Last month we looked at how the world of sled dog sport started during the Alaskan gold rush with the development of the sport of mushing from the mail dog teams working between the villages during that time. This month Iíd like to introduce you to some of the other disciplines that make up our amazing sport.
The world of sled dog sports has grown immensely since its early gold rush days, but it declined during the time after the snow machine was invented before its rebirth years with the founding of Joe Redington Seniorís Iditarod trail race in the early 70s. Now it is as common to see runners and bikers with dogs as it is the traditional teams at races and many different forms of the sport can now be enjoyed.
As the dogs and sport made their way to Europe and Scandinavia, people found more and more exciting ways of keeping their dogs fit and getting out and enjoying their time in the great outdoors.
The Norwegians, who had used skis for many years, invented the sport of skikjoring, or ski driving, often using horses to tow them on skis. As sled dogs arrived, the sport of pulka was born.
Pulka involves dogs assisting a human by pulling a small, low level, lightweight sled, the dogs being attached via a harness to the sled with the driver skiing behind. This sport is still popular in Scandinavia and across the world, itís an international discipline at the World Championships each year and itís tipped to become a future winter Olympics sport if sled dog racing is accepted as an Olympic discipline.
Pulka developed and soon some of the dog-powered skiers stopped including a sled and the sport of skijoring took over. Skijor is a fast winter sport where a skier is towed behind a dog or dogs. A simple waist belt is worn by the athlete that in turn is attached by a line of several metres to the dogís harness. A quick release snap is used in case the skier needs to unclip the dog rapidly. Races vary in length from short sprint distances of up to 20km to long distance events such as the incredible Kalevala race held in the Karelia region of Russia each year.
The race there also includes mushing and with the skijor class the teams compete over a 440km course split over several days racing in the depths of the Russian winter.
The stunning scenery complements the famous hospitality of the Karelians and itís fast becoming a popular race.
Skijoring is a fast-paced sport, with the skier allowed to assist the dog by skating using cross country or skating skis, the times put in are impressive and various classes, including pursuit and a two-dog class, ensure that entries of 200 competitors are not uncommon.
Hitting the trails
So, what about the summer months?
Every athlete knows that you have to keep fit in the off season to ensure top flight performance in the competition season. As the snows retract and the spring brings the temperature up, the skijor teams looked for another way to keep dogs and human athletes fit.
The logical thing to do was to ditch the skis and to pull on the running shoes. With the same equipment still being able to be used to keep the dogs fit without snow, the sport of canicross was born. No one is entirely sure when it became a proper sport as such, but races started on the back of the skijor seasonís races as the athletes wished to continue exercising themselves and their dogs.
Thirteen years ago saw the first ever canicross race in the UK after Nicky Hutchinson, a musher from the Forest of Dean, saw a race in France. Together with a couple of other local sled dog mushers, she organised the first UK canicross race and the sport arrived formally at our shores.
Then in 2002 the IFSS held the first world championships in Ravenna, Italy and it was officially a world championship discipline in its own right.
Canicross has to be the most easily accessible of all the aspects of sled dog sport Ė with a pair of running shoes, a running belt, a shock absorbing line and the correct type of harness for your furry friend you can hit the trails and enjoy the sport. In the British Isles the sport is very healthy indeed with several leading clubs and organisations organising specialist races on a regular basis and many sled dog events hosting canicross classes.
We also have our fair share of leading athletes. As I write this we have eight male and female runners and their dogs competing in the gruelling Trophee Des Montagnes. The TDM, as it is affectionately known, is a nine-day canicross race in the French Alps covering difficult terrain at altitude. We have had medals in the past from our competitors here, but no news yet on this yearís results and finishers. I hope to bring you a report from our team once the return home.
Just around the corner in the calendar and on the map is the European Canicross Federation European Championships in Switzerland in October. Here we stand a real chance again of medals from the like of Kim Mazzucca, a Gloucestershire-based athlete who in the past has taken the gold in many international races.
Kim has been competing for a number of years in both canicross and bikejor. Along the way she has won many championships and put the sled dog teams to shame by posting the fastest times for three out of four stages at the Wyedean Quest sled dog race with her incredible, but now retired, dog, a Whippet cross called Oki. Making it a family affair, she eventually persuaded husband Mark away from trail riding on motor bikes and into trail riding on a mountain bike. Mark competes in the bikejor classes with his dog, William a German Short-haired Pointer, and he has proved to be as useful on two wheels as Kim is on two feet, well six if you include her new dog Mamoot, a Scandinavian hound.
Bikejor and scootjor are both fairly new to the world of sled dog racing, becoming regular classes at events in the last ten years. Bikejor is not a sport for the faint hearted. With a dog connected directly to the bike head tube with a specialist fitting converter, a long shock absorbing line to the dogís harness and the rider assisting by pedalling to match the dogís pace, the racing can be fast. Good bike control is a must as races are often held on off-road trails and trust in your dog is paramount.
With the speeds the dog and rider can reach, having a dog that responds to commands quickly and correctly is important. Races often follow the same trails as either the sled dog teams or canicross teams and races can be found at either the sled dog club races or at dedicated canicross and bikejor races.
Of course, if you donít have a mountain bike, then you could always look at scootjoring, or dog scooters as they are more commonly known. These are basically a modern, beefed up version of a childís scooter of old. Redesigned to specially suit the sport, without pedals, the scooters are ideal for novices and those wanting to get into dog powered sports. With a lower centre of gravity and no crossbar to get in the way, they are great for someone who isnít as confident on a bike. The rider can scoot to help the dogs on the hills and ride the scooter when the dogís power kicks in on the flat and the downhills. Both bikejoring and dog scooters are ideal for smaller teams with maybe just one or two dogs and arenít only for the usual Siberian Huskies and Scandinavian hounds and Pointer breeds. With the human helping the dogs, other breeds are equally as suitable. This yearís IFSS world championships sees several UK athletes competing in both these classes in Italy this November.
With canicross, bikejor and scootjoring classes being held at most sled dog events and not being as equipment intensive, costly or requiring as many dogs as the traditional sled dog sports of mushing, they are more accessible and inviting to those wishing to get into the sport. Websites such as the official BSSF website, www.sleddogsportgb.com, can give you advice on how to get started and www.Snopeak.com will give you an idea of what races are near to you. It is always a great day out to attend a local race, see what the sports are all about and chat to some competitors and ask lots of questions.
Many sled dog and canicross clubs have beginners teach-in weekends and some even offer novice classes.
As usual with anything new you look into with your dog, make sure they are fit enough and are suitable for the activities you are looking at participating in. If in doubt, ask your local vet. As a rule, very short nosed, flat faced dogs or the smaller breeds are not suitable.
It is also worth noting that in many cases a permit or written permission to allow you to train your dogs, coupled with third party insurance, is required before you can use bike, scooters or rigs on many public areas such as Forestry Commission land. For more information on training permits, please contact either myself or your local Forestry Commission office.
Finally, the BSSF is hosting a round of the IFSS World Cup this winter where most of the disciplines mentioned (apart from skijor and pulka) will be represented and the countryís leading athletes will be competing. More details will be released once the dates and venue have been finalised, but it will no doubt be a great weekend of dog sport and well worth attending!