MUSHING NORWAY: BIRGITTE NAESS & THOMAS WAERNER

When I was given the opportunity to write an article for Mushing Magazine, I knew that I needed to start with a really great story. I called Thomas Wærner and Birgitte Næss Wærner and asked if they would be interested in doing an interview. A week later they welcomed me to their kennel and into their home in Eastern Norway.After a barbeque on the veranda overlooking a state of the art kennel and dog training facility, they both sat down and shared their plans for the future, their training values, and their remarkable mushing careers, each spanning nearly 3 decades and many thousands of training and racing miles. I hope you all enjoy Thomas and Birgitte’s interview as much as I did. Barry A. Siragusa: Well let’s start with the basics. How long have you both been running dogs? Thomas Wærner: I have been mushing since ’84. I actually started with Greenland dogs in a club in Oslo. We would pick up people in the woods with an ambulance sled. With three or four of these crazy fighting machines in front of our sled and us behind on skis, we picked up people with broken legs. That’s what I started with. BAS: Wow! Birgitte, how about you?Birgitte Næss Wærner: Well I started in ’85. I started with pulka style mushing. I used to go skiing cross country, but then I borrowed one BIG Norwegian Vorsther and got hooked on that type of racing. Then in ’98 I met Thomas and that was the first year I tried a sled, and after that I have been into this long distance and sprint mushing, and much less skijoring (laughs). BAS: Thomas, by 1998 you were already sprint mushing. When did you start running sprint dogs? TW: I was actually a handler to Roger Leegard and Laila Leegard in ‘89 and ’90. Then I was a handler at Roxy Wright and Charlie Champaine’s in ‘90 and ‘91. I got two dogs from Roxy and Charlie and I also bought a couple of dogs. I just bred a lot the first year. So in ’92 I was racing with a yearling team, and I have actually been racing every season since in open-class sprint, distance and some stage racing. BAS: While you were in Alaska did you do many races over there?TW: Yeah, we did the Rondy, the North American, Tok, Manley, all the sprint races up there. That was some great years!BAS: You were both very well known sprint mushers for many years. Thomas, you got two dogs from Roxy and Charlie. Were they the foundation dogs for your sprint kennel or did you two combine those dogs with the Norwegian Vorsthers you were running Birgitte?BNW: Yeah, we actually had an effect when we met each other, because it started with an accidental breeding the first time I was up here at the kennel. And out of this breeding there was a fantastic litter. TW: My main leader jumped 5 dog yards to breed to her female. (laughs). That litter’s lines are actually really well-known now. That was an accidental breeding but it was a breeding we probably would have done anyway. But, we hadn’t been together for that long. (laughs)BNW: I was actually pretty stressed about that breeding. But the litter was really good. Out from this litter you have Zorro who was Thomas’ main leader for several years. Out of Zorro we have gotten a lot of good dogs. Also my Prikken, the big leader I had, came from that litter. There was also Renaldo and a couple of other guys which were leaders in other teams. Some Norwegian Vorsther lines that they use in pulka style racing are really really big. My line… they weren’t too big so they produced a dog that could run fast for many kilometers. TW: It was a big open class kennel here. And when we got Birgitte’s dog into it, we got that really good…Extremely good, Vorsther line. But, if you go back to the dogs I bred in ’91, from the dogs that I got from Alaska, there’s actually big numbers that are after those dogs. If you look at the pedigrees of most of the sled dogs in Europe, the dogs I brought from Alaska are somewhere in there. Those two dogs I got were really nice. Roxy and Charlie gave me two dogs right from there race team that were just getting too old. So they were two extremely good dogs.BAS: Were those pure Alaskans or were they the Aurora Husky that Gareth Wright had been breeding?TW: They were Huskies from Rusty and Charlie’s lines from the dog “Bruce,” who was well known. Bruce was, I think, quarter Saluki. BAS: Most people when they start mushing, and as they mature in the sport, have people who have influenced them and taught them. Who were the influences for you two?TW: For me it was Roger and Laila Leegard. Of course the one year with Roxy and Charlie was amazing, but the good thing with Roger and Laila was that they had more of the common life. Like with economy, they had to struggle with economy the whole time. Roxy and Charlie were more focused on the racing. They didn’t have to struggle with economy as much. They had the sponsorships and were on the top and selling dogs and all that stuff. But Roger and Laila, I learned a lot from them about the other parts of it (mushing). Plus, Roger and Laila were both really good dog people. I learned the