Tara Crossman, 16, competing in a dogsled race in Fort Kent. Photo contributed by Tara Crossman

While many children will be busy building snowmen and drinking hot cocoa this winter, Topsham dogsled enthusiast Tara Crossman, 16, will fulfill her dream of competing in a pair of elite Alaskan dogsled races this February — the Junior Willow 100 and the Junior Iditarod.

The Mt. Ararat High School junior said her love for dogsledding started when she was 7 years old after watching the animated film “Balto,” the story of a heroic dogsledding team that delivers medicine to sick children in Nome, Alaska.

Tara Crossman and one of her sled dogs.

“I just got this feeling of freedom while watching it and knew I wanted to experience dogsledding at least once in my life. I never thought it would get to this point, though,” she said, adding that race officials told her she is the first Mainer to compete in the junior races.

She said caring for her 24 sled dogs is no easy feat for a full-time student.

“It’s not only exercising them, but it’s also feeding and watering, cleaning up their pens and giving them lots of snuggles,” she said. “Because these dogs are athletes, they need a high-fat and protein diet.”

In addition to school and a part-time job, Crossman spends each weekend training her dogs by running them 20-plus miles, wrapping up around 3 a.m.


Feeling confident in her team, Crossman will drive 4,600 miles to Willow, Alaska, with 13 dogs in tow. She will leave Jan. 11, a month before her first race, attending school remotely while she prepares for the races.

During the Junior Willow, she will compete against nine other teens aged 14-17 in a 100-mile race through the Alaskan wilderness, with a 10-hour break at the 50-mile mark. Her second race, the Junior Iditarod is a 150-mile race with 15 teens competing for a $6,000 scholarship and bragging rights. Mushers will have the chance to rest overnight at the 75-mile mark.

According to iditarod.com, the junior race is a shorter version of the 975-mile adult competition established in 1973, paying homage to the 1925 “serum run,” on which the 1994 film “Balto” is based.

Tara Crossman’s dogsledding team in Fort Kent.

Crossman said her motivation to compete comes from the naysayers.

“What probably motivates me the most is the people who tell me I can’t do this,” she said. “Unfortunately, there are a lot of people in this world that will hate on someone who is doing everything they can to reach their goals. And for me, it makes me try harder.”

Dogsledding is costly compared to other sports. Luckily, through an independent study offered by Community Pathways, Crossman has raised $20,000 through T-shirt and raffle sales to cover travel costs and equipment.


Crossman acknowledges the potential dangers of racing, including inclement weather and wild animals.

“The biggest being moose. Moose don’t like dog teams and dog teams don’t like moose,” she said. “Weather conditions can also be dangerous. If it gets too warm, you have to worry about the dogs overheating. If a snowstorm blows in while you are out on the trail, you might not be able to see anything and you can get disoriented.”

She said her family supports her endeavor but is also “terrified” about the possibility of things going poorly. In case of an emergency, each competitor will have a tracking device on their sled and is required to carry sleeping bag rated for temperatures as low as -40 degrees Fahrenheit, 3,000 calories of food for themselves, two pounds of food for each dog, an axe, fire starters, gloves and rain gear.

This is not Crossman’s first rodeo; she has competed in more than 20 dogsled races. Although she said her longest race to date is 35 miles, she feels confident in her team and three lead dogs, Quill, Arwin and Tuba.

“It would mean a lot to win either one of these races, but my end goal is just to finish and have a good time with my dogs,” Crossman said.

Crossman will compete in the Junior Willow 100 Feb. 10-11 and the Junior Iditarod Feb. 25-26.

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