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Westbrook Winter West Fest features sled dog races

Mushing? Of course

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Posted: Thursday, January 3, 2013 12:41 pm | Updated: 12:46 pm, Thu Jan 3, 2013.

WESTBROOK – For at least one weekend, the cries being heard across the Sunset Ridge Golf Links on Cumberland Street in Westbrook will be “mush” instead of “fore.”

As part of the first-ever Westbrook Winter West Fest on Jan. 4-6, the golf course will be the site of a series of dog sled races sponsored by the New England Sled Dog Club, which is the oldest such club in the United States, founded in 1924.

The races, free for spectators, will be run on Saturday, Jan. 5, and Sunday, Jan. 6, from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Originally, the races were scheduled to be “rig races,” where racers run on specially modified wheeled sleds, known as rigs, to take place at Rivermeadow Golf Course.  However, last week’s winter weather upset those plans, and with a good coating of snow on the ground, the racers will be breaking out the traditional sleds instead at Sunset Ridge.

The Westbrook Winter West Fest activities are free all weekend. And with the cold weather in the forecast for the weekend and the blanket of fresh snow on the ground, things are shaping up for the event to be a classic winter carnival.

Westbrook Winter West Fest begins on Friday with a family skate night at the outdoor rink on Stroudwater Street from 6-9 p.m., sponsored by the Kiwanis Club. At the same time, the Westbrook-Gorham Chamber of Commerce will sponsor a business-after-hours event from 4-7 p.m. Unlike most such events, which are held in one location, this one will be spread out among various downtown restaurants.  At each location, the public can sample some of the restaurant’s offerings and enter into a free raffle for a door prize at each restaurant.

Saturday events will take place in a number of locations. There will be a pancake breakfast sponsored by the Westbrook High School class of 2015, as well as an outdoor ice hockey tournament at the Lincoln Street rink, sponsored by the Westbrook Hockey Boosters. Other events include free horse and wagon rides in Riverbank Park, a snow sculpture contest in Saccarappa Park and a 5K “fun run” sponsored by the Westbrook Fire Department.

But it won’t be just sleds pulled by dogs out on the course. There will also dogs pulling racers on skis in an event called skijoring, as well.

“It’s not just six dogs pulling a sled, there’s lots of variations,” said Bill Baker, Westbrook’s assistant city administrator for business and community relations, one of the organizers of Westbrook Winter West Fest.

Baker said he brought the dog-racing event to the festival because he wanted to include something that he believed would be an attraction for people from both Westbrook and the surrounding communities.

“I’m very excited about it,” Baker said. “I think the more unique you make an event, the more likely you are to draw from outside our borders. This type of event will draw fans of the sport, and I hope people who are interested in the sport for the first time will come.”

The Westbrook event is sanctioned by the International Sled Dog Racing Association, Rainer Wischinski, a member of the board of the New England Sled Dog Club, said, which means that competitors have the chance to earn points toward international medals that the association awards every June.

“The participants will take it (the Westbrook races) very seriously,” Wischinski said.

The track in Westbrook is too short to have the eight-dog teams that typically race on the longer, 10- to 12-mile snow courses, Wischinski said. In Westbrook, spectators will see six-dog teams, four-dog teams, a three-dog junior class and one- and two-dog skijoring. The six-dog teams will run on a 6-mile loop course, and the other races will be run on a shorter, 3.5-mile loop.

Wischinski said there would be several breeds of dog on the course, ranging from Siberian huskies and Alaskan huskies to what are known as Euro hounds, which are sled dogs crossed with either English pointers or German shorthairs. He said the event is a family-friendly one. “I would encourage people to approach the mushers, talk to them and ask them about their dogs,” he said, adding that kids (and adults) could even pet the dogs, so long as they had the owner’s permission first.

Wischinski said it would be easy for spectators to follow the action.

“The golf course is not huge,” he said. “So if people are out on the course, they will see teams passing by. It’s a great family event.”

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