The Maine Event: Dorchester Sled Dog Racer Overcomes Obstacles

  • Becki Tucker takes off at the starting line of the Can-Am International 250 sled dog race on March 4, 2017. (Paul Cyr photograph)

  • Becki Tucker relaxes while dogs Thrasher looks on and Neva sleeps at the second checkpoint of the 2017 Can-Am International 250 sled dog race on Saturday, March 4, 2017. (Jessica Jones photograph)

  • Becki Tucker embraces Theory at the finish line of the Can-Am International 250 sled dog race on Tuesday, March 7, 2017. (Jessica Jones photograph)

  • Becki Tucker embraces her lead dog, Frenzi, at the finish line of the Can-Am International 250 sled dog race on Tuesday, March 7, 2017. (Jessica Jones photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, March 27, 2017

Becki Tucker was having doubts by the time she reached first of four checkpoints in this year’s Irving Woodlands Can-Am Crown 250 dog sled race, which began on March 4 in Fort Kent, Maine.

Trail conditions were treacherous and icy, and the wind was pulling Tucker and her team of Alaskan and Siberian huskies off their usual pace. Temperatures dropped to 10 degrees below zero.

Tucker’s team had not received the same amount of training this season than in years past, its yearly mileage falling below what the Dorchester resident would have liked it to be. But the Can-Am 250 is Tucker’s biggest race of the year, what she calls “our Super Bowl in New England.”

Tucker registered for the race anyway, thinking she and her 12 canines would take their time and enter the race without any pressure.

She finished the 209.8-mile race, which also concluded in Fort Kent, in 33 hours, 34 minutes, 27 seconds, fast enough for sixth place out of 14 teams. It was Tucker’s fourth appearance in the Can-Am and the latest in a 17-year racing career that has helped the Rhode Island native and former Connecticut resident find purpose.

One checkpoint and 69.1 miles in, however, Tucker was angry and ready to quit.

“The whole thing was supposed to be fun. We got there (and) it was the exact opposite,” she said on Friday. “With trails that hard, I was worried about the longevity of my team. … I was going to scratch. I was most concerned about what this would do to us long-term.”

But the 40-year-old has been around dogs long enough to know how they’re feeling. Her team looked calm and relaxed, as if the conditions were taking much less of a toll on her dogs than it was on her conscience.

“For some reason, the dogs looked fine,” she said. “All that wind and those slippery trails, they were handling it beautifully. … Maybe I was just overly concerned. I’m their mom; they’re my kids, not just athletes, and I’m also their coach, their nutritionist, their doctor. … I went outside, and the team was just relaxing, just laying on their straw beds. Nobody looked like this wasn’t fun.”

Tucker has seen worse conditions on trails before, but never those that lasted as long as this year’s Can-Am.

“As much as I train them all season, watching each and every one of them and what they do well, as I’m more their coach all winter long, they turn around and train me, too,” Tucker said. “It completely reminded me that I needed to take a step back. Sometimes the best plan is to just chuck it in the bucket and forget it. … It was amazing to watch them act like none of it was a big deal. They’re smarter than we think.”

Tucker moved to Dorchester in 2014 in pursuit of a suitable training ground; New Hampshire offered a longer training season than warmer Connecticut, and on musher-friendly terrain. She finished 12th in her first Can-Am that winter and finished fifth a year ago.

On March 19, Tucker — who now has a total of 30 dogs on her home training ground, which she calls Outlaw Ridge — was recognized at a reception at Dorchester Town Hall for her accomplishments.

“I enjoy what I’m doing,” she said. “Some of us get really caught up in taking care of things, not actually living. Everything I have goes into these dogs.”

The early wake-up calls and the long training hours have, admittedly, taken a toll on Tucker. Friends and family, Tucker said, often wonder how much longer she can compete at such a high level and when she will begin to focus on herself. But while others wait for her to slow down, Tucker has her eyes set on bigger goals.

“At this time of the year, while I’m having fun, my brain is starting to think about next year,” she said. “I’d love to do something like the UP 200 (a 230-mile race in northern Michigan), the Beargrease (Marathon, a 400-mile race near Duluth, Minn.). I’d love to try something different. But anything over a 200-mile race in the Midwest, I’d need to get a second job this summer. It takes a heck of a lot more money.”

The Can-Am usually marks the end of Tucker’s training season, so she has plenty of time to think about what comes next. But no matter what it is, Tucker said she can’t imagine a day where she isn’t dog mushing.

“I don’t ever foresee not running the dogs,” she said. “I might back off from the race circuit, running the 30s (mile races) or 40s. It’s tough to say that out loud; that’s at least what everything thinks I should do.

“But I’m not retiring from the Can-Am 250 because of everything we do together, the training and the work we put in. This is what makes me the happiest. I feel most alive when we’re running together. … I’m my happiest with them on the trail.”

Josh Weinreb can be reached at jweinreb@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.