Women, Huskies and 20 Below Jonathan McCormick
A windless clear day of intense sunshine, an ice blue polar sky, and knee deep powder is the setting as hundreds of spectators bask in the Cariboo’s best weather, overlooking the Jack Gawthorn Memorial Dog sled course, 5 km north of 100 Mile House. Mushers from Washington, Germany, and British Columbia congregated in January for prize money and another opportunity to do what they do-race their dogs.
The course is particularly inviting for viewers to watch the entire race from the comfort of the Clubhouse bay windows or catch rays standing above the starting gate. Fans can mingle with mushers, take pictures of sleds and dogs and become involved in shop-talk with anyone and everyone. One fan safely reached out from the sidelines to grab the lines of a passing team that had lost its musher. Excitement not found in suberbia.
Dogsledding is an equal opportunity thrill that couples the speed, strength and endurance of a dog team with human strategy. Women comprised 50 percent of the entrants in the four-dog race and 20 percent of all events in the race. Langley’s Cindy Weltzin, 28, says she hit the runners at age two and 1999 put her in the over 30 year category. Experience brought her second place in the four-dog race. Armstrong’s Vicky Decoffe, 31, placed third in the two day, four dog team race. Decoffe’s, Daniella and Mikaela, have their own teams-although not in this race-and assist with the family’s kennel and 40 Siberian Huskies. Full-time mom and dog breeder Decoffe says the prize money helps defray travel expenses. “Kennel costs for 40 dogs can be stiff,” says Decoffe, “but having a sponsor keeps the expense within reason.” The greatest joy for Decoffe is the family activity with husband Jim and the love of dogs and the outdoors.
Musher Chrissy Schultz, of Cowichan Bay on Vancouver Island agrees. Although active with horseback riding, gym work-outs, motorcycle riding and being a volunteer fire-fighter, Schultz says the necessary qualification for dogsledding is not physical fitness but a love of dogs. A home-support worker when not mushing, Schultz would like to take her sport into schools and share her 18 year experiences with a four dog Siberian Huskie team.
Schultz does not need snow to race. Indeed. Cart races are held regularly throughout the year on Vancouver Island and the lower Mainland-check with your chamber of commerce-where wheels replace runners on her $550., three metre, 20 kilo sled. Sledding in snow is much easier considering the softness of a landing says Schultz, who will be in 100 Mile in January to pit her skills against the other mushers for the coveted Gawthorn trophy.
Gawthorn was a lower Mainland suburbanite who tossed in the hurly-burly lifestyle for the spirit enhancing guide business and the solitude of the Cariboo. He and his team went missing on a routine run in 1991. Daughter Chris Kuby and a team of volunteers operate the memorial, headed by Chantelle Ross. Ross, juggles her schedule between being a full-time mom, the proprietor of the Wolf Den Bed and Breakfast, and husband Jamie-co proprietor, dad, musher, guide and outdoor writer. Ross sees dogsledding gaining spectator popularity due to its diversity. There is something for everyone says Ross. Kids love watching fourth place Gawthorn finisher Jessica Vogler, compete against adults and everyone enjoys, fun and food under the sun. As well, musher Lou Weltzin, takes age to the other end of the health spectrum proving age is irrelevant. 100 Mile’s Pat Evans, originally from Mission, desired a less stressful environment, so she and husband, self-employed builder David, and children, Tyler, and Sarah, headed for the Cariboo and developed Tatuk Kennels. Although Evans grew up on a farm in the Fraser Valley, she considers herself a role model for urban women who want to try something different without battling male egos.
Vernon’s Laurie Bright, considers dogsledding her main activity next to being a full-time mom and caretaker of 30 Alaskan Huskies. Mushing for 12 years, Bright plans to involve Trinity, and Clint, when they are ready. Although endurance racing such as Alaska’s 1600 km Iditarod, or Quesnel’s Gold Trail is not for her, she sees the increase female participation and four time Iditarod winner Susan Butcher as inspiration for women to enter the sport or spectate.
Coupling careers and sport is not unusual for Vancouverite, Nancy Riemersma, who loves the speed and equal competition of men and women. Riemersma trains 20 Alaskan Huskies and operates Albees Sewing Centre in North Vancouver. She and partner Peter Watson race eight and six dog teams transported in a customized flatbed which houses 16 doghouses.
But the excitement is not just in the participating. Minutes before the first team heads for the start, the cacophony of anticipation emulating from scores of Huskies, grips spectators to a tighter hold on their espresso while straining for a glimpse of the teams heading for their adrenalin rush. Karen Peterson shared her excitement with fellow observer Ashelee Chambers, “I enjoy the proximity to the teams and the course rather than the limited view I had atYukon Quest’s endurance race in Whitehorse.” Amy Anderson, of Chemainus loves the speed and plans to compete against her dad, Randy Anerson who placed seventh in the six dog race-the one in which Laurie Bright placed second.
Jayde Andress, veterinarian, Chia Wen Hsu, obstetrician from Terrace and Debbie Ferguson, a post-graduate student from the University of British Columbia, loved the excitement and family atmosphere of the race and plan to be back each January with friends.
The sun, the food, the affability and the rush of seeing dogs leaping against their harness eager to run, produce exciting, exhilarating days, yet remarkably relaxing weekend.