WILLOW, Alaska — A year ago, Tara Crossman was preparing for the 30-mile Can-Am Crown International Sled Dog Race in Fort Kent. Fast forward to now and she's doing exactly what she dreamed of doing then: racing with her dogs in Alaska.
Crossman, 16, finished the Willow Junior 100 and the 150-mile Junior Iditarod in the past month. She and her team arrived in Alaska in mid-January after the more than 4,000-mile road trip from her home in Topsham.
“[The dogs] handled it like pros. They probably handled the trip a lot better than we did, because it was a lot of just driving," the Mt. Ararat High School student said.
Crossman started sled dog racing in March 2015, competing in small, single-dog events. Since then, she's competed in more than 20 races, but the two races in Alaska were the longest by a longshot. She also raced against some of the best junior mushers in the country.
"All of my competitors have really good dogs. Not to say my dogs aren’t good, but these dogs have done longer distance races and they’re better bred for these races and they’re better prepared because they’ve been training their entire lives here in Alaska," Crossman explained before the races. "They’re used to the temperatures and they’re more used to the terrain and all that. And then they’re used to the distance. It’s kind of daunting thinking about it because my dogs are good, but they’re not great like these dogs are.”
Crossman said prior to the first race, the temperatures were unseasonably warm by Alaska standards. She saw this as an advantage for her team.
“[Dogs] will overheat if they’re running too hard, which is a really big issue for a lot of the teams here in Alaska because they’re used to running in -20, -40, and then they’re having to run in 40-above, and that’s an 80-degree temperature change. And these dogs, they have thick fur and they’re not built to be running in the warm weather," Crossman explained. "So that is kind of the nice advantage that I have right now where my dogs are from the East Coast and they all have thinner fur and they’re used to the warmer weather, so it’s not really bothering them as much as it is the dogs that live here in Alaska, that are made for Alaska. So, it’s kind of a curse and a blessing at the same time.”
She said warmer weather means more frequent breaks in the snow for the dogs.
Crossman's team is made up of a hodgepodge group of Alaskan Huskies that she's acquired over the years, many from older, adult mushers who no longer wanted or needed them.
"Most of my dogs have been hand-me-downs. 'This dog doesn't work for my team, so I'll give it to this kid so she can try to figure out how to make this team work,'" she told NEWS CENTER Maine last year.
They range in age, shape, color, and size, but Crossman said she wouldn't have it any other way.
"I have a couple with patches, one with stripes, all different-looking things," she said with a smile. "When people see me, they go, 'Well, that's quite the motley crew,' and I go, 'Yeah, but we're gonna beat you.' They're all a little different, all have their little quirks and ins and outs, but they're really good dogs."
Crossman would have loved to win her upcoming races, of course, but that's not why she did it. She wanted to have fun with her dogs, stay safe, and meet new people. She said the mushing community in Alaska has welcomed her with open arms.
“One of my competitors and her dad have been allowing me to follow along on training runs and they’ve been super great and supportive and just helping me feel welcome here," Crossman said. "I’ve met multiple Iditarod mushers and they’ve been super nice trying to give me as many tips as possible. It’s kind of a different vibe that you get here because there’s so many mushers and everyone is just so willing to help you."
“Like last night, we went and someone let us use their meat saw so I can make trail snacks and have snacks for in the checkpoint," she continued. "These people have no idea who I am. They gave me a couple harnesses, they were offering to let me use gear if I needed anything. They have no idea who I am, but that’s just how people are up here.”
Crossman won the sportsmanship award in the Junior Iditarod for helping a fellow musher while leaving the halfway checkpoint and then helping another musher about four miles before the finish.
As far as safety goes, Crossman said her biggest fear was running into an Alaskan moose, which are known for their size. Moose can often mistake sled dogs for wolves, which can lead them to become violent. Last year, in northern Maine, a sled dog team was attacked by a moose.
Crossman said she saw a moose already while training on part of the Willow Junior 100 trail.
"This wasn’t even a full grown adult, so it’s terrifying to think if I was to come across a full-grown bull moose out there," she said. "This moose had been bedded down just off the sides of the trail for a day or two, and it probably hasn’t gone far because there’s plenty of food around. So knowing that we’ve seen moose out on the race trail is kind of scary.”
Getting to this point wasn't easy but Crossman was determined. Training and dog care consume a lot of hours, and getting to Alaska wasn't cheap. In addition to a GoFundMe, she spread donation jars around her community and organized meet-and-greets where people could meet her and her team and donate money if they wished.
For those who want to follow along with Crossman and her dogs, she posts updates on her Can Ya Catch Me Kennel Facebook page.