basics from them.BNW: Well, I have not ever been living at somebody’s kennel as a handler, but my half- brother Snorre Næss, he started with mushing and took some Greenland dogs to our home when I was a child. That was the beginning I think. Snorre got married to a pulka racer, and she owned the first Vorsther that I borrowed. She got me into the pulka sport. BAS: So it was maybe a little bit of a step up in speed from the Greenland dogs to the Vorsthers then?TW: (Laughs) Yeah. In the past I have driven Greenland dogs for so many years and so many miles. You learn a lot from working with those dogs. They don’t want to pull that hard if they don’t want to, and they are real fighting machines. BAS: You two chose to step away from the sprint mushing and change focus to the long distance mushing. Instead of starting completely from scratch you made the switch using your line of sprint dogs. What was that like?TW: Well, the year we stopped and said that we were not going to fly to Alaska and race that year, we had to make a decision about what we were going to do. The problem was the economy. If we had had the opportunity to race in Alaska for two more years we would have done that and then started with long distance. But, remember, when I started with dog mushing I didn’t start with sprint mushing. I started with being out in the woods, on trips out in the mountains. I kind of like not having to groom the trail every day and I like being out in all kinds of weather. I believed that our dogs were capable of going long distance. And they did. When we started with long distance we had some 3rd places and top ten places with the sprint team in long distance races. But that was a really good sprint team also. BNW: I also think that we were searching for some new goals. We had won the European Championship and the World Championship and we had done some stage racing. TW: Yeah, we got kind of full up. It would have been the 4th time our dogs had been in Alaska. It of course would have been great to be there, but it’s not really new anymore. Also, the sprint sport in Europe is not the same as it used to be. For me in the open class I didn’t find my goal. I like to have a big goal I can push myself for but, I didn’t have any goals going down into Europe anymore.BAS: Let’s talk about your kennel now. How many dogs do you have now?TW: We have around 50 with all the puppies. The biggest number we have ever had is 120! That was a lot of buckets to feed all the kennel! BAS: What is your focus when you are training? TW: In the first years after we switched to long distance we went with high attitude in the team and went fast. But the problem is that the team was too up and down. If the trails were good, the team was flying and nobody could catch us. If the trails were bum, the team didn’t do that good. Now we are training them to go slower and longer. We train more the Norwegian way now, running a little more like Robert trains his dogs. I think Norway has found a way to train the dogs that is unique. We have found a way to train the dogs to go farther with less rest but still keeping a good speed. We are still looking for high attitude. I like to have the dogs with a lot of good attitude but, you have to train them the right way. Some older females get grumpy but then you know they are gonna do a good job when maybe you are one or two days into the race, but then you know that. If you have a young dog doing that than this is just a lazy dog that is not doing their share. You have to know the dogs. BNW: Sometimes in Norway the trails are so bad. Endless suger snow or something. At some stages it is hard to have high speed in the team. I think you need to train so they moderate themselves. BAS: What is your approach to breeding now that you are running long distance?TW: Well our approach is that you have to focus on what kind of dog you want. In sprint you have to go fast. You really don’t choose the kind of dog. You are going to have fast dogs that are hyper and ready to go. In long distance you could have a “box” dog that goes slow but just goes. Or you can have a dog that just goes fast. For us we want to have a dog team that can go fast when we want to go fast. In that way we are keeping the same values as when we ran sprint. But we have changed the requirements. BAS: How do the dogs you are breeding now in 2010 compare to the dogs you had in 2003 when you made the switch to long distance?TW: We have definitely bred in some more husky, because you need that good coat. We used to have a lot of 3/8s Vorsthers but you can have problems with the 3/8s. In sprint you can get away with the 1/2s or 3/8s, but now we have 1/4s maximum. You need the coats and the good eating of the husky, but all of the qualities we look for in sprint, especially in the open-class is the same as in long distance. You change your values. Before, the dogs had to be really hard pullers, finishing really strong. They had to be really fast and have really good heads so they didn’t quit when you go really fast. Now, the first thing is the dogs still have