However keen I was to begin my time working with sled dogs I have to admit that if you had told me four years ago I would be – voluntarily – packing up my van and heading four hours across the country to spend New Year’s Eve in the forest, I’m not sure I would have believed you.
But that is precisely what happened this year as we decided to slip one final rally into 2016 and see if we couldn’t ring in the new year following on the tail of a very successful last rally on the Salisbury plain. The Christmas turkey not even completely finished we were once again packing the van and setting a 2:30 am alarm to head east to our first ever UCSC rally in Thetford at Kings Forest West.
The longer we are involved in this sport the more important we realize three key components are of any rally to determine whether or not it’s worth a long drive: (1) a good trail (2) a good organiser (3) good competition. You can go along to most rallies and manage to have a good time so long as the dogs are happy – but when you’re cancelling black tie events and very special champagne dinners and driving four hours through blinding fog on what was once a holiday in your calendar…it needs to be an event worth that commitment.
Though this is our first rally with this club, we knew the trails in the area are good, we were lucky enough to know that our fellow mushers were top competitors and we had heard very good things about the organiser from more than one other team. So it was with less trepidation and regret than you might think that we came into the far away Kings Forest, arriving to an absolutely freezing morning and the most stunning forest sunrise I’ve seen yet this year.
We were afraid several times we might have to turn back given the severe fog on the road…a motorway turned into chalky blankness in the high beams can be extremely nerve-wracking several hours in. However the fog began to lift just as the sun did and we arrived to find a venue absolutely packed with mushers who had the sense to camp the night before, and friends and fellow competitors waiting.
This event has become much anticipated in the mushing community we have learned over the past weeks in preparation for it as the entries rose and rose to really impressive numbers. There were approximately 150 entries across both Nordic and Open classes. The event was hosted by the United Canine Sports Club and organised by Sarah Robinson and Paul Keen.
The musher’s meeting began first thing with so many teams to sort and prepare for the day and we were barely parked before I was rushing down in the early morning frost to hear what the plans for the day were. There were so many of us there it was almost difficult to find a spot to stand where you could clearly hear, but the information was given very efficiently and succinctly and we were soon sure of what was happening when and exactly where we needed to be.
The trails for this event consisted of four different distances for the different team sizes – a huge investment of time and effort on the part of the organisers but it worked great for the dog’s runs. The 8, 6 and 4 dog trail was 4 miles, the 3-2 dog and bikejor was 3.2 miles, the canicross, scooter and older Junior class was 2.5 miles while the relay and the younger junior trail was 1.2 miles.
As we were running in the freight dog class and being one of the later teams out our teams’ event jobs started early and they were soon off marshalling and start timing for the bigger classes whilst I had a moment to take stock and get set up.
I have to say, this was a great venue. Not only were the forest trails excellent underfoot for the dogs (even on the second day after a night and full morning of rain when they became very sticky with mud) but the area for setting up was one of my favourites this year. With the staggering 150 teams going out with exponentially more dogs and people on site it never felt over crowded, and we never struggled either to get our dogs to and from the start line or to walk them between runs. The forest around where we camped (on the road not too far from the start line) was riddled with nice little trails so even with so many people there along with the general public we never struggled to find a quiet place to stretch the dogs.
As the United Canine Sports Club caters for more than just Nordic breeds some of the rules are a bit different than other clubs we more generally run where setting your dogs off from the van is allowed as well there being no appointed snubbers. I am always a bit trepidatious for how this joining of breed types will work with the specific needs of our breed but in this case I can report that both the organisation and the mushers in attendance were all so incredibly professional that we never encountered a problem or even any particular difficulty. Any issues that did arise were so swiftly and carefully handled that everything went on unbelievably smoothly (from the point of view of the musher at least – I can only imagine the stress and effort that must have been going on behind the scenes for it to run as smoothly as it did!).
Though I did not have a job myself I heard from several mushers that the level of help, gratitude and helpful information given by the oraganisers to those who were helping was second to none, and they were all clear on exactly what was expected of them and felt very supported by the club staff.
