that hard to gain the, respect of her team. She says, however, when she is out on the trail and the snow is flying and her team is speeding across the cold powder making the wind roar in her ears and cut through the thick cloth of her coat, there is one thing a man has that she sometimes wishes she had: a beard.

But the youthful hair stylist laughs at this idea, and talks about why she really loves the sport.

Pelletier says she keeps with the dog sledding because she loves the snow, the feel of the Earth sliding beneath the runners of her sled, and the quiet beauty of the Maine woods.

These days, she doesn't take her aging team nearly as far as she used to. She says they have gotten to the point where they expect her to run behind the sled just as much as they run in front of the sled. But she still takes them out a few times a week, and heads out into the beckoning woods, maybe towards Portage, or maybe following the old trail bed to a path that takes her to Wheelock Lake.

"There's nothing prettier than being in the woods with the snow."