MUSHING NORWAY: BJORNAR ANDERSEN

You have to learn to walk before you can run.I was thrilled to get the chance to sit down and talk with Bjørnar Andersen at his home in Sørskogbygda, nestled in the pine forests of Eastern Norway. Like his dogs, Bjørnar is quiet and very calm, and it is easy to forget that together they have Iditarod Rookie of the Year, and Champion titles from nearly every long distance sled dog race in Norway. As soon as he starts to speak he gives the impression of being an extremely deliberate and capable dog man, an impression that he quickly confirms as he answers starts answering my many questions. This is one of my favorite interviews and was a special challenge for me as it was the first I have done entirely in Norwegian. Bjørnar was extremely friendly and patient with me, and any oddities in the translation can be entirely attributed to me! Enjoy. Barry A. Siragusa: How long have you been mushing?Bjørnar Andersen: I’ve been mushing since I was eleven years old. So now I have been doing it for 21 years. BAS: How did you get your start?BA: I got a husky from my Uncle Robert Sørlie. One dog I went on trips with. Then I got two and then three, four, five and then when I had a six-dog team I ran a race. I had to get a written exception to run the race since I was so young. So the first race I ran was in 1991. BAS: What race?BA: The Tin Hundkjører Festival, I ran the 3 dog sprint race. BAS: When was the first time you ran a long distance race?BA: The first time I ran a long distance race was in 1999. It was the Femundløpet 400 with an 8 dog team. BAS: You were a very good Rookie of the Year in Iditarod. What year was that?BA: That was in 2005. BAS: Was that a good experience?BA: Yeah, Iditarod has been a goal since I was twelve or thirteen. I looked up to Martin Buser and Jeff King. The first time I competed with them I beat them… (chuckles) That was fun. That was always the goal, to run Iditarod. BAS: You had a partnership with Robert Sørlie and Kjetil Bakken, Team Norway. How did you come up with the idea to combine kennels?BA: For us, we saw that the top racers in Alaska had so many dogs to choose from. Also, in Norway you must have a full time job, so to train right you can only really have 16 or 18 dogs yourself. All three of us would run races, and after the Femundløpet we plucked the best dogs from each other to make a great team. Femundløpet functioned as a shakedown race. An American shakedown race (laughs). BAS: How many dogs did you take to Alaska? BA: We would take seventeen dogs so that we had one dog in reserve. In 2006 we took eighteen with us, so that we had two in reserve. We took so few because the freight cost of flying the dogs over was by weight. BAS: Your kennel, Kynndalen Huskies, is well known in Norway for producing extremely good competitive long distance dogs. How did you create that line of dogs?BA: It started with a pup that I bought from Robert. I got her when she was 4 months old, Masi. She is still alive and is thirteen years old now. And that dog was so good. She taught me a lot about dog sledding and I also got 3 or 4 litters from her. So she is either the mother or grandmother of more than half of the dogs out in the kennel. That was the line I bred after and still breed from. BAS: You have an amazing lead dog called Marius. Was he from that line?BA: Masi is his mother. I have four dogs that are the core of my team, and all four are after Masi. They always go to the finish line and are the best distance dogs because I can push them at the end of a race and they always give a little extra. They were also pups that I taught after my own methods.BAS: What are the goals you have for puppies and how you reach them?BA: I start early. We just go for little trips in the forest and go down paths and cross rivers and that sort of thing. They go loose so that I can have contact with them. I believe that training should be tougher than the raceBAS: How old are the puppies before you will do the first training run with them?BA: Between six and eight months. But it is not anything hard, just to learn to be out and learn to have a good work ethic. Also, all dogs can go fast, but it is the same with animals as with people, you have to learn to walk before you can run. So they are just learning to work, the speed comes naturally later. I think that it is extremely fun to build up a dog team and watch them learn but, you have to build it right the whole way to reach your goals. BAS: What races in Norway is your training aimed at?BA: The Finnmarksløpet. The Finnmarksløpet is always the main goal. I ran it in 2004, and then I ran the Iditarod in 2005, and 2006. In 2007 I only ran the Femundløpet. In 2009 I ran the Iditarod but had to scratch.BAS: You had an accident in the Farewell Burn in Iditarod 2009 right?BA: Yeah. I had the rawest team of dogs when I ran in Alaska that year. BAS: Yeah a lot of people said that your team was the best out there. BA: Yeah I was having the fastest running times but I was almost afraid to run the team! They had been trained so hard that they were just muscle to the bone. I almost had no control over the 16 dogs I had. I felt like a rookie behind the sled. They were just screaming and barking. I had a 1000cc four-wheeler and still felt like I had no control. That was an amazing team. I think I will never get a team like that again. They were once in a lifetime. BAS: After Iditarod in 2009 you came quickly back to Norway. Did you do any other races when you got back?BA: Yeah I ran the Amundsen race. BAS: Where you completely healed from