Mushers the scourge of lovers

Keith Elliott at large
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The Independent Online
There is a leafy lane near Northampton where courting couples never go. In almost every way, it seems ideal: secluded, picturesque and easy parking. Yet lovers only use this romantic setting once.

Picture the scene: your arm is round the one you love (or would like to). That old devil moon (the only light for miles around) is casting its magic spell. The moment is right. You lean over and... out of the darkness, lights blazing, comes a scene from Hell: a pack of wolf-like dogs howling like something from a Hammer film, hauling a man on a giant tricycle who is screaming strange words at them.

"Yes, we've disturbed quite a few cars with the windows steamed up. They don't stay for very long," admitted John Evans, husky-racing enthusiast and one of the perpetrators of this unusual contraception. "I feel a bit sorry for them. But at this time of year, night-time is the only chance we get to practise, because we work during the day."

Welcome to the world of sled dog racing, the ultimate way to parade your pooch (though nobody would ever think of these slightly sinister-looking dogs with their killer eyes as pooches). In fact, racing is almost the only way to exercise a husky. "These dogs are not pets," Evans, a founder member of the Siberian Husky Club of Great Britain, emphasises. "As a club, our biggest expense is the rescue service, taking them back from people who find they can't cope. These dogs don't reach their height of dastardliness for two years - and then it gets worse."

Stories abound of huskies escaping and tearing pet cats and hamsters into bite-sized chunks. Scarcely the ideal companion, you would think. But five of the Evans' seven dogs sleep in their bedroom (most of them on the bed). "We'd get the other two in but there just isn't room," Penny says.

And this weekend at Aviemore, the Winalot British Sled Dog Championships will attract more than 1,000 dogs, a remarkable figure considering that back in 1978 the first such gathering attracted just six teams to Guildford. This year, there are 53 sled dog races, using not just huskies but samoyeds and malamutes, throughout the British Isles. It is a spectacular growth when you consider that the Sports Council refuses to acknowledge sled dog racing.

"They say the musher's input is not enough to be classified as a sport," Evans says. "That's ridiculous. There's a sight more input than Prince Philip has with his horses. I'd like to see someone from the Sports Council trying to control a two-dog sled - especially in the dark."

But even in daylight, mushers can never relax and enjoy an exhilarating ride at speeds up to 20 mph, because of hazards like rabbits and deer. "If the dogs see a rabbit, they will turn immediately and chase it," Evans says. "You end up in a ditch and the dogs just carry on. Then you've got to run after the rig and hope the dogs don't go too far before they get tangled up. I haven't had any broken bones - yet."

Evans is a photographer but, with his large frame and huge black beard, he could easily pass for a professional musher. In fact, he has appeared in just that role in Frankenstein: The True Story, Goldeneye, Steven Spielberg's cartoon Balto as well as Smirnoff and Tunes advertisements.

He discovered huskies when he went to London to buy a camera. He saw one at Euston station and was smitten by its haughty looks, its widow's- peak face and its latent power. Instead of a camera, he bought a husky, though he did not know that was what it was. "We thought we had a runt malamute, because there were no pictures of huskies in books. Then we heard about a Nordic dog show, went along and discovered what we had."

The Siberian Husky Club was formed, and inevitably, racing the dogs was soon part of its activities.

Sled dog racing started in Alaska at the turn of the century. Its most famous race is probably the Iditarod, a 1,000-mile haul across hostile Alaskan terrain to commemorate a legendary dog run carrying diphtheria antitoxin to Nome from Anchorage. Nowadays such races are big business, with professional mushers and prizes of $1m (pounds 600,000). In Britain, you win a trophy and dog food.

Alaskans have snow. Britain, generally, does not. The racers mainly use Forestry Commission land but at first, even this was difficult. "When we phoned up about the possibility of racing the dogs, they suggested we contact White City," Evans recalls.

Without snow, British enthusiasts have adapted the American training sled. This is a giant version of a kiddy's tricycle, with dogs hitched to the front and the musher ostensibly steering from a platform at the back. Evans says: "We are probably the best in the world on our rigs, but we don't get the chance to compete because of quarantine laws." The rig will take as many as 10 but extra dogs are not always an advantage. On a winding track, manoeuvrability is more important, unless you like close encounters of the tree kind.

Huskies, which can travel at up to 25 mph, sleep outside at -40C and pull 15 times their own weight, are trained by being taught to pull a tyre, and progress to sleds. "Fitness is very important," Evans says. "Though our races are generally four to seven miles, we feed the dogs on greyhound food to give them speed, stamina and strength."

Particularly the latter. Mushers must fix restraining ropes to their rigs once the huskies are attached, or it means a long chase to retrieve them. Calling "Here, boy," doesn't work with these dogs. The only words they know are Haw (left), Gee (right) and, best of all, Hike (go) - probably so named because that is what the unlucky musher has to do, often for miles.

Even in Aviemore this weekend, the dog teams expect to be racing on paths rather than the white stuff. "We pray for snow - and then we pray for ourselves," Penny said. Her husband agrees. "You travel faster on snow. But though we have brakes, they don't stop you. It's fine when you're going in a straight line, but when it comes to corners..."