SOMERSET COUNTY, Maine — If you stop by Fort Illio Kennels in Lexington Township you're almost certainly guaranteed two things: howling Siberian huskies and Kacey McCarty calling for her team of sled dogs.
McCarty has been racing since she was 15 years old but her love for the sport started when she was even younger. Her neighbor owned a kennel and she said she couldn't resist visiting.
"Me being a 10-year-old, I was super intrigued by animals, so, I went over there all the time and helped to the point where my mother was like, 'OK, if I'm never gonna see her I should probably bring some dogs home,'" McCarty said. "So, I convinced her to bring home six and then I squeaked in a seventh and that's how it all started."
McCarty started out her career in sled dog racing competing in what's known as "sprint racing." Those races cover anywhere from four to 25 miles of terrain. As she got older her races got longer. She now consistently competes in mid-distance races, which range from 30 to 100 miles, and has even competed in the Can-Am 250-mile race in Fort Kent.
Her kennel in Somerset County is home to dozens of purebred Siberian huskies. Some of the dogs are retired from racing but the others are anxiously awaiting their next trip to the trails.
"They free run in their whole pen daily, and it's actually good for them because at that point they can be dogs and not athletes," McCarty said. "They just chill, they go and play with each other and hang out with each other. Most of the time they don't fight."
Sled dog racing is a seriously competitive sport. The weeks leading up to a race are filled with rigorous training to get the team into top shape. McCarty said each dog is placed with precision, with the most advanced leaders in the front of the pack.
The team is equipped with harnesses and booties, and McCarty makes sure her sled is packed with everything she will need out on the trail. Once the dogs are in place and secured to the sled, it's showtime.
"It's magic," McCarty said. "The whole team comes together and they work 100 percent together. They are so in tune with you."
McCarty and her team can be found out on the trails up to four times a week leading up to a race. Sometimes they will go 25 miles, other times they will go upwards of 40.
"Usually the week before the race we don't do too much intense training because you don't want them to have injuries for the race, so [we] will just go out and have fun runs and usually throw different leaders and it just makes it wicked fun for them," McCarty said.
McCarty added the colder it is the more her team thrives. We might consider the bitter-cold winter temperatures unbearable, but these dogs can't get enough.
"They love zero and below, I am fine with 10 [degrees] but I don't mind," McCarty said laughing. "I go out at 20 below and we can do a 20 miler and it seems like a blink of the eye because they're flying."
Most recently, McCarty competed in the Greenville Wilderness Challenge's 35-mile race and placed eighth out of 16 teams, and she competed in the Can-Am International 100-mile race in Fort Kent and placed sixteenth out of 23 teams. She said she looks forward to the competition every year and would like to see the sport grow.
"It's super expensive to maintain a kennel, it's time-consuming and you have to be 100 percent dedicated," McCarty said. "If you're not and you want to do other things in the winter time it's probably not for you because this is your life, basically."
When asked if she would rather be doing anything else McCarty replied, "No, this is for me."
To learn more about McCarty and Fort Illio Kennels, watch the full segment or click here.