to be good, that’s the same. The second thing is not the body anymore, but that they are eating. BNW: When we were breeding for sprint we were safe. We knew what we got in different litters because we knew the generations before them and what they were good for. But now we are searching for some new bloodlines. We have dogs from Ramy Brooks, we have Sorlie lines, we have our own lines and Mackey lines, so we’re are buying a lot of dogs now testing out different lines to figure out our long distance lines. TW: We still have a lot of our sprint lines in our dogs. But like Birgitte said, we have to figure out what long distance line we want. BAS: What has changed about your approach to breeding?BNW: It was more important with the angles on the dog in sprint. Like, the angles of the back legs and shoulders. We saw that in Alaska. TW: Yeah after that first year racing in Alaska we sold a lot of dogs. They were extremely good for European sprint. You could go down to Europe and actually win the World Championship with some of the dogs we sold you know, lead dogs and everything. But those wide open trails in Alaska you had to have an extremely good body. BNW: The funny thing was that when we moved over to long distance we didn’t know which dogs we were going to keep, who would make it. So we started to train with 60 dogs. Six teams actually. If we had known then what we know now we would not have started with all sixty dogs. TW: We had dogs that ran the Finnmarkslopet 1000km race, that were sprint dogs their first season. They ran to the finish in the Finnmarkslopet in 3rd place two years in a row, and they had run the Sprint World Championship when they were young dogs. They were the best sprint dogs and were then the best long distance dogs also. BAS: What are you looking for in a husky? TW: The most important thing we are looking for are dogs that are happy. You know, with a good attitude. Waving their tails and feeling good about themselves. Some of the bird dogs can feel a little sorry for themselves even if they are well-trained and well-conditioned. BTW: The dogs have to like to run long, and like to be out. TW: Like the dog we bought from Ramy Brooks called “Knight.” He’s not a very fast dog, but you can go through water and do whatever you want with him and he will still feel good. It doesn’t matter what we do with him, he will always wave his tail and jump up from the straw. In that way he is amazing. Good attitude is the key thing in the dogs we want. The physical has to be there also but it is the attitude and the head that is important. We are trying not to keep any dogs that do not really enjoy the long distance. So many dogs are good when it is easy, but when you are hitting that really long distance, when you are out for the third or fourth day, that is when you need the really happy dogs. BNW: That is why we are not so focused on the angles of a dog anymore. We could keep a dog with not perfect angles now. Before that dog was just sold or given away. TW: With the bird dogs you get a little more of the thinkers which is why we are keeping our lines, so that we have those thinkers and leader skills. BAS: Most mushers have a dog that is special to them. Which dog is special for you two? TW: Of all the dogs now, it is actually the old sprint dogs that are still the ones keeping the level high in the team. One of them, Blues, retired this year. He did sprint races for one season. He is a very special dog. BNW: He can do anything. TW: Yeah he can do anything. He can do sprint long distance, whatever you want. His brother Troll has been our key dog too for many years now. He has done all our races to the finish line. BAS: I would like to hear a little about Norway. Can you maybe give me a little bit of the history of mushing in Norway? TW: Well the mushing in Norway has kind of always been there. Not in the level we are at now but we have always had it. There has been a great thing in Norway called “Brukshunder” you know “working dogs;” going out with two Greenlanders, German Shepherds, or Dobermans. It started with those dogs and then it got over to more of the Greenland dogs and huskies. The races are not really very old in Norway. It’s not like in Alaska where you can talk about races that are 100 years old. The Finnmarkslopet is 30 years old now. I remember in the first Finnmarkslopet there were three teams just going up the river, turning around and coming back, and they were kind of, you know, the freaks (laughs) those who first ran. There has always been working dogs in Norway, but it wasn’t until the 70’s that it became more organized. BAS: One thing that surprised me was that when Norway shows up at a race, they instantly become the team to beat now. They have had very strong races at all the World Championships and every year that there has been a Norwegian rookie running the Iditarod, the Rookie of The Year Award has gone to Norwegian. Why do you think that the Norway has been consistently a strong competitor?BNW: Well do you know what our kennel name is? Berserk Kennel! We are the