February is Going to the Dogs
One day seems pretty much like the rest after a dreary January slips into a colder, damper February. Working in my basement design studio means that I miss even those few rays of sunshine that might creep past the clouds. It's enough to put a gal into a total funk. That's why my husband and I were excited to visit my brother Conrad and sister-in-law Kathy at their cottage this past weekend. The fact that Saturday and Sunday were the annual dog sled races in their community was the reason for the gathering.
Every year, since 1994, snow permitting, the town of Kearny (pronounced Carney by the locals) hosts the Kearny Dog Sled Races, an International Federation of Sleddog Sports event. Kearny is just north of Huntsville, Ontario, Canada. There's a prize purse of about $5,000 and races consist of 10 dog teams racing 35 miles, 6 dog teams racing for 6 miles, 4 dog teams racing for 4 miles, 1 and 2 dog Skijoring where a cross country skier is pulled by a dog(s) as well as a Kids & Mutt race where kids are pulled in a dog sled by their favourite pooch for a short distance.
Rob and I had been interested in attending for years but work, or holiday schedules always seemed to get in the way. This year, all the stars aligned and we got our chance. When my brother Conrad got the news that Rob and I would be coming along with another brother Ralph, and his son Eric, he immediately volunteered us to help out. Kathy and I were supposed to assist in the community centre and the boys were going to go to the bush to direct dogsled and snowmobile traffic. Rob had all the cold weather clothes required. Not me though. But since I was slated for inside duties I wasn't concerned.
Plans are apt to change, and when Kathy and I reported for work detail we were assigned an outdoor job for the two days of the event. We'd be working between the first turn at the start line and at the finish line where we'd be required to keep the trail clear of snowmobiles and people as the dogs sped by. Fortunately this years temperature was closer to minus 10 degrees as opposed to the minus 40 degree temperatures 'enjoyed' the previous year. So, it only took me a few hours to thaw my toes at the end of each full day's work.
The dogs arrive with their owners in special crates built into the backs of pickup trucks and trailers. They have their own little cubby filled with straw which they can sleep and rest in. There is a dog staging area where the participants and dogs park and are hooked onto their traces and sled just prior to the race. It's a fun area to walk though to watch the dogs going happily crazy, barking, howling, jumping, and eating their broth mixture before their big race.
I had assumed that dogsled races meant Husky dogs pulling sleds but was surprised to find there were a number of different cross breeds used for the races. There were Greysters, a cross between Greyhounds and German Shorthair Pointers, there were German Shepherd crosses, there were mixed Husky breeds and the beautiful blue and brown eyed pure breed Siberian Huskies. These dogs were descendants of the first 29 dogs brought to Alaska at the turn of the last century. Imagine that!
I was also under the mistaken belief that during a race every sled took off at the same time. Not so. The dogs are hooked onto their traces at the very last moment with each set of two dogs being held back by a human, by the weight of the sled with it's brakes on and by an ATV hooked onto the sled. Each sled advances to the starting line in turn and is released by the race Marshall who lets one sled starts out every 2 minutes. It's a timed race and the finish time is taken at the end of the race by the Marshall's helper.
It's pretty obvious that the dogs want to run and they want to run now. They bark and strain, they hop over each other getting tangled up in their traces which keeps the humans busy untangling them prior to the race beginning. There are some little rituals that take place just before starting. The snow is checked out at the starting gate. The musher (driver) generally gives the lead dogs a little hug and he or she generally gets their face licked at the same time. Then there's the countdown ... and they are off in a whirl of snow! The sleds pulled by the mixed breed dogs are the faster sleds. I suspect the Huskies would outdo them over time and distance, especially in the cold as the Greyster breed is short haired.
The dogs speed through a bit of town before breaking into the hardwood forest to mush along the existing snowmobile trails which run through the woods and around marshes and ponds and even down the odd road. It's a wild ride! If you'd like to see it from the Musher's point of view, go here.
Snowmobile traffic continues on the same trails during the race so it's quite tricky to make sure that no snow machines are on the trail when the dogsleds are coming through. Especially since there was a ride for cancer going on at the same time. There are only so many areas where the machines can get off the trail and wait while the dogs race by. The trail is too narrow for passing and often the volunteers are uncertain if a stretch of trail has a snowmobile coming towards them or not when the dogs go by. Vise versa for the volunteers at the next check point. This led to a few mishaps as the dogs veered into the high snow and got tangled up as they avoided snowmobiles stopped for them along the trails edge.
Volunteers also have to make sure that they physically block trails that the dogsleds are not supposed to follow. The lead dog is not familiar with the trail and is just as likely to pick the wrong fork in a trail rather than the right one. I saw a few instances of this happening - when a minute spent getting back on trail could well have made the difference between winning and losing. Once, while guarding an intersection, a lead dog got by me right at the finish line and took his team in the wrong direction. Oh no! Fortunately the team was right at the finish line when this happened so they were not docked for time. Another time a child wandered on the track just as a team was coming. I rushed to grab the child, tripped on a lump on the side of the trail, rolled like a Charlie's Angels stunt woman and managed to stop another child from crossing. The first child made it across on her own steam. One gentleman watching said I should do that stunt once more. Fat chance I'll ever be able to do those acrobatics again!
People came from near and far to watch the races. The streets were full of kids, parents, cottagers and locals. Lots of people with professional cameras and lenses arrived from the Toronto and Mississauga area. Many were amateur photographers and were devoted enough to stay to the bitter end waiting for every race to finish. I'm sure there were thousands of fabulous pictures taken over the course of the weekend. One cute couple Guodong and Jasmine sent me some of their work. The photo above and what follows is their photography. That's Jasmine pictured with Kathy and I above - taking my email address.
The teams themselves come from many areas - Alaska, Quebec ( from which some of the fastest teams come), some are local and there are others from all over Canada. One indoor volunteer had the task of getting the participants to fill out a survey. Spectators were coming from quite a distance. There were bus trips, film crews, locals and the friends and family of the mushers. One of the questions on the survey was 'What did you like most about the event?'. After a bit of thought I answered 'the dogs'. They were so exuberant and friendly. No matter what happened those dogs were just happy to have been part of the race. It's all about the fun for them.