IFSS WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS: DAAQUAM, QUEBEC 2009

Saint Just-de-Bretenieres, Quebec. These days, getting on a plane and assuming your checked luggage arrives at your destination the same day and time is a leap of faith.So imagine trusting the fate and wellbeing of world-class sled dogs to the uncertainty of modern day air travel.For many of the more than 300 teams competing in the 2009 International Federation of Sleddog Sports World Championships, there was no choice since mushing dogs to eastern Quebec from Europe was simply not an option.Neither was mushing from any of the other 16 countries from which racers and their dogs traveled to compete in the nine-days of sprint, skijor and pulka events carrying an overall $50,000 purse.For mushers like Hege Ingebrigsten, it meant booking passage and acquiring passports for the 19 members of her kennel traveling to North America with her from their home in Norway.“There is no rabies in Norway,” Ingebrigsten said. “The dogs all need medical passports that prove they have been screened for the disease before we can get back in the country.”Before even getting on the plane Ingebrigsten and her team drove for three days from Norway to Frankfurt, Germany for the flight.Ingebrigtsen’s dogs each traveled in their own Vari-kennel on the plane from Norway. Since car rental agencies don’t have dog trucks on hand, she retrofitted a rented cargo van into a dog truck by securing the kennels inside.“The dogs are accustomed to traveling and it’s not a problem for them,” Ingebrigtsen said. “I get nervous (and) it’s good to see them loaded on the right plane.”As a team, the Norwegians dominated the Worlds taking home 18 medals in all – seven gold, seven silver and four bronze.Ingebrigsten earned silver in the eight-dog and four-dog sprint and a bronze in the six-dog event.Countryman Andreas Fossness swept all four events he entered, taking gold in the one-dog skijor, the two-dog skijor the one-dog pulka and the Nordic combined.German powerhouse Rudi Ropertz was another musher who made the Transatlantic flight with his team, bringing 26 of his dogs in a specially designed air-cargo dog box.“I travel a lot with the dogs,” Ropertz said. “It’s not too stressful.”A retired engineer, Ropertz, 67, designed the special box to fit on a common trailer manufactured and sold worldwide by one of his sponsors.“The box can be lifted by a crane off one trailer, into the plane and then lifted off the plane and on to a trailer when we arrive at our destination,” Ropertz said. “I like traveling with the dogs – I can open each of their doors and let them run free and when I call they call come back and jump in their boxes.”So well behaved are Ropertz’ dogs that one remained calmly at his side as he watched the finish of the six-dog sprint races.At the Worlds, Ropertz won gold in the eight-dog and open sprint races, nearly losing out to his teammate German Klaus Starflinger in the open races when his near two-minute lead in the event dissolved on day two of the three-day race when a tangle at the start forced him to stop his team to re-group.“I don’t know why I do this,” Ropertz said during a break in the race action. “I just know I can’t stop, I love these dogs so much.”When he wasn’t racing, Ropertz was mingling with other mushers talking race strategies, sled improvements and dog care.European mushing and bikejoring champion Igor Tracz of Poland came to Quebec with four dogs who had to spend 10 hours on a plane after an eight-hour drive to the airport.“It was a very long day for the dogs,” Tracz said. “The first day here it was very cold for the dogs, but they are adapting well.”Tracz said his dogs did fine on the flight but he ran into a bit of trouble at customs when the Canadian officials confiscated 50 kilos of dog food.“They took my special food,” he said. “I don’t know why and then I had to go out and find some food that was close to what I use.”Luckily, Tracz was able to find a similar brand available in Canada.Taking the minimalist approach to the IFSS worlds was the two-man team from Argentina who traveled north from Ushuaia with one dog – their beloved husky Colmillo.“We flew to Buenos Aries to Toronto to Montreal to Quebec City and from there we took a taxi to the races,” musher Hugo Flores said. “Colmillo did really well mentally with the trip and he raced yesterday.”Colmillo raced with Juan Pablo Lovece in the one-dog junior skijor event and together they took the silver medal.“He’s a really good dog,” Lovece said. “He really liked racing here.”Flores raced the four-dog sprints, leasing three dogs from a Quebec musher, and finished in 22nd place.Back home in Argentina the two run a kennel of 90 dogs.For mushers like Flores and Lovece, the world championships are about more than racing.