As we watched the big teams go out (somewhat in awe of how smoothly most of them managed it without a traditional snubber and wondering how we would manage with our two pups!) we felt more and more the day’s run was going to be a good one. The nerves rose a little as the time slipped by and the sun came out briefly just before the 2 dog freight class as it is so often prone to do, and we watched the temperatures rise with trepidation. Luckily the trees are high in Kings Forest and the ground was still freezing from the morning, so when we set off our team they were raring to go and came back in smiling.
It was a very long day of running on Saturday as even after our teams came back in around noon, the day was far from over with the smaller trails still to be set, the relay event to come and the recreational class going out at near 4 pm just before the sun set!
So it was with happy resting dogs and a crisp afternoon that we set about making our New Year’s Eve a good one. The event offered a curry dinner provided by the catering van as well as a night’s festivities, which by the looks of some mushers on Sunday morning were very well enjoyed! Also many others decided to throw their own little events with friends and fellow mushers so as darkness fell the entire forest was lit with the little glow of camp lights in Coleman shelters and laughter as we all rang in the New Year with drink and food and good friends. Or at least made it as long as we could before crashing in our vans for a good night’s sleep before running the next morning!
The first day of 2017 met us somewhat inauspiciously after such a cold and crystal clear night before with drizzling rain hitting the roof of the van. The idea of getting out of the covers into the deep wet and heavy mud of a day of rallying seemed absurd, but with marshal duties awaiting, clearing up from the night before and dogs to prepare we were all soon up and out and gearing ourselves up for a second day.
Heavy morning rain never makes for the most atmospheric of rallies, but once again the efficiency of the organisation could be felt in every aspect of the day. When incidents did occur they were handled immediately and with a great deal of professionalism from all involved. It was a great pleasure for us to spend a full weekend amongst so many proficient mushers.
The mud and wet meant that the times for the second day were often a bit slower – but the dogs were ready and eager and many of them relished the trail on the second day even more.
There were such a huge number of entrants and classes I hardly know where to begin in reporting the results, but some truly great runs were had over the weekend. On the longer trails Keith Johnson in DR3-4 Open class finished with two very fast and incredibly consistent times over the weekend coming in at 11:38 seconds on both days! He also took first place in DR2 Open with a weekend time of 20:16. Also Gareth Bowyer in the DR 5-8 Nordic class took first with an overall weekend time of 24:44.
In the Canicross F Open class Kim Mazzucca took first place with an overall weekend time of 24.45. And a shout out to our Scottish rally-neighbour David Parry who was crazy enough to strap a Malamute to himself and run the trail! Well done to all!
Our own team did very well on the second day winning the class and coming third overall in a nail bitingly competitive DR1-2F class where the top three places were all a minute apart on the Sunday and all within sight of each other on the long straight home. First place in this class though went to Tom Wheeler after his amazing time on Saturday of 16:39. I also have to give a massive thank you to Phillipa Lamerton and Jamie Davis who were there to help us hold our dogs at the start, without their joint help our team may very well have left on the heels of the team before them!
Jamie Davis, who ran his four dog Sibe team in DR 3-4 Open class was returning to the event one year on from his first ever rally at the same event last year and had this to say: ‘This was our second year at the UCSC New Year’s Eve rally and last year was our first ever race. It is always so well organised, friendly and fun! It has now become a family Christmas tradition!’
I further can’t finish this article without a nod to Storm Wheeler – who braved the weekend away more ill than I’ve ever seen anyone willing to spend the night out in the cold and set off dogs in the rain. Not only was she there for her own team’s support and invaluable help – she also helped set us and several other teams off. The musher’s mate is often the unsung hero of events, without those extra pair of helpful hands so many teams would never make it to the start line…so I give a small toast and a nod to everyone who helped anyone this weekend and this season…especially if you did so when you were ill!
With the wet and the cold and the long drive ahead with remnants of Christmas still lingering in wait for our return, many of the mushers made a quick exit on the Sunday. In truth, I don’t think our own camp has ever cleared away as quickly as the thought of a drive through more wet and dark was too much to bear. With quick good byes and thank you’s to the organisers we were once again away heading home, and re-planning our season to hopefully include more rallies in this direction.
Once again a huge thank you to everyone involved for putting on such an exemplary event, it has definitely made our calendar for next year!
For full rally results and event details please see the UCSC website: http://ucsc.org.uk/events.html
"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.