THE BIG LAND CHALLENGE: LABRADOR, CANADA

Even among the dedicated mushers who run competitive races, the intrepid souls who enter Labrador’s Big Land Challenge Sled Dog Race stand out. It is one thing to stand on the runners for miles on end behind a team of dogs. It’s quite another to do it laying flat on your stomach, with no brakes and no real way to steer the sled. It’s like going from driving a car to flying an airplane,” said Scott Hudson, Big Land Challenge organizer. “That’s what it’s like going from a basket sled to a komatik.”The komatik is the sled that helped to build the Arctic and Sub-arctic. It is also the only sled allowed in the Big Land Challenge set to run this year March 8, 2008, in Goose Bay as part of the town’s annual winter Snow Break Festival. Komatiks have no footpads for the musher, no handle bar, no brush bow, no drag and no brake. Instead, the komatik is made from a series of flat pieces of wood set parallel to each other on two runners that end in upward curved tips at the front. The luge-like racers are around 6 feet long and weigh in at around 20 pounds.Ideally, competing teams will use another tradition of the north – the Labrador Husky, the hearty breed which Hudson’s ancestors relied on for thousands of years. “Before there were snowmobiles, the Labrador Husky made the difference between life and death,” said Hudson, a member of the Labrador Métis Nation and a dedicated Labrador Husky preservationist.Native to coastal Labrador, the Labrador Huskies average 80 to 100 pounds for the males and 60 for the females. Wolf-like in appearance, these dogs can’t bark. Rather, they howl like wolves. They use their strong muzzles and teeth for breaking the bones and tearing the flesh of their staple diet – seal and caribou meat. The dogs’ eyes are always golden brown. Four pure Labrador Huskies live at Hudson’s Northern Lights Kennel. They keep company with 11 other dogs who are mixtures of Labrador, Alaskan, and Siberian huskies. “These are the tractor trailers of dogs,” Hudson said of his beloved Labrador Huskies. “They average 8 to 0 kilometers an hour, and they can do that for 10 to 12 hours. At hour twelve you’re going the same speed as at hour one..”Hudson recalls his mother telling him about his grandfather going out across the bay from his home in the coastal community of Black Tickle to haul firewood with a team of these dogs. “It started snowing really hard and he couldn’t see a thing,” Hudson said. “He tied himself onto the komatik and told his lead dog ‘home’ and he got him home. Stories like this can be heard up and down the (Labrador) coast.” This dedication to their human pack members is one of the Labrador Husky’s main qualities, Hudson said. This is almost enough to make up for one of their less desirable qualities – the dogs’ tendency to fight among themselves. “These dogs can be their own worst enemy,” Hudson said. “They are a pack animal and have a real pack sense. Towards humans they’re great but towards one another, it’s something else.” This means that the musher must be ever vigilant to prevent fights before they occur. “If two of these dogs don’t get along, it will never happen,” Hudson said. “I spend a lot of time figuring out who will work together in the team.”However, once the lineup is settled on and the four to eight dog team hooked to the komatik, Hudson said there is nothing in the world like it. “I prefer it to the basket sled,” Hudson said. “It’s a better sensation – you’re closer to the ground and it’s a better ride.”Racers cover the 20-kilometer Big Land Challenge in about an hour. The course takes the teams through woodland and across sea ice in a loop that starts and ends in Goose Bay. As if the sight of a dozen or more teams hooked to komatiks for the start of a race is not daunting enough, Hudson said the Big Land Challenge is a mass start race.“Each team has five or six dogs and they’re all lined up in a row behind the start line,” Hudson said. “When the horn blows, they all shoot off.” Within the first kilometer Hudson said there tends to be a bottleneck of sleds and dogs, and during the first race two teams did get into a tangle, but he added it got sorted out with little incident. “Laying face down on a flat komatik in a line up of extremely experienced mushers is something which definitely gets the adrenalin running,” said past Big Land Challenge racer Neil Pepper, an engineer from Bletchley, England, who first visited Labrador in 2003 when a lost passport forced a change in travel plans. Pepper said that it is the combination of a good race and the opportunity to interact with the coastal Labradoreans that will keep him coming back to the Big Land Challenge. “There was a good camaraderie amongst the mushers,” Pepper said. “We were running through some narrow forest trails which caused some traffic jams (and) there were opportunities to sit and chat with the person closest by.”Pepper owns several Akitas in the UK, including a therapy dog. He has been involved with mushing for a number of years, and has made arctic trips to Greenland and Spitzbergen. He also mushed with the noted late dog driver Norman Vaughn. “This race is firmly centered on maintaining the traditions of Labrador, the use of dog teams, and the flat komatik,” Pepper said. “In this it is quite unique.” 