Sled dog racing is a thing in New Zealand, and it’s growing in paw-pularity.
ACCORDING TO AMERICAN HUMOURIST LEWIS GRIZZARD, “LIFE IS LIKE A DOG SLED TEAM. IF YOU AIN’T THE LEAD DOG, THE SCENERY NEVER CHANGES.” GOOD POINT, LEWIS. ALTHOUGH I’M NOT SURE I’D WANT TO BE FRONT MUTT IN THE EVENT MOST OFTEN ASSOCIATED WITH DOG SLEDDING: ALASKA’S IDITAROD. IT’S THE MOST FAMOUS SLED DOG RACE ON EARTH. ACTUALLY, IT MIGHT BE THE MOST FAMOUS RACE ON EARTH FULL STOP.
(featured photo: credit: Lake Wanaka Tourism)
Contested annually across the 1600 kilometres from Anchorage to Nome, the mushers (drivers) in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race spend up to ten days facing all manner of Arctic Circle hell, including frozen rivers, snow-splattered mountains, despair, desolation and a gruesomely windy coastal leg called The Blowhole. It’s completely compelling, probably because the dogs are as super-cute as the event is super-dangerous, which brings a delightful tension to the whole thing that’s a bit hard to resolve.
In 1985, musher Susan Butcher’s team was attacked by a moose, which killed two of her dogs and injured another 13. Homicidal moose are less an issue down here on the underside of the equator, which is good news; turns out not only is dog sledding a thing in Aotearoa, it’s getting more and more popular. We had to investigate.
New Zealand has dog sledding? No way.
It sure does. And why not? As anyone who has read Footrot Flats knows, rural New Zealand is down with working dogs, and when it comes to the various sleds, rigs, scooters and retrofitted bicycles used in the sport, a touch of number 8 wire ingenuity is just the thing.
Dog sledding isn’t new to this country. Dogs were used for Edmund Hillary’s 1957/58 Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition, both to warn the crew travelling in the (roofless!) tractors about upcoming deathtraps like yawning crevasses, and to identify landing sites for re-supply planes. The dogs trained for the ice on the Tasman Glacier. Remains of their kennels can still be found at Husky Flat in the Tasman Glacier Valley. One of the clever canines on the expedition, Moll,
was born at Aoraki / Mount Cook. He never went home, staying on as a pet at the American Antarctic base.
There are two kinds of sled dog racing, dryland and snow, and New Zealanders do both. Dryland takes place on dirt roads or gravel paths and involves a range of wheeled rigs, while snow is the more familiar, Iditarod-style, format, utilising sleds or skis. Competitive racing kicked off down here with the South Island’s inaugural dryland sled dog race held at Dunedin’s Berwick Forest in 1986, an event now commemorated every year as the ‘Origin’ race. On-snow competition is younger, and rare. New Zealand’s only dog sled race held on snow is the annual Wanaka Sled Dog Festival, which started in 1991 and is held at the Snow Farm in the Cardrona Valley. Teams come from all over the North and South Islands for the chance to compete.
“THIS INVOLVES A SINGLE DOG TOWING A HUMAN ON SKIS, AND IS, FRANKLY, ADORABLE”
Snow is the new dirt!
Or is dirt the new snow? For the on-snow events, competitors are divided into classes determined by the number of dogs in a team. There are six-, four-, three- and two-dog sleds, as well as single dog ski- joring. This involves a single dog towing a human on skis, and is, frankly, adorable. The one- and two-dog teams race over shorter distances, around four to five kilometres, while sleds with teams of three dogs or more take on up to ten kilometres. At the Wanaka festival, the winners are awarded trophies, ribbons, wine, and, of course, dog food.
Dryland races also take place around the country throughout the winter, with an event running every two to three weeks, the New Zealand Federation of Sled Dog Sports has no less than 18 competitions listed from May to August 2020, from the rowdy-sounding Waitarere Howler, to the assonant Fosbender Fender Bender, to the Origin. (It’s not a year-round sport; summer is off-limits, as the dogs don’t race or train in temperatures of more than 14 degrees Celsius. They’re very furry.)
Dryland racing can have two dimensions, speed and freight, and there are all kinds of permutations. Three- or four-wheeled rigs are the dirt-friendly equivalent of sleds and are towed by three to six dogs. Land-mushers also use two- wheeled scooters pulled by one or two dogs (these are often converted/cut-down mountain bikes with their seats removed, though you can buy purpose- made scooters), or go down the bike-joring route, which is like ski-joring, but on a mountain bike. You pedal, the dog pulls. And for the rig-less and bike-less among us, canicross involves running four to five kilometres tethered to your dog by way of a harness and line. It’s more exhilarating than it sounds; as one sled dog enthusiast told us, the added dog power means “you do about three strides to your regular one stride”.
IN 1985, MUSHER SUSAN BUTCHER’S TEAM WAS ATTACKED BY A MOOSE
For the freight races, dogs pull sleds with extra weight added–a team of four dogs might carry an extra 91 kilograms in competition. These events favour the beefy Alaskan Malamute, who struggle against the smaller, faster Siberian Huskies when it comes to speed. There are also “weight pull” competitions, which are sort of a canine version of those Strongman Truck Pull contests in which the dudes drag tractor units around with their teeth. Some animals can move more than 1000 kilograms, which is Hulk-level impressive.
Well that sounds like a howler of a good time, how do I get involved?
The good news, especially with bike-joring and canicross in the picture, all you need is a dog, and it doesn’t have to look like the star of Balto.
The sport is very welcoming, with all manner of mutts taking part, including huntaways, pointers, labradors, collies, dalmatians, and (awe) terriers. It’s also a cracker for families. There are usually junior and peewee events, and the emphasis is on dog welfare and dog happiness, good learning for the short ones in your household. There are at least 15 dog sled clubs and associations around the country, so it’s easy to find one near you.
There are also companies offering sled dog rides (you drive, or they drive, you choose). Run by mushing legends Fleur and Curt Perano, UnderDog New Zealand does both summer and winter tours with traditional arctic sled dogs. The snow trips, which include an after-dark Night Run option, take place at the Snow Farm, while their summer tours run in Alexandra. You’re in good hands; Curt has official legend status as the first New Zealander to finish the Iditarod.
And at the Real Dog Company at Ranfurly, Nigel and Rose Voice offer kennel tours on their property. It’s your chance to learn a lot about things like pack mentality and dog pecking, as well as pat a really big Alaskan malamute (the largest of the Arctic breeds), and meet a pair of Canadian Eskimo dogs. Two of only 265 Canadian Eskimo dogs left on the planet, they are some of the rarest dogs in the world.
I’m not turning the page unless you teach me some sled dog slang.
Fair enough. As long as you promise that you will not, under any circumstance, look up ‘sled dog’ in the Urban Dictionary. A ‘swing dog’ is the dog that runs directly behind the lead dog; ‘termination dust’ is the first snow to coat the mountaintops in autumn, signalling the imminent end of winter (it would also be a good name for a double album of ambient existential electronica); ‘gee’ means turn right, ‘haw’ means turn left, and ‘heet’ is an alcohol fuel for cooking stoves. Hint: do not drink it. And how do you get the dogs going? ‘Mush’, of course.