Outdoor: Unloose the dogs of squelch

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The Independent Online
Imagine gliding silently across the snow, a wintry scene unfolding before you as you emerge from the forest, pulled by a team of willing huskies. Now imagine bumping squelchily along muddy tracks, with a foggy backdrop of Northamptonshire farmland, pulled by a bunch of wet dogs.

Eric Kendall takes to the sled -

on wheels.

Given the option, most people would go for the snowy ride, but Britain's dog sledders rarely have a choice. Sledding here takes a special combination of dedication to the sport, love of the dogs and a bit more besides; it's no joke to house, train and feed a couple of them, let alone eight or 10. The surprising news that they've been banished from the Antarctic in favour of petrol power becomes as clear as, well, mud, when you see a team in action.

For most of a British season, training and competition involves rigs: three-wheeled chariots that would have earned Ben Hur a steward's enquiry for their lightweight steel frames, state-of-the-art mountain bike components and knobbly tyres. In winter, when most people train after dark on weekdays, powerful headlamps are essential.

Getting a team organised to run is fraught, with or without snow. The straining, yapping and moaning, amid a tangle of cords and fur, reaches fever pitch. Once the mushers have got their boots on, the dogs come out, harnessed one by one and linked together on gang lines - amazingly, the leaps and turns of the team don't cause a total snarl-up as often as would seem inevitable.

Sensing the off, the dogs are almost as excited as the mushers. Their fidgeting, baying and lunging exude anticipation which finally explodes into forward motion. At the chariot end, all you can do is hang on tight as the rig jolts forward, and your shouts - it doesn't really matter what - urge them on, while you paddle with one foot or even run up steep sections. The brakes, which lie reassuringly to hand, are only good for preventing the rig from running downhill into the dogs' legs - not for pulling the team to a halt. If mushers come off, they can be towed along for ages on the end of a safety line which ensures they never lose the team.

Once you're up and running, the terrain provides half the challenge. Well-trained dogs follow the track and respond to the commands "Gee" (right) and "Haw" (left). They'll even stop (Whoa) when you tell them, unless they've got fleeing wildlife in their sights: badgers are a favourite, but anything alive will do.

When a lead dog smells something worth further investigation, and performs a sharp turn, a good team follows in unison in a disciplined manoeuvre that has a "years of training" look to it, right up until the moment when you career into the back of the bunch. That's all it takes to learn that the rig unfailingly goes where the dogs go, and that with all the mud, the brakes don't really work, even if you've got the reactions to grab them in time.

Untangling the mess is a chance for team bonding, but it's also the one time the dogs look as though they may tear each other apart. Under way again, you can concentrate on how you're going to turn around (a kind of deliberate version of the above) and, when you've done so, how to con the team into retracing their steps (never popular). Then there are the same smell-traps on the return leg, for which you are at least forewarned, but so are the dogs. Running a circular route is a better bet for all concerned.

Depending on the distance run, the dogs may well be itching for the off again almost before they've stopped. And even if they look tired, don't take any chances: for these creatures, pulling is not just a way of life, it's an instinct - hitching them to the bumper of your car could be the quickest way to lose both your dogs and your more conventional form of transport in one go.

The dogs

The best sled dogs are relatively light-weight, good-natured Siberian huskies. They are ideal for hauling a shared weight all day at a steady pace. In racing terms, smaller teams travel at comparable speeds to bigger ones but generally run shorter courses. Between two and eight dogs are normally used. Various other breeds are also raced in different classes.

Though Siberian huskies obey many commands as sled dogs, they can't be trained off the lead - once they're off they're away for good. In this respect they make lousy pets. They are well adapted to a cold, snowy environment: along with thick coats, they have webbed feet, and long eyelashes and hairy ears to keep out the snow. Though they are considered to be working dogs, it's surprising to find how affectionate they are. It's doubly rewarding to have one of them leap into your arms through sheer enthusiasm, as to the uninitiated they look like wolves.

For further information contact the Siberian Husky Club of Great Britain (01604 686 281). Send an A4 sae (enclosing two extra first-class stamps) for breed and dog-sledding information to: Penny Evans, Honorary Secretary, SHCGB, The Old Post Office, 3 High Street, Lamport, Northampton NN6 9HB.

Dog-sledding in the UK

Scotland is the obvious place, with the best chance of regular snow. The Aviemore Snow Rally 1998, on 24-25 January, is the best place to spectate and find out more about the sport, with a good chance of snow and around 180 teams competing in the Glenmore Forest. Contact the Highlands of Scotland Tourist Office (01479 810363) for details. Other competitions are held throughout the UK, mostly on wheels.

In the first week of February, weather permitting, Alan Stewart (01546 603915) will be sledding through the Cairngorms with his 12-year-old son, John, and meeting up with the polar explorer Borge Ousland, who will ski into the range towing his Antarctic sledge. The aim of the expedition, "Travellers of the Cold", is to go through the UK's most remote area at a demanding time of year, using dog teams under conditions in which they excel.

Dog-sledding abroad

Alaska's 1,049-mile Iditarod Trail Race, held in March, is the best known dog-sledding event. Canada and Alaska, where sledding started, have endless terrain and opportunities for day trips and longer expeditions. Try Algonquin Way Kennels (001 613 332 4005) for trips into Algonquin Park, Ontario.

There are also chances to drive or ride in Iceland and Scandinavia, and, increasingly, in Continental ski resorts.