Local musher is the "leader of the pack"
By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Voluntown - posted Tue., Mar. 1, 2011
When Becki Tucker brought her rescued Siberian husky, Yukon, home to Voluntown, he was so wound up that it was driving her crazy. “He would uproot trees, he was so strong,” she said. “I decided he needed a job to burn off all that energy.”
Somebody told her about sled dog races being held practically in her backyard, in Pachaug State Forest. When she hitched Yukon to a sled, he took off like he’d been waiting all his life for this.
“It was exactly what he needed,” she said.
That was 15 years ago, and Tucker hasn’t looked back since. Now she trains her 12-dog team in Pachaug State Forest for races throughout the northeast, from Massachusetts to Canada, seven months of the year.
Last week she was home long enough to catch her breath before heading out to the CanAm, a race she calls “the Super Bowl of dog sled racing,” in Fort Kent, Maine. Her hopes are high for her dog team in the 60-mile event, because she’s cranked their training up a notch this year.
“I won my first money in Sandwich, Maine – my dogs came in fifth out of 11 teams in a 45-mile race,” she said. “These dogs are capable of so much more, and I knew they would give more if I gave them a hundred percent.”
This year the team has logged more than 1,400 miles in training. For daily practice runs, Tucker “lines out” her team (attaching them to their harnesses) to pull an all-terrain vehicle. While it certainly turns heads of the hikers, runners and horseback riders who share the state forest with her, the ATV offers two things a dog sled doesn’t have: weight and brakes.
“When I’m running a 12-dog team, no cart is ever going to stop them,” she said. “The whole point of the ATV is you have to have control of them.” Sometimes she jumps out and runs alongside the team, or corrects her dogs so they don’t develop bad habits.
When the dogs are used to pulling a heavy ATV, a racing sled is practically weightless by comparison, even with Tucker aboard.
While the dogs love their practice runs, everything changes on race day, when excitement reaches a fever pitch. “You can tell there’s a particular time they’re in race mode,” she said. “Envy’s my leader, and race day as soon as she comes out of that box, she stands up straighter. She gets that it’s a race. Everybody’s dogs are excited. As soon as you get that front dog on the line, they start rocking that sled back and forth” – it’s called harness banging.
And once they take off, don’t expect them to stop for anything. If a musher falls off the sled, Tucker said (and it’s happened to her), they should be prepared to “just hang on.” Contrary to popular belief, mushers don’t just stand there and let the dogs do all the work. The often use a pole or “pedal” with one foot, like a skateboarder, to control the team.
Tucker is also gearing up to start training her new pups for the team. It’s a process that can take as long as two years.
“Riding in the truck, loading up, unloading, harnessing – there are so many new things [for the pups]. You want to kind of get their feet wet before training kicks off,” she said.
When she lines out the newbies, “every puppy will go next to one good adult dog,” she said. The experienced dogs keep the youngsters in line and show them the ropes.
Unlike many mushers, Tucker said she only breeds her dogs to add to the team, not to make money selling puppies. She can’t race all her dogs at once, and she’s selective about how she composes her teams. She has run eight-dog races with a team of seven dogs almost perfectly matched in build.
But every dog is part of her backyard “wolf pack,” she added. “Even though they don’t make the race team, they’re still part of us.”
Tucker’s husband, Kevin, is part of the team too. Among other things, he built the dog boxes on the truck used to transport the team. “He’s phenomenal,” said Tucker. “We’re a team just like the dogs.”
Tucker ran the CanAm in eight hours last year. This year she’s shooting for seven. “That’s a win for us,” she said. “I’m in a race versus us. I don’t really care about anybody else’s time.”
Win or lose, she’ll savor one special moment at the CanAm, when she brings her team to the top of a hill that seems to touch the clouds. She’ll remember one of her dogs, Tantrum, who died some time ago but lives on in her heart. “To this day I still see her there,” she said. “I always stop on that hill and tell my dogs how good they did. I have my moment, then off we go.”