And then…there was winter. The thing that all UK mushers have been waiting for so avidly and with such high hopes since the season began back in October finally descended on the country, and in perfect timing for the lead up to some of the biggest racing of the year in Aviemore, Scotland. And luckily for us, it was also in time for the Alaskan Malamute Club of the UK (AMCUK)’s third and final rally of the season in Greystoke Forest. In an area known for its cooler temperatures, and with a strong winter forecast of below freezing numbers and even snow, it was with intense excitement that we packed the van – this time including the sled – and headed North.
The trails in this area are fondly remembered by many, and with the added bonus of snow the turnout looked to be a good one. For some mushers this was another welcome club event closer to home, and for others it represented a very long drive from other parts of the country, and for the lucky ones a nice stop en route to a week or more of running the dogs in the snows of Scotland. For us this was the longest drive we’d undertaken yet this year for an event, but with snows impending and trails and cold weather waiting, we set off towards Cumbria with a heavily loaded van, filled with excitement.
The promised weather was not to disappoint, and as we awoke the morning of the rally at a hotel in Preston with ice covered van and temperatures well below freezing, the anticipation grew. The dogs were excited to a whole new level and running a new team with a green youngster their first time on a sled was bound to be interesting. And as we soon found out, we were not to be alone in this.
The light broke over Cumbria just as we were nearing the turn off the M6 towards Greystoke, revealing a landscape wild with hills and deeply draped in a perfect white snow. It was as if we had gone to bed in England, and woken up in the arctic. Such a perfect introduction to a rally could not have been dreamed up. The temperature as we neared Greystoke forest dropped to -5 degrees and the icy back roads suddenly left us realizing just how far we’d come into the north (and that snow chains were definitely advisable!). It wasn’t long (in fact just 1/5 mile from the rally site) that we found a hill which had been turned to sheet ice from the traffic before us that would not allow us to go any further without appropriate winter footing for our van. A stylish back-slide into a shallow snow-filled ditch and we soon found ourselves and other mushers either helping, or being helped onto the road and up the icy hills surrounding the event.
This rally – organised by Ian Pullin and Ryan Reader was beautifully tucked into the forested hills of upper Cumbria, in a picture perfect sledding location. The temperature stayed beautifully below freezing all day, and much of the Saturday morning run was in brilliant sunshine which lit up the snow in the best imaginable lighting for those much sought-after ‘sled dog in snow’ photos.
The journey to the event was an adventurous one to be certain, and the organisers spent much of their morning helping mushers and spectators alike get to the event and out of the odd ditch or over icy hills. They were fairly tireless in this – and deserve a round of applause for their calm and persistence in making sure everyone arrived safe and sound as a first priority, despite the inevitable delay in the proceedings of the event, something which was taken very much in stride, and all carried on without a hitch once we all found ourselves at the site.
Rounding the corner and hearing the dogs after the ordeal of the roads was an especially welcoming moment, not to mention being warmly met by others who had made it up the path before it had become solid ice. We had arrived – and deep in the sun-drenched snow, all the driving and slick ice was forgotten – as this is why we came. In fact – this is why we do what we do.
The trails were lined with very happy sled dogs from Canadian Eskimo dogs to Malamutes and Sibes – all very excited and eager to be out running on the snowy trails. Sleds were unloaded and prepared – many of which had not seen use in some years, and others which were being tried for the first time.
I also need to give a nod to the mushers and spectators of the day – for despite the weather and road based delays, not a grumble was heard, nor as far I could tell felt by anyone. Everyone seemed to be enjoying the venue and the weather so much that whether racing started at 9:30 am as originally planned, or 11 am – as it was re-set to, did not seem to matter.
The change in schedule meant a bit of frenetic-ness around the start times – but again the organisers rolled with the changes and adjustments were made as necessary. The mushers’ meeting kicked off some time around 10, where the trail was very clearly laid out, the new schedule discussed and everyone was well informed on what was to come. The original trail was set to be between 3.0 miles and 5.2 for the larger teams, but as the heavy snowfall had meant that trail preparations had to go on hold, the trail was cut overall to a safer and more sled-able 2.7 miles.
There was an epic walk to the start line – a downhill slope on the snow that took around 10 minutes to walk, which was a bit difficult, but allowed a much safer and actually very good take off starting point for the dogs. This did, however, mean that the first few teams running were late to the start, miscalculating the time it would take to arrive, and came in in a hurry on quad bikes ready for their race. As with everything else – it was all handled with very little flap, and changes were made as necessary so that everyone got out in order and had nice runs. Enjoyment of the trails was the order of the day, and the entire event had the overwhelmingly satisfying feeling of a whole lot of mushers out having a nice train together.
The first few classes out were the larger team classes, S6, S4 M4 and MB4 which headed out – largely without incident (though getting the hang of sleds again was interesting for everyone!). There were also large breaks between groups allowing plenty of time to bring in marshals and check trails with some of the smaller team classes going out later in the day. All together there were around 27 teams racing at the event.
