Canadian Challenge Sled Dog Race thrives on change

Matt
Matt Gardner
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Now in its 17th year, the Canadian Challenge Sled Dog Race has evolved over the years into a Prince Albert and area institution.

Keeping things fresh has helped the annual race maintain its appeal for racers and volunteers in a variety of ways.

The 2014 race -- which takes place from Feb. 17-22 and features 12-dog, eight-dog, junior and open races -- is no exception.

For the first time, the eight-dog race will serve as a qualifier for the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, one of the competitive sport’s most popular and prestigious events.

“The eight-dog race, normally up until this year, has not been a qualifier for any one of the two big races up north, which are the Yukon Conquest and the Iditarod,” Canadian Challenge treasurer Bernie Zintel said. “It was just our 12-dog.

“This year there’s a change. The Iditarod sent us a letter and said that we are approved with the eight-dog as well. So it’s something new for us and it’s something new for the eight-dog.”

Racers competing in the Iditarod qualifier must follow separate rules, the foremost of which is running unassisted

While the Iditarod development is the most notable change at this year’s event, race organizers consistently strive to vary things up.

The approximately 100 volunteers who keep the event running smoothly each year, for example, typically represent a mix of veterans and enthusiastic rookies.

“We have a lot of people that keep coming back year after year -- like myself, I’m a volunteer as well,” Zintel said.

“But then we try and add a whole bunch of new people each year, give us a hand,” he added. “If anybody’s willing to come out and help us at the banquet, we have a vet check for the dogs the day before the race starts and there we can use a lot of people, helping getting things set up and helping the vets.”

The route of the race itself has also changed, with this year’s race returning to its traditional starting point on Central Avenue in front of City Hall.

As Zintel explained, today’s 247-kilometre circuit from Prince Albert to La Ronge follows years of course adjustments.

We’ve always tried to make a better route, an easier route, a longer route. Bernie Zintel

“We’ve always tried to make a better route, an easier route, a longer route,” he said. “At one time when they first started, when I first started with them, they ran to La Ronge and back to Prince Albert.

“We don’t do that anymore. We run up to La Ronge, go up to Grandmother’s Bay, Stanley Mission and back into La Ronge with the big teams. That is our big change in the last four years and it is working out real well.”

Preparations are well underway for the 2014 race, with organizers feverishly working to find volunteers, sign up dog teams and obtain sponsors.

Zintel estimated that the Canadian Challenge is roughly halfway to reaching its goals for the volunteer drive. Organizers are also reaching out to Crown corporations such as SaskPower and SaskTel who have been reliable sponsors in previous years.

Thus far, four entries have signed up for the 12-dog race and two for the eight-dog, representing roughly a quarter of the typical number of competitors. Zintel said the biggest influx of racers usually signs up in early January.

Weather concerns are always a factor, but organizers are hoping for a good turnout.

“We expect a little more than we normally have, because the snow conditions are there,” Zintel said. “We should be OK for snow and ice conditions.”

Those interested in sponsoring or volunteering for the 2014 Canadian Challenge Sled Dog Race may contact Prince Albert Race Headquarters at (306) 763-1539 or via email at race@canadianchallenge.com.

Applications forms are also available at www.canadianchallenge.com

Organizations: Canadian Challenge Sled Dog Race, Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, Prince Albert SaskPower

Geographic location: Iditarod, La Ronge, Central Avenue Stanley Mission

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