Event Report: AMWA Buttersteep and Swinley 3 Stage Rally - 19th and 20th March 2016

After a winter of mud and rain and constant training and early mornings and long drives, suddenly – it was the last rally of our season. The final rally of the AMWA championship and for many the last rally of the year was a three stage event held over two days and two locations, with the day rallies taking place in Buttersteep Rise, near Swinley, and the night rally taking place a few miles down the road in Swinley Forest.

This was one of the first rallies we ran with our current team last year, and as the final rally of the season, it was bound to be a sentimental event. It is also one that has been a bit of a jinx for us – as we never seem to finish this rally without a host of problems (last year starting by going completely the wrong way!) But even with all the hiccups our team seems to have – we find ourselves looking forward to this event, and saddened that it then marks the end of a long winter of working.

We were extremely fortunate with the weather as a late cold winter (or early cold spring?) meant decent temperatures to run the dogs even near the end of March (in particular on the Saturday morning and evening where it was quite cold.) Rain was forecast but it kept to a drizzle at worst all weekend, and so our morning drive through the dark to the last rally was one of sleepy mental preparations for the event ahead with little concern about rising temperatures. It was looking like it had all the earmarks of a fantastic rally.

Hosted by the Alaskan Malamute Working Association (AMWA) and organised once again by Mark and Tracy Squires, this was a very well-run and organised event which everyone seemed to enjoy. As always our morning start on the Saturday was a very early one, arriving at the site for 7:30 am rig inspections. We had a flat tyre on one of our rigs which required immediate attention when we arrived, so in the cold early morning light I sat about stretching and staking out the dogs whilst Tim sorted out the rig in record time and rushed it up to the rig inspection.

As always this was an extremely social rally –with lots of familiar faces and everyone excited to get on with a weekend filled with running the dogs. Three stage rallies are always that bit more intense and we’ve come to thoroughly enjoy them. This was also the first time the youngest member of our team, Sawyer, was taking on a three stage rally, running on his own in the M1 class.

The location of this rally is a good one, for the event itself as well as for setting up. There’s a lot of good, easy parking at both venues and given that most of the mushers are spending a lot of time at the day venue on Saturday before running the dogs later that night, it’s great that there’s such a good space for staking the dogs out as well as taking them on nice quiet walks away from the race itself.

It all starts off quickly on the Saturday and with the musher’s meeting over just after 8 am, the teams were soon out and ready to run. The smaller malamute teams were some of the first out – and with our Flintsky teams running in both M1 and M2 it was a bit of a juggling act getting everything in order (but a big thank you to Mark and Tracy for excellent organising skills - it all went off without a hitch in all three stages – though poor Tim did have only 12 minutes between runs on Sunday!)

The Buttersteep run on Saturday was a mixed trail, starting out with hard packed dirt and giving way to muddier tracks and woodland paths. After the woods there’s a sandy, up and down section of roadway, finishing on a long flat section of fire road before the wet & muddy straight to the finish.

Times were very close on the Saturday with Mark Squires finishing just five seconds faster than Kevin Spooner in BS class. There was also 14 seconds between Paul Pateman and Graham Pickavance in DS and 36 seconds between Stuart Murray and Steven Roberts in CS.

The times continued to be quite good on the Saturday, and blissfully the temperature seemed to drop as the day went on. By the time we had all the dogs stretched and fed and in their crates fast asleep it was extremely cold, which the later running teams must have absolutely relished.

Last year we hadn’t been quite sure what to do with the time between running the dogs in the morning and racing again quite late in the evening – and ended up spending a long day in a somewhat grubby pub nearby. Camping was available for vans and caravans at the site over the weekend for £5 – so for most it was an easy way to relax and rest up for the night run, but as we planned to go home after the night race, it was off for an afternoon in Farnham of coffee and stodgy food. So this time we arrived back at Swinley Forest as the last of the cloudy daylight began to disappear, completely refreshed and ready for round two.

Event Report: AMWA Buttersteep and Swinley 3 Stage Rally

The walk between start and finish line at the night rally is a slightly longer one – but it is in fact a rather nice set up with parking being available at either area. Therefore it gave the mushers the option of parking nearer to the start line if that was the easier option for them (sensibly this was true for many of the larger teams) or near the finish, where for it was actually extremely nice to be able to come over the finish line almost directly to the van for water and a rest. This is the second year we’ve done this rally – and I enjoyed it even more on the second visit.

