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

Can-Am sled dog races: A Wolf in the running

by Mary Jo Shafer

ST. JOHN VALLEY- Mary Wolf has been dreaming about competing in the Can-Am Sled Dog races since she was 8 years old. At 14, she took her first shot at the 30 mile race, graduating to the 60 mile the following years. Now, at 17, she has her sights set on the Can-Am 250.Mary Wolf

If she finishes she will be the youngest finisher ever of the 250 and one of a handful of women to complete the difficult trek.

Last year, 18 year old Ashley Simpson, of Shirley, made history in the 250 as she was both the youngest competitor and at fourth place, the highest finishing woman in the race's 12 year history. Wolf is hoping to follow in Simpson's footsteps.

Wolf has bigger goals as well. Eventually she wants to compete in the Iditarod or Yukon Quest, two of the most famous and grueling dog sled races in the world.

But for now, all her concentration and energy is focused on the Can-Am. She wants to finish the race, but also would like to do well.

From her house tucked into the woods in St. Francis, she has trained hard and steadily throughout this year. She has some experienced dogs on her team; this year she acquired seven of veteran musher John Kaleta's team.

Dog sledding has been a big part of the Fort Kent Community High School senior's life since she was 8 years old. Initially, Wolf, her mother, and her brother, Michael, 19, who also has competed in the Can-Am, wanted a house dog, but they found an ad for three free huskies, drove down to Fort Kent and came home with three dogs.

The potato farmer that they got the dogs from talked about dog sledding, but "we didn't know anything about it," Wolf recalls.

That first night, the dogs fought, howled and one, Princess, who Wolf still has and runs, got loose from her chain. Wolf and her family began to wonder what they had gotten themselves into. Soon after, the farmer stopped by and dropped off all the equipment needed for dog sledding. The intrepid 8 year old thought, "why don't we give it a try." Her first foray into the world of dog sledding was a bit of a disaster. She hooked her dogs up to a saucer sled and was rocketed down the driveway, charging dogs dragging her out of control.

Wolf wasn't deterred, and when the family's car broke down, they started using the dogs as their chief mode of transportation. Wolf, her mother, and brother would hook the dogs up to the sled, sail down the steep hill on their road and drive the sled to the general store in St. Francis. The way back up to the house wasn't as fun. The three dogs couldn't pull the whole family and their groceries, so they started looking for a male dog that they could breed and start building a larger team.

On May, 4, 1998, six fuzzy puppies were born and Wolf was on her way to having a full team.

She had heard about the Can-Am races and would daydream about competing in them. "I started wondering what were the age requirements, and I heard you had to be 18," she recalls, "so I was like, shoot, I have to wait all that time." She consoled herself with the fact that she would have lots of experience by the time she reached her 18th birthday.

A chance encounter on the trails leading to Fort Kent helped Wolf realize her dream of competing in the Can-Am. And she didn't have to wait until she was 18.

The family packed up their dog sled one day to go fetch a package of frozen dog food that was waiting for them in Fort Kent. In St. John they ran into several snowmobilers, who just happened to be Rita Cannan, Can-Am president, Dennis Cyr, long-time musher, and Gale Flagg, member of the board of directors and veteran Can-Am volunteer.

The Can-Am folks started talking to the family and told them that Mike Wolf, who was 14, could compete in the Can-Am, all he needed was a special form signed. 12 year old Mary was very excited by this news. "I thought, when I turned 14 I could run the Can-Am, only two more years!"

And when Wolf turned 14, that's exactly what she did. She got sponsored by April Sprung. At the time, she didn't even have a way to transport the dogs to Fort Kent. Luckily, the Martins in St. Francis offered to drive the dogs to town, making two trips in order to get the whole team to the races on time. Wolf and her brother both ran with small teams in the 30 mile race.

"That was a good run," she remembers, "I was tired and didn't know what I was doing." But she had fulfilled her goal of racing in a Can-Am.

The next year, she ran in the 30 mile race again. This time she was sponsored by Cannan and the Martins generously transported her dogs once again.

After putting two 30 mile races under her belt, she decided to try the 60 mile race. "I figured I had run two 30s and had enough experience and enough dogs to run the 60," she remembers. Cannan again sponsored the young musher, but they made a deal that if Wolf was having any problems she would drop out of the race.

Wolf finished at 7 p.m. on Saturday, last. She got the rookie of the year award that year.

