Musher’s Bowl course most technically-challenging in N.E.

NW 39 musher's bowl

THIS PICTURE IS PROOF that sled dog racing in Bridgton dates back at least 73 years, much longer than when the tradition was revived 25 years ago by West Bridgton businessmen on Moose Pond. The photo, printed in a 1940 edition of The Bridgton News, also shows that the course ran right through the heart of the downtown business district. The mushers are shown racing by the block of buildings where Main Street Variety and Bridgton Books are located. (Photo courtesy Bridgton Historical Society)

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

For sled dog racers that seek excitement and challenge, nothing in the Northeast compares to the hills and curves of the six-mile course at Five Fields Farm in South Bridgton.

"There's no question that this is not a typical course. It's probably one of the hilliest courses in the Northeast," said Tom Gyger, a key organizer in this year's Maine Lakes Musher's Bowl, set for Saturday and Sunday, Jan. 25 and 26. The course also has a number of fairly tight turns, requiring considerable technical skill.

"The young drivers really like it — it's exciting," said Gyger, owner of Five Field Farms, who works with neighbors Paul Field Sr. and Jr. and members of The Downeast Sled Dog Club to prepare the five miles of trails for the race. "They describe it as being technical, and that translates into being difficult."

Club members tell him that skijorers (those pulled on skis instead of a sled) are quizzed on their skill level before registering for the Musher's Bowl. If new to competition, Gyger said "They say, 'I wouldn't make Bridgton your first race'." Most of the 75 or more sled dog teams planning to compete will be running four- to six-dog teams, although three-dog junior teams will also compete.

Five Fields Farm didn't set out to provide a challenge course for the sled dog racing community; it was simply a matter of keeping the sled dog racing tradition alive in Bridgton, said Gyger.

"In the past, many of the races were held on lakes or open farmland, because both are flat," he said. "Whatever the grooming equipment might be, you just carved out how many miles that you wanted, and you end up right back where you started."

Back in 1940, a musher's bowl was held along downtown Main Street in Bridgton. West Bridgton businessmen revived the sport 25 years ago on Moose Pond, and races were also held on Highland Lake. Racing on ice had its inherent problems, however.

"With changing climate conditions it became difficult and unpredictable to plan for races," said Gyger. Hidden pressure ridges and open spots on the lake ice posed a serious safety concern for both the dogs and the mushers.

Seeking safer ground, the Musher's Bowl was moved to the Fryeburg Fairgrounds. But that venue was labor-intensive, because one or two handlers were needed at each street crossing. "It was difficult to procure enough labor to hold the races there," he said.

At Five Fields, equal care is shown to safety, with handlers positioned at the turns to keep the sleds on course. Barricades and cones are also placed along the carefully-groomed cross-country trail to guide the dogs around the corners.

"The lead dog will go left or right only under command," said Gyger. "So when you go around a sharp corner, it's nice to have a helping hand."

In keeping with sled dog racing standards, a five-mile course was created at Five Fields Farm eight years ago, when the Greater Bridgton Lake Region Chamber of Commerce took over sponsorship of the race. The farm is surrounded by 750–800 acres of land under conservation by the Loon Echo Land Trust. Trail conditions prevented the race from being held there the first year. Seven years ago, the club inspected the course and deemed it appropriate. The Maine Lakes Musher's Bowl was on again.

However, there was an injury that first year, said Gyger. "Initially, the twists, yanks and turns were too tight. On a lake, all you do is tell the dogs to go."

Working with club members, Gyger came up with a laundry list of modifications. The trail was extended and improved with banked corners. Racing was held for six straight years before snowpack conditions once again caused the races to be cancelled last year.

This year the Musher's Bowl faced another challenge, when the chamber decided to drop their sponsorship of the race. Gyger, the Fields and their daughter Charlotte Carroll got together with local attorney and sled dog enthusiast Michael Friedman and formed a nonprofit organization, Down East Musher's Bowl Inc. to serve as a hosting entity to keep the races alive.

"If we put the time and energy into establishing a venue here, we're reasonably sure it's going to stay this way," Gyger said.

Along with the distinction of being the most technically challenging sled dog course in the Northeast, the Maine Lakes Musher's Bowl also rates high for being one of the most spectator-friendly courses. There are great viewing spots from Loon Echo's parking lot, as well as around Gyger's home and along Fosterville and Town Farm Roads.

"From the open field, there's a 90-percent chance you'll see a pass," which is when one musher passes another. "The minute they come from the trees and get into that field they go for it, if the trailing team has the gumption" to do it, he said.

Spectators are fed too, which doesn't happen at races held on lakes or fields. Inside a warm building next to Gyger's farmhouse that is used to house agricultural workers, the South Bridgton Congregational Church brings in tables and chairs and does a good trade by selling chowder and other refreshments.

Admission to the Maine Lakes Musher's Bowl is $5, which includes both days of racing and parking. Children ages five and under are free. For more information, visit the club's website, www.desdc.org or call Gyger at 647-2425.

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