Hot dogs who relish the cold
Andy Martin visits Suffolk where the forests ring with the noise of husky races
Sceptics will probably put such sightings down to mass hysteria or abnormal meteorological phenomena, So let me correct myself and say that the sleds were, in truth, chariots, three-wheeled low-slung rigs designed to accommodate the lack of at least one abnormal meteorological phenomenon. "Tragic isn't it?" groaned Fred Palmer, organiser of the Omega Husky Racing Championships, "when we haven't been above freezing for a month and we've got people who have struggled here through two foot of snow with chains on their tyres."
But the huskies did not seem to mind. I have never been at a noisier start line. Like wolves howling at the moon, huskies go crazy at the sight of a harness and a vehicle. They start revving up and are impatient to be gone. They live to tow. You do not need a leash for these animals, you need two or three leashes. Once they are strapped in, a couple of muscular brakemen and an anchor contraption are required to hold them back. Chocks away and they go from a standing start to 25mph in one second flat. Four miles and 15 minutes later the dogs steam across the finish line, their tongues dangling like pink stockings hung out to dry.
The Inuit use these dogs as their workhorses, but also as alternative radiators and curl up in their igloos with them. The Siberian husky only arrived in this country in 1969. Sally Leich, a reflexologist who is racing a total of 22 dogs and has another 19 at home, was the first to bring one to England and to work a pack in harness. "Once you have the dogs," she said, "racing is the best way to exercise them." She holds a degree in psychology and an MPhil in animal behaviour and was drawn to the husky because it is as close as you can get to the wolf in a domesticated animal. "There are two sides to them. They are highly social, extremely friendly and sensitive. And they're extremely lethal hunters. They need people. But if you're a rabbit or a cat they're a dangerous animal."
The Omega Grand Prix races are nothing like as epic as the Iditarod in Alaska, the coliseum of husky racing where dogs pull their professional mushers 1,045 frozen miles over 12 to 14 days. But one woman who would rather be in Suffolk than Alaska was Lisa Palmer, who has been instrumental in developing the sport in England. "These dogs have incredible endurance, but they are not machines. You have to think of their welfare. If money came into it, that might go by the board. In Alaska you can make a living out of it. Here the champion gets a tacky cup - and a box of dog food." She has driven a team of six dogs in Canada, but 10 or 15 miles was enough of an ultimate experience for her. "I'm not tough enough for a thousand. I don't want to have to take a gun out with me to shoot a moose. Or squat behind a bush in sub-zero temperatures."
The call of the wild and a Jack London-style rapport between man and beast attract a huge range of people. Kitchen fitters yelled out "Hike" (go) and "Yaw" (left) and "Gee" (right), cheek-by-jowl with sub-tropical plant operatives. But the coolest dude in Suffolk was an ex music industry mogul by the name of Jean-Marc ("JM") Littman. He wore a ponytail and Oakley shades to race in. "I used to be out raving every night. Now I talk to the trees," he said. Although still theoretically based in Cheshunt, he is a fully fledged wilderness man who becomes lyrical when he talks of his dogs.
"The Siberian husky has a very low metabolic rate and can cope with lower and higher temperatures than any other dog. They love the snow, but they can lay out in the sun in summer too. The dogs drag me into this. They love it. It's a very spiritual thing. They're all independent, they make the decisions. So it's such a gas when they do what you want them to do. And it's such a drag when they don't." JM dreams of going to live in Canada but contents himself with tapping into the "sled-dog net" on the Internet, and organising a race in Glenisla in Scotland in March.
His young dog Storm jumped up at me and licked my face and I was glad that, unlike Scott of the Antarctic, Littman of the Highlands would not have to eat his huskies when his rations ran out. They have their own room and a television and curl up on his duvet at night.
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