your accident in Alaska?BA: Yeah I was. When I got hurt the doctors said that it was 50/50 chance that in two or three days I could be totally fine or much worse. But if I got worse in the area I was heading into it would be difficult to get me out. So I scratched. BAS: Wow, That must have been pretty tough.BA: Yeah that was tough. But the Iditarod goes every year, and my health I only have once. It was a little sour, I had worked hard for that goal and felt that everything was right, I had the team. So that was tough of course but… that’s how it goes!When I came home I ran the Amundsen Race. I wanted to win that and I beat Robert by one hour I think. BAS: This past season, how was that for you?BA: It was a good winter. I thought I would do better in Femundløpet (Bjornar came in forth), Finnmarksløpet was toughly competitive, but it was a very close race. It was a good season though. I was second in Gausdal Maraton, I won Hallingen, and was in as third in the Finnmarksløpet. BAS: How many dogs do you have now? BA: 21 running. BAS: Do you have any puppies?BA: Yeah, I have some on the way. BAS: How many puppy litters do you have every year?BA: Normally one or two, but this year we will have four because I have to renew the team soon. The dogs are starting to get older so I will sell some of the older ones after next winter. The females I am selling are interesting breeding females. I have to be careful though. Some of then dogs here are good tough dogs that have done Iditarod two or three times, and I will not have them stand somewhere being used just as puppy machines. Then I would rather they go to someone as a family dog. BAS: For people who will start a kennel and be competitive, what advice would you have?BA: The best way is to buy two bred females with good race records, and then buy one or two good lead dogs. I keep both puppy litters and use the leaders to train them up. Start with a shorter race like the Short Femundløpet 400 and then the year after that run the Femundløpet 600 and Amundsen Race and maybe do the Finnmarksløpet if they are good enough. Do that instead of buying a dog for 500 dollars from someone. If the 500 dollar dog was not good enough for the seller, it is probably not good enough for you. If a musher is getting out of dogs then you can buy some good dogs, but not otherwise. I have sold dogs for 600 dollars, but I have also sold dogs for 3,000 dollars, but that has been a top dog. If you will only run recreationally than it probably makes no difference how you do it. The way I described was for competing. It’s what Kjetil Bakken did when he started. BAS: Do you have any of the Norwegian Hounds that seem popular now?BA: No, only Alaskan Huskies. I tried a dog with a lot of bird dog in it once but I found that it had too much musculature and could not keep up the endurance over long distances. BAS: Can you talk a little about training the adults you have?BA: They run loose in the summer a lot. I have trained a lot during the summer before, but now after the Finnmarksløpet I let them stand until the beginning of august just to give them a good rest. From the first of August I keep the training so that they peak in March. So the main training is in November and December. BAS: When is your first race of the winter?BA: The Gausdal 5 Mila in December. That is just a training race though, and that way they get all the bugs and sickness going around early in the season. BAS: Last year was a tough year with kennel cough for a lot of teams. BA: I didn’t get it. My puppies did, but the adults didn’t. The adults have seen so much, they have been in Alaska and Norway so they have gotten most things. BAS: There are many different methods now for training a team to do the long races. Martin Buser’s motto for last year was “Fast and Furious.” Lance and Robert train very long at a moderate pace. How do you train your adults?BA: Long runs, going slow. (Bjørnar stands and finds his training logs for the last 8 or 9 years and shows me his training schedule.)BAS: Wow, so you are able to start on sleds in November?BA: Yeah. BAS: When you will breed a dog. What are you looking for?BA: I look at the head. BAS: Do you look at coat and feet?BA: Of course, I want the dogs to have good coat and feet. But What I look for the most is the head. To see that they can go to the finish line.BAS: What is a good head exactly? BA: It is the mentality that means that they will go to the finish line in a race. To do that, they have to be hard in the head. I don’t mean stubborn and fighting, but they need to have guts. BAS: What is next for you?BA: I am racing a full season this coming season. Also, I have said to myself that I will take everything else as it comes. I only plan one year ahead. But for the first time this year I will have someone to help me train puppies, and he will run Amundsen, the Gausdal Maraton, and the Hallingen race. I will run the Femundløpet and Finnmarksløpet. That will give me some more time with my family. But it is the first time someone else has trained me puppies. I have always done it myself. BAS: That must feel a little strange!BA: Yeah, (laughs). I got so little sleep in the winter time. I would train and then had to be up for work, so I would sleep 3 to 5 hours every night. I was so tired that I stopped being hungry to compete. That was a problem because I think that in a long distance race like Finnmarksløpet or Iditarod is 50% dogs and 50% musher. BAS: Do you still have the Team Norway with Robert?BA: No, we don’t have the team but we still help each other. I of course loan a dog