“It’s a place to share ideas and help each other out,” Flores said. “When I got here, I did not have a face cover for the cold (and) the Lithuanian musher gave me his.”Lovece was equally impressed by the camaraderie. “The Swedes helped me wax my skis,” he said.Traveling cross-country was just about as labor intensive as coming from overseas. Just ask Jennifer Probert and her partner Brian Sanford of Fairbanks.It took four people, each responsible for three dogs, on four different flights to get to Quebec.“We did it that way because Alaskan Airlines only allows you to have three dogs on the flight,” Probert said. “We all met up in Boston – it was a lot of logistics and the dogs seemed to do really well with the flights.”At the Worlds to race the four- and six-dog sprints, Probert said there were a lot of steps taken to get them to the race with everything thought out in advance.“We had to be really structured in our packing,” she said. “For gear all we brought were the sleds, the runners and gangline sections.”Sanford took the sled bag as his extra luggage and once on the ground, the team hit Home Depot to purchase buckets, food dishes and shovels.“The airport officials had a lot of questions for us once we landed in Boston,” Sanford said. “I’m not sure if it was policy or because they had just never seen sled dogs before.”As the first one arriving in Boston, it fell to Sanford to secure the rental car.“I had to pull the dogs off and then try to get them and my luggage to the rental place,” he said. “I couldn’t leave the dogs alone and you’re not allowed to leave unattended baggage (and) I was having a rough time.”In the end, Sanford was able to convince a Massachusetts State Trooper to watch the dogs while he went off in search of the rental car.“The novelty of having sled dogs helped,” he said.“I’m sure doing it all in reverse to get back home will be just as interesting,” Probert said.Making his first World Championship appearance was Damion Robb of Jamaica who ran the six- and four-dog sprints with dogs leased from Ken Davis of Minnesota.Robb’s debut at the races was marred on day one of the six-dog event when he was disqualified after alleged trail violations were lodged by Czech Republic musher Jiri Trnka, who was given a warning himself for improper finish line conduct.Robb and his support team regrouped for the four-dog sprints, finishing 20th overall. Jiri Trnka placed 11th in the event.Though a setback for the Jamaicans on the world circuit, Robb and his team were excited about their IFSS debut and future for Jamaicans in the sport.“This was not Robb’s first time out on the runners,” Danny Melvin, team founder, said. “He was training and racing in the USA all last season (and) he knows the dogs.”Davis agreed, pointing out the Jamaican was 13th overall last year in ISDRA rankings. “For Robb it’s all about the trust with the dogs,” he said. “ When he steps on the runners he’s the seventh member of the team (and) I trust Robb out on the trail.” Davis said.Davis coached the Jamaican sprint team last year and worked with Robb for more than a month leading up to the 2009 World Championships.The Jamaican Sled Dog Team was started three years ago by Melvin with major sponsorship from singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett.Most of the canine members of the Jamaican team are rescue dogs from the island’s animal shelters and any profits the team realizes go straight to the Jamaican Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.Melvin said the venture allows him to promote Jamaica, help save unwanted dogs and gives young Jamaicans an opportunity to train in the sport.This year Jamaican Newton Marshall has qualified for the 2009 Yukon Quest.For Robb, the sport is about far more than medals or awards.“Mushers tell me when you run dogs it’s not about winning the race,” he said. “If that’s all you think about and then you don’t win, you are not happy and then the dogs are not happy. I just like my dogs to be happy.”Robb is happy to run the sprint races and leave the distance mushing to Newton Marshall.“Races like the (Yukon) Quest are tough,” he said. “Even though I really like challenges, that’s too much of a challenge.”Davis and Robb planned to keep on working and running together, racing in several Ontario Federation Sleddog Association events on their way back to Minnesota.“Everything is going really good,” event president Max Vidal said four-days into the championships. “I’m very happy to see all the countries that are competing and the atmosphere here is very friendly.”Vidal, who owns and operates an 80-dog touring kennel – several mushers competing leased dogs from him – recognizes the sacrifices made to attend the event.“It is difficult for many to come with dogs from outside of North American,” he said. “But the world championships is the biggest event in mushing (and) the prize money and titles justify the costs – the title of ‘world champion’ means a lot.”The IFSS World Championships in Quebec covered 246-km of trails, 25 road crossings with 34 race starts.“My job is to make sure everything runs good,” Vidal said.

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