Vikings! (Laughs). TW: The reason that Norwegians are that we have the weather and long winters. It has been a tradition for many years. The first year Robert and Kjetil did the Iditarod, Robert came in 9th place. Robert was not a rookie racer. I don’t think many people knew that the races here, like the Finnmarklopet 1000 and 500 races and the Femundlopet 600 and 400, had and have that high quality of mushers.BNW: In mushing in Norway nothing comes easy. There is no money in the races so it is a lifestyle. BAS: When Team Norway ran the Iditarod, they combined their kennels a little bit like how George Attla described Huslia; running as a village to field a really super team. TW: George Attla has always been doing it. That was the reason he had such a good team. He got dogs from different kennels that were training for championship races. A lot of dogs kennels in Alaska did it. Like Roxy and Charlie, they had two big kennels that they put together and they were flying for five years. That was a boost from putting those kennels together, and I think that was the same with Robert, Bjornar and Kjetil putting all the financial things and all of the dogs together and getting that type of boost. Also, being the three best teams in Norway already, they got a big boost. BAS: Have you ever worked in a team with someone else to get that boost? TW: Yeah, I had a team with Asbjorn Erdal-Aase, and I had a team with Egil Ellis and Helen when I was sprint mushing. We also had a team with Trond Orslien in long distance for two years. It works good to work in a team. The thing is that you can only have a team as long you all have the same goals. As soon as you don’t have the same goals or values, then you have to stop the teamwork. BAS: Did you two start working together as a team first or was that just a natural part of getting together.TW: Well I think Birgitte wanted to try out the sprint sports. Birgitte had 4 dogs, and then we got together and we bought up a bunch of dogs, from different places. We picked up a lot of dogs then. I think Birgitte had 12 dogs and I gave her some of my dogs who couldn’t make the open-classes, so the first year Birgitte was driving limited-class and I was driving open-class. BNW: But I had to loan him one of my leaders, Step, for the Open class! Step was extremely good. BAS: What is the future for your kennel? Do you have any plans to go back to Alaska, but race long distance? TW: Yes, We are going back in 2014 and staying to 2015. There are a lot of things that have to be in order to do it. If we can do it, we will move to Alaska before the Yukon Quest in 2014 and stay there for 14 or 15 months. Our goal is to go with about 30 adult dogs and be there for two seasons. We have a lot of friends in Alaska, so it is kind of easy for us to go to Alaska. So I think it will be a great 15 or 16 months to have a different life!BAS: Which races are you looking to do?TW: The Yukon Quest and the Iditarod. It will be a big family fight to figure out who is going to race! (They both laugh). Both races are interesting, even if the Iditarod is bigger money, I think the Yukon Quest is a race that will be really nice to race. BNW: Thomas is always in a hurry so he can take the first year and I can take the second your. TW: (laughs) That’s not a good deal. We will both do races. We will actually hopefully have enough dogs to run two teams the second year. The first year we will go to race, but the second year we will probably buy some more dogs to fill up both teams and race two teams in all the races. BNW: The Iditarod is the race I know most well. So that is a race I would like to do.BAS: What is it about Norway that keeps you here? Egil Ellis moved to Alaska, Mari-Hoe Raitto moved to Alaska. What keeps you from going to Alaska permanently? TW: We get the same quality of life in Norway as you can have in Alaska. You have the freedom to go where you want with dogs. (The nature in) Norway and Alaska are pretty similar, there is not that big of a difference. BNW: But everything is bigger in Alaska.TW: Yes everything is bigger, but I think staying and running dogs in Alaska for part of our lives is good. Every place has something special. You come from one place and you are always missing it and looking back. Also, we have all of these great races here now. So it is not like there is something missing in Norway. But, I miss Alaska every year. I want to go back every year! BAS: Do you have any goals for between now and when you go to Alaska in 2014?TW: The Finnmarkslopet 1000km race. We will do the Finnmarkslopet in 2011, 2012, and 2013.BNW: That is to get the experience on the dogs. TW: This year we will just go with the team we have. We have bred a lot of puppies this summer, and they have to be good if we are going to go to Alaska in 2014. The team has to be good. We are not going to Alaska without a competitive team. The young-dog team looks pretty good right now, and they are the future.BAS: Well thank you guys so much. TW: It was fun.BNW: Yeah, it was fun. •

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