The trails on Saturday were nice and flat and largely devoid of hills – a good track for a first run on the sled. Lots of long straights with few windy turns. Most of the trails were snow covered - only a few patchy areas with rough terrain showing through somewhat, and these were all easy to manoeuvre around. The trails were much more snow covered on the Sunday – with the fresh powder covering up some of the patchier areas from the day before.
For a number of mushers, this was their (and their dogs) first ever time either on the snow or a sled. A slightly daunting prospect for many but one that was equally relished with great anticipation. For what better epitomizes what we all got into the sport for than running dogs on a crisp winter morning through new snow?
Paul Keenan, who was having his first run on a sled with his four dog team (including three Canadian Eskimo dogs, Luna, Taala and Maple and his five year old Malamute Qimu) said of the rally, “For a musher to go on snow for the first time I was apprehensive about the balance and control I would, or wouldn't, have. Greystoke rally was great not just because it had the snow but because the people there were supportive. The energy around the camp was second to none. I loved every second of it and felt it was far easier than I expected. The organisers worked tirelessly and the success was a reflection of this. I am signed up for next year already!”
The temperature held beautifully throughout the first day and as the final classes began to run, a new heavy snow cloud rolled in, dusting the trail and mushers in a wonderfully picturesque drifting of snow. For others, however, there was still a drive to make through icy roads to get to wherever they might be staying for the night, so as the weather rolled in, some mushers made a speedy departure to warm up and enjoy a morning well run.
The snow continued on through the evening, promising for even better trails the following day. The morning broke with brilliant sun and a heavy coating of fresh powder and for those who made it back again through the difficult roads near the rally site (luckily almost all!) it was another day of great runs.
Bob Wadey, who ran in M1 with his Malamute Jinx – also undertaking his first snow rally on a sled - recounted this about the second day, “Waking to fresh snow on Sunday morning we headed out to Greystoke again for day 2.
On arrival there was an air of excitement as the word was the snow had made the trails really good and had covered over some of the patchy areas from the previous day.
There was vehicle trouble again for some, the snow proving too much in places for 4x4’s, and much ‘mucking in’ by everyone to help out. Flexibility by the organisers ensured that no one was disadvantaged or missed out on running.
For ourselves there was the long wait for M1 class to run, filled in by helping the bigger teams get to the start and back from the finish and cheering them on to bring them home up that final slope.
Finally it was our turn, and Jinx loved running second…what a rush, riding the sled on snow with this speedy pup and, as on Saturday, climbing the bigger hills on the latter stages alongside Mason and Adam (Sammels). Jinx and Mason both gained inspiration from each other while Adam and I did our best not to fall off.
At the end of the day, there were smiles all round, whatever the results as being out on the snow, many of us for the first time, and the camaraderie of all who were involved meant this was a special return to the calendar for this event – bring on next year and more snow!!”
For newbies and experienced sledders alike there were some cracking times on both days of the rally. The husky teams were lightning fast – with M Clark in the S6 class finishing the fastest time of the weekend at 9:55 on Saturday with an overall time of 20:32. The M3 class was a tight race between Louise Burgess and Dave Redhead, with Louise coming first on Saturday with a time of 19:56, but Dave crept ahead on Sunday to finish with an overall time of 42:35 – finishing just a minute faster coming first over the weekend.
For snow virgins as well there were some great times. Paul Keenan with his four dog team in MB4 made a slight detour on Saturday’s race, but came back Sunday with a very impressive finish time of 22:51. Tim Anderton-Tyers running an impromptu team of his malamutes Memphis and pup Sawyer in their first full length rally together (all three of their first time running in the snow) finished with a time of 21 minutes on Saturday. And in M1 Bob Wadey running his girl Jinx in M1 made up 3 minutes on his Saturday time on the Sunday, finishing with a time of 20:48, and Adam Sammels running his boy Mason came in first place on his first sled run, with a fantastic time overall time of 44.05. Mandy Longbottom said of Adam’s run “This was our first snow and we had such a good time. Mason ran his little socks off and even got a first…what a pleasure to see Adam and Mason at the finish line both with such huge smiles!”
A massive well done to everyone who raced this weekend – especially those out having their first attempt on the snow!
It was a fantastic weekend all around, and with so much help and support by everyone involved, it all felt extremely smooth despite weather mishaps and delays. The photographers on the day also deserve a nod of thanks for getting out there on the trails and in the cold (often in the ditch, Sammy Taylor!) to get some truly amazing shots of the event, which so many of us will always cherish.
Thank you to the organisers and helpers from the weekend for the work and effort put in to make such an enjoyable rally for both mushers and dogs – I think we all left looking forward to coming back next year!
For full race results, please see the AMCUK website.
More photos from this event can be found on our Facebook page.
"The opinions, observations and comments included in these race reports are solely from the writer and do not necessarily reflect the position of either Snowpaw Store or of any specific club. These reports are written from the point of view of a spectator and/or participant and though every effort is made for unbiased, factual accounts, they will likely not represent everyone 's experience of the event. You are warmly welcomed to attend events for a more first hand experience!"
All photos taken by Red Anderton-Tyers and used with her kind permission.