The night run at Swinley Forest is and continues to be one of our favourite trails for both us and our dogs. The sandy track makes for fantastic runs, and the dogs absolutely revel in. The trail was mainly hard packed sandy roads winding their way through the woods with some challenging uphill sections and some fast downhills. The times across the board on the night show that our dogs weren’t the only ones who enjoyed it, with Jay Wadrup finishing in 14:46 in MS class, Colin Drevor at 14:41 in ASFDC, and Stuart Murray at 9:19 in CS.

The tireless crew at A Salt N’ Battered stayed on through the night, filling us all with the much needed substance of fish and chips – hot and smelling amazing near the start line. Before very long, the last of the runs were coming in, dogs stretched and watered and the forest began to empty as mushers headed back to their caravans for a much needed rest (or in our case headed off for a very long drive through the night due to massive road closures…) while the AMWA organisers took down the event for the evening.

The next morning was a hard one to face when the alarm went off as we only managed about 3 hours sleep with the driving mishaps – but it was the last heat of the last rally of the season, and even with the drizzling rain that met us at the door as we headed back towards the van, our spirits weren’t damped in the slightest. The runs from the night before had really excited us for our prospects on the last day, and everyone seemed to be looking forward to getting back out on the trails at Buttersteep.

The drizzle was kind enough to ease off fairly quickly into the morning, and with two teams to get ready it was all business from the moment we arrived. The conditions were very similar to the previous day – albeit a bit muddier from the early morning rain - and stayed, for the most part, fairly consistent.

There was a general sense of good humour and enjoyment on this the last rally day of the season. The dogs got some nice long stretches in the woods surrounding the trail before and after their runs, good socialising was to be had as friends and family of some of the mushers came along for the day. Tonin and Vicky Aguilera brought along their husky family for a rather elaborate family reunion which I was lucky enough to get a few photos of – a very special occasion for them all to be together again.

There was a long time between the early morning runs and the afternoon awards ceremony – where we all waited with a quiet anticipation to see where we would finish, over the weekend and in the grand scheme of things. AMWA hands out its Championship trophies at the end of the rally once the event trophies have been given, so most of the mushers stayed around and socialised whilst the later teams made their runs and a few mushers took new young dogs out in the recce class.

Corinna Clarke was back running her beautiful red girl Denali after taking the last few rallies off whilst Denali recovered from a minor surgery and came in first overall for the weekend in S1 as well as taking first place spot in the championship. Michael Clapperton and Tim Anderton-Tyers were mere seconds apart in every stage of the M1 class this rally, with Tim Anderton-Tyers winning by just 31 seconds over the three stages, and Michael Clapperton taking first place in the M1 Championship.

It was a great season and event for working siblings, with Articrainbow siblings taking the 2nd and 3rd places on the M2 podium, as well as 1st place in M1. Team Sockeye with Diane Jackson took first place in all three stages of the weekend coming in first overall as well as taking home the championship trophy in the highly competitive M2 class while three of the siblings also placed well over the weekend with Ruth Whitfield finishing 3rd on the Sunday with ‘Ice’ in scooter class and 5th place on the Sunday with two brother team Finn and Fergus in M2. And in the championship for M2 Northspirit puppy teams came in both 2nd and 3rd place. We look forward to seeing what all of these youngsters can accomplish again next year!

The event awards ceremony was presented with its typical sense of humour by Mark Squires and the competitors on the day. Trophies and chocolates were presented by Tracy and their daughter Emily and the sun came out just a little bit for our final farewell to the season.

John Binding, chairperson of AMWA, got up to say a few words about the end of the season and the rally before handing out the trophies for the winners of each championship. I regret to say that I don’t have the space to list all of the winners from this season but please see the AMWA website for full results of the 2015-2016 AMWA championship.

Massive congratulations to everyone who participated in this year – the time, effort and dedication it takes to get out with the dogs, train them in the cold, early hours before and after work and spend weekends in the rain racing them as long as the cold weather allows is a testament to you all. Very well done for the work put in, and we look forward to seeing you all on the trail again next year!

Please see AMWA website for full results and times from this weekend’s rally.

"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.

Red Anderton-Tyers is a writer and photographer originally from Houston Texas. Her kennel, Flint Sky Alaskan Malamutes, run working sled dogs in various sporting events in the UK. SnowPaw Store is delighted that she has joined our team of article contributors and Red will be writing race reports on many events attended this season.