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Date Posted: 13:35:52 02/23/14 Sun
ALWAYS READY TO RUN
Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014
By Ed Waters Jr. News-Post Staff The Frederick News-Post
Joe and Debby Fitzgerald are happy to see snow.
The Jefferson couple race sled dogs, and they raise and show Siberian Huskies.
Debby Fitzgerald, 61, grew up in Massachusetts and said she knew she wanted to raise dogs. She liked the looks of Siberian Huskies and, since 1976, has shown dogs year-round. During the winter, when the snow is good, she and her husband participate in dog sled races. She is president of the Chesapeake Siberian Husky Club.
"I probably spend most of the time talking people out of raising Siberians," she said at their home on Catholic Church Road.
If the Siberians get out of the house, they will run.
"They don't care who feeds them. They are not loyal like a German shepherd," she said.
While attending shows, the Fitzgeralds met people who showed Siberians and raced them. The Fitzgeralds bought equipment, from a sled to harnesses, and their friends mentored them on the basics of the sport.
Joe Fitzgerald, 62, said his work at the Department of Energy and the couple's two children getting bigger consumed too much time for them to do racing, so they put the equipment away, though Debby continued to show the dogs.
"It takes a lot of time and commitment," he said. With children now grown, he is retired and has his own consulting business in the health and safety field. "My time is flexible now."
Four years ago, when some friends borrowed their equipment, they caught the "mushing" bug again, he said. They got the dogs and themselves back into racing shape, trained and participated in five races.
"But there have been two warm winters," he said. "This year the low temperatures have been much better."
The Fitzgeralds participated in three races in Michigan and one in New York so far this year. They are looking forward to another race coming up in Pennsylvania.
Much depends on the depth and type of snow and how the temperatures stay during the races. One of the most important pieces of equipment is the snow hook. Carried on the sled, it is pushed into the ground to allow the musher to get off the sled to untangle dog lines or help a fellow musher with a problem. If the snow is not deep enough or too fluffy, the dogs can pull the sled loose and take off.
"You really have to watch out for little critters" while in the race, Joe Fitzgerald said. A squirrel or other small animal darting across the track or nearby will distract the dogs, who may even try to pull off the track to pursue the small animal.
At any point in time, the Fitzgeralds have a varying number of dogs in the half-acre run area beside their home. Some of their dogs may be borrowed by fellow sledders, and they may use dogs from friends for a race or training. Many of the dogs are related to older Siberians they own.
Many mushers use "Eurohounds," which are mixed breeds to create faster sled dogs, but the Fitzgeralds use only purebred Siberian Huskies.
Training begins in November and December with wheeled rigs on dry land. The couple runs four- and six-dog teams. Races are generally run in two heats. The larger teams run a total of 6 miles, the smaller teams 4 to 5 miles. Dogs are marked on their coats to ensure the same dogs are in the second heat and other dogs not put in their place.
Racing the dogs gives the Fitzgeralds more prestige in the Siberian Husky Club of America. Based on the number of miles their dogs have raced, the purebreds, registered individually with the American Kennel Club, can obtain a "sled dog degree." In four years, their dogs have 38.4 miles toward the 100 miles for the degree.
Joe Fitzgerald buys his equipment from a dealer in Pennsylvania, where he got his sled. He also buys equipment from vendors at race events. The traditional wooden sled includes a brake that digs into the ground and flexibility for cornering. Mushers must also take along a "dog bag," a protective, zippered bag large enough to put a dog in and load it onto the sled if it is hurt. Some sledders are using light weight aluminum sleds, but Joe Fitzgerald prefers the traditional style.
The Fitzgeralds are mentoring new mushers, one of which has already participated and won fifth place in a race.
Becoming a good musher involves more than just standing on the sled and yelling commands at the dogs. It takes time and commitment, weeks of training with the dogs. One has to recognize which dog should be a leader, learn the attitude and abilities of the dogs.
"You can't be afraid of speed. The dogs take off like a rocket (hitting about 20 miles per hour). You have to watch for lines tangling or other problems. It's like driving, you keep focused, but it becomes natural to you after a while," he said.
"These are athletes," he said of the dogs. "They are always ready to run."
The dogs naturally love the winter.
"But they don't like the middle of summer, and I really have to worry about the older dogs in the summer," Debby Fitzgerald said.
Learn more at www.isdra.org, the website for the International Sled Dog Racing Association.
"Sled dog sports have a long history in North America and while the landscape of the sport has changed dramatically since the early 1900’s, sled dog sports are alive and well and continuing to evolve," according to the website.
The sports most recognizable race is the Ididarod. The race is a reconstruction of a commercial route from Anchorage to Nome, used to carry mail and supplies. The 650-mile direct route actually takes about 1,150 miles as it is not a straight trail, according to the Ididarod's website. The race will take place March 1.
A survey by Dave Steele of the International Sled Dog Racing Association shows the sport typically has more men than women participants, average age about 49, married, college graduate, income in the $40,000 to $60,00 range and has been mushing for about 13 years on average.
Alaskan Huskies lead the most popular breeds, followed by Siberian Huskies and Eurohounds (the mixed breeds). The survey showed most participants became interested in the sport through friends or while attending a sled dog race or exhibition, according to Steele.
The Northeast and upper Midwest areas are the strongest geographic sites for dog sled races for members of the Minnesota-based International Dog Sled Racing Association.