The canine chariots of fire

Deep in the heart of the forest, huskies are helping the humans race. Andrew Baker follows the scent
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The Independent Online
THIS weekend marks the start of another season of grand prix racing, thrilling contests in which man and machine flirt with the laws of physics in the reckless pursuit of speed. But Damon Hill and Michael Schumacher have no need to curtail their winter holidays: the machines in question are not measured in horsepower, but dogpower.

The Omega Grand Prix series of dog-sled races, which got under way this weekend at Chepstow Park Wood, in Gwent, may not have the high profile of Formula One racing, but for the intrepid pilots the experience of being dragged along by a six-dog team is every bit as exciting as high-speed motoring. "It's like being in a car with the throttle stuck open and no brakes," said Chris Kisko, who won the warm-up race for the championship last week. "You feel like you have no control at all."

Chris and his wife, Caroline, keep 14 Siberian huskies at their pretty cottage in the Suffolk village of Culford, and train them four times a week in Thetford Forest a few miles down the road. Training, like racing, must take place early in the morning while there is a chill in the air: thick-coated huskies do not enjoy running in warm temperatures, and in the summer their training runs commence at four o'clock in the morning.

Things are a little more civilised in winter, but even so there were few other people around when the Kiskos and their team arrived in the forest for training last Thursday.

Thetford Forest is a bleak, beautiful landscape of tall pines and golden bracken, spookily silent - until husky-harnessing time. Hooking up six huskies to their complex kit is not an easy task, and the dogs do their best to make the job harder, bounding and howling and pawing the ground in frustration.

"Choosing a well-balanced team is very important," Caroline explained as she joined up the line of huskies. "They've all got to be able to keep up or they'll get trampled." The Kisko top six consist of three brothers and a sister who are nearly five years old, and a tearaway pair at the front of the team who are not quite two: Fly and Zip, or as Caroline termed them, "the lunatics". Zip certainly had something of a White Fang look about him: pure snowy coat, bright blue eyes. But like the rest of his team he was a big softie. Huskies may look like wolves, but the only way they could kill would be death by licks.

Finally, all were installed, and Chris donned his crash-hat and gloves and climbed aboard the sled or "rig" which, with its bicycle handlebars and wheels and sturdy platform, looked like a cross between Ben Hur's chariot and a Raleigh Chopper. He gripped the handlebars tightly, yelled "OK!" and Caroline unclipped the rope which had been securing the rig. The team yelped and leapt forward, and Chris disappeared down the track like a stone out of a catapult. The best way to watch Chris and the dogs in action was to ride pillion with Caroline on the "support vehicle", a chunky-tyred quad bike.

The first corner was the hairiest, as the dogs were fresh and eager and the rig was probably travelling at close to 30mph. The track forked, and for a moment it seemed inevitable that the huskies would go one way and Chris the other. But at the last moment he shouted "Gee!" and the huskies swung gently right and around the corner. Twenty-five feet or so behind Fly and Zip, Chris and his chariot followed.

The controls on a husky rig consist of handlebars for steering (not much use if the huskies have other ideas) and a pair of fairly ineffective brakes. But control is really based on four simple commands, and "Mush!" is not one of them.

" 'Mush' is such a mushy word," Caroline explained. "We need clear, crisp words. 'Okay' means go, or run faster, 'Gee' means go right, 'Haw' means go left, and 'Whoa' means stop - but that one doesn't always work."

Competitive husky racing was invented in Alaska around the turn of the century, using huskies imported from Siberia: lean, muscular animals bred for speed, just like their distant descendants, Fly, Zip and friends. In Britain the sport began to take off about a decade ago, and has now grown to the extent that at Chepstow today about 100 drivers and some 500 huskies will be in competition.

Like motor rallying, husky races are run against the clock, with each competitor sent out on the course at three-minute intervals to minimise the possibility of tangles and collisions. There is no amateurish standing around with stop-watches: it's all state-of-the-art light-beam timing techniques these days.

"Standards have improved enormously," Chris Kisko said as he watered his top team, his six-pack, after their run. "When we started out it was a considerable achievement to get 20 yards. Now things are getting really competitive among the top teams and all sorts of technology is coming in. Suspension for the rigs will be the next thing."

So an already expensive pastime looks like it is about to get even more pricey. Custom-built rigs cost pounds 500, and a well-bred Siberian husky the same amount. But many of the best dogs are exchanged among friends: gossip is constant in husky circles, and everyone seems to know when a potentially speedy litter is due.

Husky racing is a cosy sport, but immensely endearing, not least because of the way that the humans involved are so keen to insist that the limelight belongs on their canine partners. "Some people think we're a little bit ridiculous," Chris Kisko said. "But to be this dedicated you have to believe in the dogs. All we want is for people to accept that the dogs have done something great, and respect that."

It is an unpredictable pursuit. "Anything can happen," Chris sighed. "Spectators or other dogs can distract your team, or you can get a puncture on your rig. But ultimately it all depends on the dogs." And every dog will have his day.