One Sunday mid-July, focus writer Millie Freeman arrived in Rotorua, pre-dawn, to watch a little-known sporting event taking place in the Kaingaroa Forest near Waiotapu, and chat with a Tauranga woman who is totally hooked. By day Melinda Davidson is the Health and Safety Advisor for Bay Venues; at weekends she’s a musher – the term given to someone who races sled dogs. Think huskies in Alaska, the Iditarod trail, and well, snow…
It’s dark, 5°, but there’s no snow in Rotorua. There doesn’t have to be – Melinda and the 35 or so other mushers gathering for the morning’s events race their dogs using wheeled rigs and scooters. On forestry roads and tracks, teams of up to six dogs delight in hauling their mushers in the dawn chill, occasionally turfing them off if they take a corner too fast.
Mushers follow a set course which tests their dogs’ endurance, speed, concentration and ability to follow commands. To prevent the dogs overheating, racing has to take place in temperatures below 13° and humidity is also monitored; hence the early morning start in the middle of winter.
“So, why do you do this again?” I ask Melinda as we wake up with hot coffee, waiting for dawn to break and racing to begin.
“I love to see their excitement,” she says. “I get a rush from seeing them have so much fun, from being active with them. And the colder the temperature, the more excited the dogs and faster they go. They have more energy.”
Melinda and her husband Clint currently have four dogs – Zeus, Luna and Kronos, all Siberian Huskies, and Ellie, an Alaskan Malamute. “They are family to us. They sleep in the house, rather than being working dogs that live outside.”
Growing up on a wildlife park in Wales could be one pointer for Melinda’s interest in dogs, but in fact she became “petrified” of dogs after one bit her, aged four. Not until her late teens did she learn to trust them again, and, upon meeting Clint, decided they wanted a pet. They took in rehomed and ‘rescue’ dogs, first Zeus in 2014 at 12 weeks old and then Luna as a companion nine months later.
With their growing ‘fur family’ they moved to a lifestyle property in the Kaimai Ranges, where the dogs have plenty of running space. As I’m about to find out, these dogs love to run, and that’s why the mushers taking part in the event endure these crazy early mornings, chilly temperatures and many hours of training with their beloved dogs – it’s a commitment to their breed; this is what these dogs were bred to do.
BORN TO RUN
Prior to dawn breaking, the camp was still; just a few hushed conversations as mushers made their preparations. Only when the dogs were let out of their overnight kennels and harnesses attached did the excitement start to build, as the impending thrill of the chase sent the camp into a woofing, yapping, howling frenzy.
“This is why we all do this”, Melinda tells me as the mushers assemble their teams, one behind the other, ready to set off at timed intervals over the start line. The dogs, each held by a handler, strain at their harnesses; they dance around, yipping and laughing at each other like a bunch of eager school kids at sports day. Back at camp and wishing it was their turn to run, the non-racing dogs join in the frenzied chorus. The countdown begins, the handlers steady their grip; the dogs look back, tongues hanging out, desperate for the ‘Hah’ from their mushers allowing them to break free and run.
Once over the start line, the barely contained excitement turns into a sleek streamlined team. Their barking stops, ears prick back, tails drop down, they’re in racing mode, in their element, focused only on the task ahead – to pull their ‘sled’ until the end point. Well, sometimes with a little leg-powered assistance from the musher.
Huskies and malamutes are naturally suited to the sport (in 1925 huskies became famous for the emergency ‘serum’ sled run to Nome in Alaska, which prevented a diphtheria epidemic), however other breeds also delight in the racing – what dog doesn’t like to chase? At this event, run by Waikato’s Northern Alaskan Malamute Club, a wide variety of dogs – some very fast over short distances – were taking part.
RACING FOR EVERYONE
Sleddog racing, on wheels, began in New Zealand in the 1980s but became more popular in the early 90s. The NZ Federation of Sleddog Sports (NZFSS) formed in 1993 and now there are around 15 clubs in the country, each running regional events with divisions for single dogs up to six-dog teams, over distances ranging from around 3-6km. Men and women are equally represented in the musher community, and children are also encouraged to participate.
Club members would love to see more dog owners, especially those with huskies and malamutes, getting involved in the sport. Maintaining the blueprint of their breed is important, said one musher. Dog welfare is paramount and a vet or vet technician must remain on site for all events.
It’s not only the dogs’ love of the sport that keeps Melinda and Clint involved – now into their fifth season. Getting together with the other mushers is also where great friendships are made. “It’s like one big family,” says Melinda. Certainly it’s a family affair for the Davidsons, although Clint doesn’t race – too much jarring on old knee injuries have put paid to that. But with the fleet of mostly homemade race scooters and rigs being used, there is inevitably some expertise needed for repairs and maintenance. “There’s always something to do,” he says.
In August the family travelled south to compete in one of New Zealand’s premier snow sledding events – the annual Wanaka Sled Dog Festival. It was the first time Melinda and the dogs had raced on snow and, naturally, had some differences to contend with.
Meanwhile, over in Alaska, mushers are training for the renowned 1000mile Iditarod race, held annually in March. While Melinda and Clint would love to be spectators one day, taking part is not on their bucket list. Instead, their dream is to expand their dog family and become temporary foster parents for huskies needing a new home. Unfortunately many end up in rescue centres because, although they make great pets, huskies have different needs than many dogs.
“Taking on a husky is not a light decision to make,” says Melinda. “It’s all or nothing; you can’t do it half-heartedly. They need space to run and they need company.” Yes, they need company, and, with a twinkle in her eye adds, “We’ve got room for more.”