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|Feeling a rush to mush
Inaugural sled dog race in Svalbard starts Saturday at UNIS
It seems this whole "world's northernmost" thing is really going to the dogs.
Groans aside, Svalbard will add another category to its lengthy list of such distinctions when the inaugural Trappers' Trail dog sled race gets mushing at 11 a.m. Saturday. The two-day, 70-kilometer race from Longyearbyen to Bikkjebu and back is open to all Svalbard residents with one or more dogs.
Sébastien Barrault, one of the race organizers, said he recently started taking dogs out on sleds and, along with other members of the Longyearbyen Hundeklubb, thought Svalbard was due for an organized event.
"At some point we thought it would be fun to do something fun with these dogs, just a day trip," he said. "Then we decided to do something bigger."
"It's long enough to be a race, but it's also short enough that people who are not experienced can do it also," he said. Also, "if people want to look at the race it's in the scooter area, so it's easy."
Barrault, who is studying sea ice after moving to Longyearbyen five years ago from Switzerland, said he started training a team of seven dogs he and a friend own about two months ago. The team is mushing 20 to 40 kilometers on alternating days and has completed about half the Trappers' Trail course so far.
"I don't want to win it," he said. "I just want to come back with a decent time."
Eleven teams are registered as of the day before the race, with most consisting of two members who will switch driving duties after the mandatory overnight stay at the Bikkjebu checkpoint. Two of the teams have mushers who have participated in other sled dog races in Norway, but Barrault said the first Trappers' Trail is something of a trial-and-error process.
"It's a first race so we don't have great expectations," he said.
Barrault said he'd like more teams, for instance, but "the bad thing is it's high season, so the commercial kennels would like to take part in it, but can't."
On the other hand, the casual arrangements mean that, while the official registration deadline was May 1, Barrault said he is willing to consider applicants who apply past that date.
"Some people don't feel that comfortable driving their dogs in town," he said. "Not everyone has a dog they can steer like a joystick."
The first-day course to Bikkjebu is the easiest, but longer at 40 kilometers, while the return trip is over steeper terrain. Enforcement of the route will be done with tracker-capable GPS systems all teams are required to carry, but Barrault said there don't appear to be any obvious shortcuts across terrain that can be traveled legally. Prizes are simple, including drinks from Svalbar and a new donated Therm-a-Rest.
Categories for the race include skier/animal teams with one to three dogs that will compete only on the first-day course, small teams of four to six dogs and large teams of seven dogs or more. Barrault said he is especially open to late registrations from skier/dog teams, noting it may be possible for them to hitch a snowscooter ride if they don't want to ski back.
Barrault said he'd like to make the race a bigger event in future years, but one of the challenges is transporting dogs and sledding equipment from the mainland if teams there are interested. He said extending the race might make such arrangements more worthwhile.
"Maybe we make it longer, three or four days, and add stops like Barentsburg," he said.
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