2008 is the third running of the race – it was run in 2005 and 2006 but was canceled last year due to insurance issues. According to the race rules, teams must have at least four and no more than six dogs to enter. The entry fee is $20 with a $1,000 cash prize for first place, $750 for second place and $500 for third. For any musher considering the event, Hudson recommends first building a komatik and getting in some practice time.In order to steer the sleds, mushers rely on their leaders as well as shifting their own weight on the sled. There are only two speeds on a komatik – full ahead and stop. To stop the team, Hudson said that mushers use what is locally known as a “chain drag,” a two-to-three foot loop of chain carried on the sled. “When you want to stop you throw that chain over the nose of the komatik,” Hudson said. “That allows it to slow down enough so that you can flip the sled over.” Since the front of the runners have an upward sweep, when the sled flips over, those runners dig into the snow and stop the team. Or, ideally they stop the team. “It gets damn wet that close down to the ground especially if the temperature is warm,” Pepper said. “When the ground is cold and you make contact with a snow bank you can expect a good covering of powder.” “You have to be so quick,” Hudson said with a laugh. “You throw the drag, jump off, flip the sled over and pray you don’t loose the team.”As any musher knows, when it comes to running dogs, whatever can happen, will happen. In 2006 Hudson was racing with a smaller Labrador Husky-Alaskan in single lead who apparently had other things on her mind. “We got to spot on the trail and she kept trying to take the wrong turn,” Hudson said. “I’d throw the chain, flip the komatik, turn her back and by the time I got back on the sled, she was heading in the wrong direction again.”After spending some time repeating the process, Hudson said he was hot, sweaty and saying things “you wouldn’t want to hear.” As he rested a moment on the sled, “The leader looked back at me, turned her head, and chewed the piece of line connecting her to the team and took off the way she wanted to go in the first place,” Hudson said. “Here I am, the organizer of the race, sitting in the woods with no leader.” Eventually, a snowmobiler came along and got him back to town. “I’ll never live that one down,” Hudson said, adding he does plan to run the race again, but this time with a different leader.Most participants hook their teams using the tandem lines. However, a few do use the “fan” or “single trace” hitch that connects each dog to the sled on a different line.Hudson hopes to use events like the Big Land Challenge to bring needed attention to the Labrador Husky, a breed he said is in danger of being lost completely. “Before there were machines, there was the Labrador Husky doing all the work and people relied on them,” he said. “Now, with snowmobiles, the job of the husky has changed and people want the faster dogs for racing.”Promoting the breed also helps to promote the aboriginal culture and traditions of the area. He is working to have the breed recognized as the Heritage Animal for Labrador. “Our young people are often not into the culture or even educated about our heritage,” Hudson said. He hopes events like the Big Land Challenge can spark some interest among the youth. “The whole reason to do a race like this is to keep our traditions alive,” Hudson said. “We want to showcase our area and culture to people far and wide.”This year, Hudson said, he has had inquiries from mushers in Quebec and Ontario.Neil Pepper advises mushers to come with open minds. “This is not the Iditarod or the Yukon Quest, but it is something special,” he said. “There are few places in the world where you will ever be able to take part in an adrenalin-charged mass start of flat komatiks. This event will bring you into contact with a truly wonderful bunch of people and enable the preservation of old traditions and the unique Labrador Husky.”As for Hudson, whether it’s racing or on an expedition, it’s all about the Labrador Husky. “Last year I turned down an all expense paid trip to New York City so I could go on a 200 mile expedition with the dogs,” Hudson said. “I’d rather sit on a komatik at 30 below and look at dogs.”For information on the Big Land Challenge Dog Sled Race, go to www.biglandchallenge.com or email info@bigmailchallenge.com Interested mushers can also call 707-896-3489 or write to Big Land Challenge Dog Team Race, P.O. Box 879, Stn B, Happy Valley-Goose Bay, NL, Canada, A0P 1E0.Julia Bayly is a freelance writer-photographer and musher living in northern Maine. She has grand plans of entering the Big Land Challenge in March, just as soon as her husband builds a practice komatik.

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