Mushers from across Western Canada arrived in Prince Albert on Monday for the Canadian Challenge Sled Dog Race.
© Daily Herald photo by Jason Kerr.
Dr. Kate Robinson, one of the vets at the Canadian Challenge vet check, inspects a sled dog on Monday.
The day was all about preparation as the 17 mushers brought their dogs down to the Prince Albert Exhibition Grounds for the preliminary vet check.
“The biggest concern and the main concern and focus is always the dogs,” musher Jason Campeau says. “For us, having the vet checks is crucial.”
The vets look for muscles and joint pain, as well as any damage to the paws and harness rubs. They also check the hydration levels of the dogs.
“We don’t tend to have a lot of problems here,” head veterinarian Ruth Sims says. “(The mushers) know their dogs really well.”
Most mushers are grateful for the assistance. They say the vets are like a second pair of eyes.
“Sometimes they’ll pick up on something you didn’t realize,” musher Sid Robinson says. “Most of the time you know there’s an issue there, but sometimes they’ll find something.”
Most mushers will run their dogs 700 or more miles to help them prepare for the race.
“By the time you come through that every dog’s got some little issue going on,” he says, although that’s not always the case.
“Some dogs are just about bullet proof,” he says with a laugh.
Most of the issues are minor things that won’t keep the dogs out of the race. Mushers will simply massage the dogs, or care for them at trail checkpoints.
“These dogs get checked every race, so they see a vet far more often than a regular dog,” says Sims. “This isn’t unique to the challenge.”
Mushers usually bring backups if there’s any doubt about a dog’s ability to run. They use the vet check as a final chance to see how healthy the dog is. Fortunately this year has been relatively injury free.
“We’ve seen some really nice dogs this year,” Sims says. “They’re coming through in really nice shape.”
With the vet checks out of the way the focus now turns to the racing. For Campeau, who won the 8-Dog Canadian Challenge last year, this is a chance to qualify for the prestigious Iditarod race across Alaska. He says one of the toughest parts of the race is the toll it takes on the Mushers body.
“You don’t get much sleep,” he says with a laugh. “Last year during this race there’s times where you start imagining things when you’re out there. I think the big thing is just monitoring that.”
For other mushers, like his wife, Jennifer, it’s a chance for both dog and musher to gain experience. She’s competing in the 6-dog race with some of the younger dogs for the second time.
“You might be turning you’re sled around and getting everybody worked out and hoping everybody doesn’t get tangled up,” she says. “It’s just giving them that experience. They’re going to be so excited at the beginning of the race.”
Finally, for mushers like Robinson, it’s a chance to partake in a favorite hobby.
“I’m strictly recreational,” he says with a laugh. “If I finish, and that’s always my goal, I’ll come in last. It’s just about guaranteed.”
For Robinson, it’s a chance to get outside and team up with some very athletic animals.
“They say that the sled dog is the fastest land animal on earth over distance. The cheetah is the fastest over 200 yards, and then the antelope, but once you get up to a couple (or) three (or) five miles nothing can touch a dog and working with that kind of talent is fun.”
After the vet check there’s the mushers banquet, where mushers get their last well-cooked meal for a long time before sleeping in a soft bed. After this they’ll be up early, and eagerly anticipating the race, along with their dogs.
“These dogs really do like doing this,” says Sims. “This is not something that the mushers make them do. These dogs are upset if they don’t get to go.”
The Canadian Challenge Sled Dog race starts in downtown Prince Albert at noon on Feb. 18. The 12-dog teams will race to La Ronge and back, hoping to complete the race by Feb. 22.