After being home schooled her entire life, Wolf entered the strange new world of Fort Kent Community High School as a junior and started running cross country in the fall. Her coach just happened to be Kaleta, an experienced musher with a lot of love for the sport. He started giving her tips on racing, particularly longer races, such as the 250. When Kaleta decided to retire from competitive racing, he sold seven of his dogs to Wolf.

She started thinking seriously about going for the 250 this year. She admits that "the idea of a young person doing a 250 mile race doesn't appeal to a lot of people," but she has put in endless hours of training, taking her dogs on long runs, and honing her skills.

Another experienced Canadian musher, Gaetan Martin, took her out on his miles of trails and worked with her on her technique. "He took time with me, would wait at turns for me to make sure I was all right," Wolf says.

Kaleta has lent her gear for the long trek ahead, Pelletier's Florist and the Fort Kent Animal Hospital have sponsored her, her teachers and fellow students have lent their support and encouragement, and other local mushers have offered advice and expertise.

It seems it takes a village to make a young musher and Wolf talks appreciatively about all the support she has received. In fact, she plans to take Fort Kent Community High School Principal Paul Grant down Main Street at the start of the race in recognition of this support. Wolf puts in long grueling hours training, but still has to do her homework and keep up in school. Her teachers have been understanding she says, but she also doesn't shirk her other duties, even when she has gotten home from a long nighttime run after midnight on a school night. She plans to do all her homework in advance of the Can-Am 250 so that when she finishes, she can "just sleep," for awhile. After being on the trail for up to three days, dealing with all the challenges that February in northern Maine can throw at her, racing through wind-blown potato fields and snowy forests, she will want the rest.

Her mother, brother, fellow students and teachers will all be on hand to cheer her on at the start.

As the race approaches Wolf anxiously anticipates the start. "I'm excited but I'm nervous, she says. "My goal is just to finish."

Next year, Wolf says, she wants to run the 250 again along with another mid-length race, perhaps the U.P. 200 which is held in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Then there is the Yukon Quest, which she would like to tackle in the future. "I hear it's a really big challenge," she explains. "I want that kind of challenge with the wind, the weather. I want to see what it gives me."

Wolf has already worked out a race strategy. She is going to pay careful attention to her dogs, make sure to pace them, and has worked out a preliminary schedule for each of the four checkpoints. In the world of dog sledding, all this could easily be subject to change, depending on trail conditions, the weather, how well her dogs and Wolf herself are handling the demanding race. She has grit and tenacity but she is also responsible enough to say if her dogs or herself aren't doing well, she will scratch, or take herself out of the race.

She has been aggressively training since the fall when she hooked her dogs up to a four wheeler and started taking them on mid-distance runs. She did her last 70 mile run last weekend. Now she is busy making last minute preparations, looking over her supplies, making sure she doesn't forget anything.

The Sunday before the race she visits with her dogs, giving them heaping servings of love and affection; They scamper back and forth on their chains, barking and yipping. Occasionally they throw back their heads and let out a full throated howl. They hop up and down and prance in place, looking at her with expectant eyes. When she walks up to each dog, he or she sidles up to her, tail thumping and wagging. Some jump up and eagerly lick her face, hugging her with their front paws.

As the snow crunches under her feet, Wolf talks to her dogs, wrapped in multiple layers on this February afternoon where the temperature hovers at zero, a green hat perched on her head, bright red hair sneaking out in a ponytail.

Wolf has a ready smile and talks easily and knowledgeably about dog sledding. Her smile gets bigger and her blue eyes shine when she talks about being out on the trails with her dogs and the adventures they've had together.

Wolf has come a long way since she hitched up her three dogs to the saucer sled. She now has a full kennel, a bright pink dog box, with "Wild Thing" scrawled across the back mounted on her Ford Ranger pickup, and past 30 and 60 mile races under her belt.

Dog sledding often requires fast thinking, the ability to change plans mid-stream, and Murphy's Law often does apply. Wolf says she is up for the challenge, indeed that is one of the reasons she says she loves dog sledding. "The lack of sleep, the weather, people rooting for you," she points out. It all has a certain appeal. She likens dog sledding to the sport of cross country running, which she also excels in. Even on a cross country team, it is a solitary sport. Just you and the woods, a test of endurance and your own psyche, much like dog sledding.

Wolf already has stories to share; mishaps, missed trails, and near-disasters, runaway sleds, dog fights, getting lost, blizzards, and very cold hands. And she loves this sport with a giddy passion. There are also joyous stories to tell about the solitude and peace of the woods, gliding along on the sled, soaking up the winter landscape, or just quiet afternoons playing with her happy dogs. She is looking forward to more challenges in the future, and the Can-Am 250 could be just the beginning.