WESTBROOK – Indy and Colter, both German short-haired pointer and Alaskan husky mixes, stood quivering with excitement at the start of the two-dog skijoring race at Sunset Ridge Golf Course on Sunday morning.
Straining against their leashes, the pair first howled with anticipation, then pawed furiously at the ground before dashing off, their owner Kelley McGrath hurtling behind on skis. They crossed the finish line 3.5 miles away eight minutes and 24 seconds later, nearly two minutes faster than the half-dozen other competitors.
“This is what they are bred for,” said McGrath of Wonalancet village in Tamworth, N.H.
McGrath and her dogs were among 45 teams that showed up for the New England Sled Dog Club’s season opener, part of Westbrook’s first Winter West Festival, which ran Friday to Sunday.
The sled dog races also drew scores of spectators.
The turnout among club members was larger than usual, said Rainer Wischinski of Sandown, N.H. He said there is a lot of pent-up enthusiasm among the owners and their dogs after last year’s practically snowless winter.
“People are itching to get out,” said Wischinski, who grew up racing sled dogs in Germany.
The club has about 150 members from all over New England. They may own from one to 40 or more dogs, depending on which categories they compete in. The sled dogs reach average speeds of about 20 mph, said Wischinski.
Wischinski said people involved in the sport come from assorted backgrounds, which makes the sport interesting. They share a common love of sled dogs and the winter outdoors.
Winners take home prize money, from $15 to $250, depending on the category. But the money is really irrelevant, said Wischinski.
“Animal sports and money don’t mix. It should be fun, just a hobby,” he said.
Angie Carter of Penacook, N.H., said sled dog racing is a great family activity.
“We have four boys, and we know where they are every weekend and there are no electronics,” she said.
Sara and Marc Vanderwood of Oxford, who own 13 sled dogs, agreed. Their son, Grey, 9, is a third-generation dog sledder.
“It is good to spend time with our dogs and allows us to do something active,” said Sara Vanderwood.
Some spectators said they wanted to learn about the sport.
“I have never seen anything like this,” said Tom Eldridge of Westbrook.
Bill Baker, Westbrook assistant city manager, said organizers included dog races to give the festival some regional appeal.
“We wanted to make this bigger than Westbrook,” Baker said.
On Sunday, Baker called the sled dog races a success.
“I think this will be an annual event,” he said.
Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at: