Cry mush and let slip the dogs of sport

As the first “legally blind” entrant to complete the gruelling Iditarod dog-sled race through the frozen wilds of Alaska, Rachel Scdoris should have had no problems with a 7,8km jog through an Mpumalanga forest harnessed to a single dog.

In truth, the run was a piece of cake for the 21-year-old Oregon native, in the country as a guest of the Highveld Sleddog Club to compete in the South African championships in Belfast last weekend.

But her canine running mate, a 10month-old Alaskan Husky called Magic, found the course too tough for his young legs—so Scdoris picked him up and carried him the last few kilometres.

Dogsledding in South Africa? Despite numerous recent sightings of snowflakes in Gauteng, we’re a long way from Call of the Wild. The local counterpart is “dryland sledding”, with dogs pulling contraptions with two, three or four wheels instead of runners.

The sledders hit a nasty hurdle after the championship—news that the National Council of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NSPCA) would probe the event in its anti-dog-racing drive.

There have been concerted efforts to introduce greyhound racing recently, and the NSPCA is holding the line. “All dog racing is illegal in South Africa,” said Marcelle Meredith, executive director of the NSPCA. “Whenever you have competition, you have the potential for abuse.”

Meredith held preliminary talks this week with Alan Witherden, president of the South African Federation of Sleddog Sports.

If the sight of “mushers” without mush was a little surprising in Belfast’s 5C pre-dawn, the leading dog teams left newcomers nonplussed. “Husky” conjures up images of blue-eyed wolf-dogs howling in the night. Those are Siberian huskies, or their bigger cousins, Alaskan malamutes.

Alaskan huskies, particularly those on view last weekend, come from the other side of the blanket. They’re closer to a hound than a wolf, with short brown fur and brown eyes. They’re canine speed machines—and they bark, rather than howl.

Scdoris, who has been partially blind since birth, explained that she used a team of 16 Alaskans during the Iditarod in March, which she finished in 12-and-a-half days—three days behind the winner, but way ahead of the “lanterne rouge” (“red light”, a term borrowed from the Tour de France for the back marker) who struggled to the finish after almost 20 days, having been caught in an Arctic storm.

She has a kennel of about 100 dogs—“once you’ve got four, you might as well have 100”—and, when she’s not racing, runs a business offering sled-trail rides to tourists in Oregon.

Is the NSPCA right to worry that this is a cruel sport? All 60 four-legged competitors were screened on Friday by six Dullstroom vets who checked their hearts and other organs and examined coats and pads. On Saturday and Sunday, immediately after the races, they ran further checks.

With racing starting at 6am and finishing two-and-a-half hours later, the dogs appeared to suffer no heat discomfort. There is a danger of applying human standards—the dogs were clearly bursting with enthusiasm; once in their traces, they had to be held back while waiting to start.

Other categories besides the carts included “bikejorring” (riding a mountain bike behind one or two dogs), the scooter (a no-pedal two-wheeler) and “canicross” (walking in harness with a single dog—or carrying it, Scdoris-style).

Perhaps befitting his stature as president of the Highveld Sleddog Club, Fred Smit had to endure just one playing of Who Let the Dogs Out? at the awards dinner. His challenge ended in chaos on Saturday morning when the traces broke and his team of six Alaskans ran free. Derrick Opperman abandoned his hopes of winning to help Smit round them up.

The course, graded for the championships through forests on land belonging to a timber company, began with a couple of tricky turns that provoked a sharp rise in decibels from the “mushers”.

Not one, I’m sad to report, yelled “Mush!”—I guess you’d have to have snow for that. But other phrases tinged the early morning air blue after a German shepherd in the two-dog bikejorring did a Paula Radcliffe and stopped for a “comfort break”. The next couple of entrants had to do some skilful riding as their dogs broke stride and direction, lured by the enticing smell.

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