It was a brisk -4F at 430am when we loaded our Seppala Siberian Sleddogs into the truck at Poland Spring Seppala Kennels headed toward Fort Kent. My 15 year old son Caleb was running our team in the race. This would be his first race ever. Christian, my 13 year old son, had been given the honor of running Rajen Kennels second string dogs out of Ontario due to our good friend Jenny Gastmeier throwing out her back the week prior to the race. This was his rookie year as well. As you might imagine, having two sons in the race had me on pins and needles. I was wound pretty tight.
Christian was bib #7 and literally FLEW out of the starting shoot. He was tucked behind the sled in sprinter fashion and I had countless people tell me that they hadn’t seen any team leave the shoot that fast. Caleb was bib#12 and left the shoot with our team with one foot on the drag and waiving the American Flag (we are a patriotic family).
I had several family, friends and church folk come to me and ask why his team seemed to be moving so much slower than Christians. I explained, “I’ve been preaching to Caleb and Christian for a week that the second half of the race is mountainous and they needed to make sure not to burn their teams out the first, flat, easy portion of the race.” My HOPE was that this is what Caleb was doing and not that we were slower.
After they left the shoot Tammie and I drove like the devil 7 miles down the road to where I hoped to see the boys pass. By the time we arrived, Christian had already passed with Jennys team. Caleb immediately pulled into sight. We shouted encouragement to him, but he said nothing back. So I asked “how’s it going?” All I got in reply was a subdued “good” in reply.
Ok. Now my dad worry kicked in. Caleb had left the start 10 minutes behind his little brother. He’d been training our team all winter for this race. If his little brother came into the race last Minute with someone else’s second string team and beat him, I knew Caleb would be happy for his little brother, but he would also be disappointed.
So I went back to Can Am Central and hovered over the radio operator (my good friend Mark Berube) listening for any updates. Eventually I heard a report from the 13 mile checkpoint. Christian was doing well. Then I heard another. Caleb has closed the gap between them by 5 minutes. Then Mark gave me an update from the halfway mark. Caleb and Christian we’re traveling the trail only a couple minutes apart.
The time between that update and the 22 mile safety point update seemed to take a lifetime. But finally it came. Caleb and Christian Hayes passed through the checkpoint together! Caleb had done exactly as we’d planned. He’d held off the first half and slowly started pushing the team (and running up mountains) the second half.
And let’s not forget the great accomplishment Christian was making. At 13, he was the youngest musher in the race. Two days before the race he didn’t even know he was racing. And he was racing with dogs he hadn’t met until the day before the race. AND he was passing teams with the team that came in last, last year! This took incredible courage.
So I was out to greet my fellow Seppala and Siberian mushers, Ralph Schade and Hannah Lucas cross the finish. Then I heard “two mushers approaching” Could it be Caleb and Christian? No. It was Caleb and another musher he’d caught up with. Caleb had traveled two miles with his little brother, to make sure he was doing well and then slowly pulled away.
When Caleb crosses the finish line in true musher style, gave me only a couple seconds on acknowledgment and then pushed past the congratulators to check and praise his dogs. If his mom and I and the reporters wanted to get a word from him, they’d have to follow him around bending over to hear him as he lavished praise over our team.
Caleb was the first finishing rookie in the race! But! Caleb did not even have time to leave the starting shoot when 5 minutes later we heard “musher coming in! Bib #7. Christian Hayes!”
We pulled Caleb’s team forward and watched Christian, running and pushing his sled, across the finish line. Caleb met his little brother, and they threw their arms around one another. The exertion and cold had taken its toll on Christian’s 85 lb frame. His fingers weren’t moving. You can see the pain in his face in the pictures. But he too, insisted on pushing through the greeters to lavish praise on his dogs.
After insuring the team was all in great shape, and after he conveyed his gratitude to the dogs, his mother and I convinced him to go warm his hands, and I drove his team out of the shoot to the staging area where Jenny Gastenmyer and her handlers took the team from me. From there I ran back to our team in our staging area where Caleb was already snacking them and taking off their harnesses.
Within 5 minutes. I heard a voice that surprised me. It was Christian, who had left his doting mother inside. “Where’s my team?” “Their owner and handlers have them.” I replied. “Where?”He said. “Over there” I replied. And Christian was off like a flash to help tend to the team he’d been loaned.
So how did they do? Well, despite much slower trails than last year, Caleb improved our teams finish time by 30 minutes, and was the first place finishing rookie.
And Christian, improved the finish time of the team he used by about an hour and a half over their performance last year. And they improved their placement over their finish last year. Again, this 13 year old accomplished this with a team he had never run before.
But none of that is so important to me. If you ask me how they did I will say, “these boys were brave enough to take full teams of dogs 30 miles through the frigid north Maine woods by themselves. And then, when they crossed the finish, they both thought first and foremost of their dogs. And this last point is what makes them real mushers. As their father, I could not be more proud.
Of course I cannot write this without talking about our team. Our veteran leader, Poland Springs Frost, slowed down the second half of the race last year so I moved 2 year old Poland Springs Vodka of New Hope up in lead where she finished the 2019 race.
This season Vodka has effectively taken her place in lead and our beloved Frost has slowly gotten used to being a point dog.
Meanwhile our stand by veteran leader, Deer Creek’s Polar Bear of Poland Spring, had taken to making pitstops on the trail on occasion to mark his territory. Therefore Frost’s son, and the greatest athlete on our team, Poland Spring’s Druid, was moved into lead just a couple weeks before the race.
We’d tried Druid in lead last year and he’d shown some promise but lacked the confidence to lead with mature males coming up behind him. But remarkably, at 3 years old now he has been flawless the past 3 weeks in lead and has joined Vodka as our new main leaders. He and she set a new pace for our team. Druid is the most tireless Sleddog I’ve ever owned. He eats well too. I look to the future with great hopes for him.
Frost and Bear, now both 7, made excellent point/team dogs. They pulled hard and insured the new leaders took the trail commands.
In wheel we had Ralph and Jennys Aklak. He was a solid worker and offered no issues at all on the trail.
Our biggest team decision was whether or not to include our beloved Deer Creeks Sawyer of Poland Spring. He is blind, but he is a motivated and tireless Sleddog. Second only to our Druid in athleticism. The past two weeks leading up to the race we pushed him with the team more and more. And the harder we pushed the more he flourished. In fact. His stride was as elegant and beautiful as any other. So we had the chief vet check him the day before, and the day of the race. Both days he received favorable results and was given the green light to race. I coached Caleb to pull him and bag him at any sign of stress. But Sawyer pulled to the very end. Even slamming his harness in the finish shoot a couple times. All the dogs road back to the kennel in the crates except sawyer. He rode home in the cab, curled up in my son’s lap like a lapdog.
So many people to thank. First, Thanks to my wife Tammie for encouraging me in this crazy mushing passion. We want to say thanks to the Can Am for putting on such an amazing race. It’s been a part of our family for 20 years as of this race. Thank you to the town of Fort Kent- my adopted home. Thank you to my sister Julie for your great patience. Thank you to Jenny and Ralph for entrusting your team to Christian. He will be forever grateful. A special thanks to our handler, Eva Hayes,the greatest musher you’ve never heard of. Can Am2021? Thank you to the International Seppala Siberian Sleddog Club, and the Continental Kennel Club, for working tirelessly to ensure our beloved breed continues to thrive. Thanks to Meg for thinking of our kennel when you placed so much of your gear this year.
I could go on, but there are too many.
Already planning next year. Stay tuned!
- Jonathan Nathaniel Hayes.