to Robert if he needs it, and I can borrow a dog from him, but we don’t work in a team combining dog teams. We are still friendly, but this is a competition!BAS: Will you do a Team Norway type of thing again?BA: I am not sure. It depends. If a big sponsor came and said make a team and concentrate only on mushing for the next three years. Then I would think about it.BAS: What are the positives and negatives of having a team like you had?BA: The positive is that you are together with someone else. I think it is smart to have three people in a team. Two people can agree with each other too quickly, with three you always get a discussion. Not arguing, but it forces you to think a little more. I think that is great from a competitive view. Also for the person who has the first pick of all the dogs it is a great starting point to do really well. We always did it so that the person who was running the Iditarod that year had first pick of the dogs after Femundløpet. If I have trained all my dogs for the Femundløpet and then afterwards Robert comes and takes all the best dogs to run the Iditarod with, that can be a negative part of a having a team. It’s ok because I know it was of give and take and that the next year it would be my turn. BAS: Now you are building your own line of dogs? Or are you working with other lines as well.BA: Not right now. I should breed tight in my own line right now. Then I will breed out to something later on. BAS: What type of dog would out use as a tie-in to your own dogs?BA: I would try and find a dog that has convinced me the can make it to the finish. There are some from Nordahl Næss, out of Yukon from Jeff King that look very interesting. I also bred with Handsome from Lance Mackey, I have two puppies from him here. But I feel like if I breed within my own dogs, I can just hold on to those that are good. If I have a litter of 6 and I take in two, I think that is good enough. (Laughs) But it is exciting to see what dogs others have. BAS: Some mushers try always to be happy around their dogs, some try to be stable and calm. What best describes your method of relating to the dogs?BA: You have to be disciplined. What I mean is that they have to understand that I am the boss and that I decide when we will run. They also have to be relaxed and having fun. It is a balance between discipline and fun. I want a dog team that will win Finnmarksløpet, at a high speed. They have to have drive. They also have to be calm enough to rest. So it is a balance. BAS: How many dogs do you have in the team when you are training for a race? BA: I train sixteen mostly. We will start running ten or twelve in the fall until the middle of August or the beginning of September, then go up to sixteen again. When I start training I use two four-wheelers and train both teams together. Then I can work with the new dogs. This fall I have ten new dogs coming into the team, and that is easier to have close contact with the dogs when you have a smaller team then if you had 18 or more. BAS: There are a few good dogsledders in Norway where, if you read the genetics from their teams, almost all the dogs have come from or at least have parents that come from your kennel. Is that weird to compete with a team that is almost completely made up of your dogs?BA: No not really. If people buys dogs from me and do well that is good for me. Of course it is not fun to see puppies I sold who now are running in lead, passing me in the Finnmarksløpet. But that’s how it goes! (Laughs)BAS: Every musher I talk to has a dog that was important or special in some way for them. What dog is that for you?BA: Oh, there are lots of good dogs out there… There are four that are special for me. That is Max, Marius (Bjornar likes this dogs so much that he named his son Marius), May and Maja. They are all from the same litter and I know I can get to the finish line with them in the team. If a storm hits and I set them in front they will go anyway. I remember that I ran from Karasjok to Alta in the Finnmarksløpet, (the last stage at 136 kms long is the longest in the race). I had six dogs; the four siblings, their mother, and one more and ended with the third best time for that leg. Those dogs have a little extra in the basement! BAS: Wow! Six dogs? That’s unbelievable!BA: (Laughs) yeah they are good. BAS: Are you planning on running any races outside of Norway anytime soon?BA: No, I will stay in Norway. Well actually, the Amundsen Race starts in Sweden and runs to Norway. BAS: Do you have any desire to run stage races?BA: Not really. My main sponser is Eukanuba, They would rather that I ran the Finnmarksløpet because that is the biggest race here. I would consider doing a stage race with long stages. But it is a balance again. How much you like it and how much you want to spend. Finnmarksløpet costs my 50,000 (NOK) just to run and get all possible gear up there to run. So you have to calculate how much it is worth and how what you get back. BAS: Eukanuba has been your main sponser for while now right?BA: Yes, they have sponsored me since 1999. Without them I would not be here today. They help with food and my economy, and have always been positive. BAS: That’s great. Ok here is the bad question. What is the toughest race in Norway?BA: (without a pause) Finnmarksløpet. BAS: Why?BA: It is so long. The Femundløpet is absolutely a tough race, but is not long enough. In the Finnmarksløpet the musher is a bigger part of the race. How experienced you are matters, especially towards the end when things get weird, you have to be better as a musher to deal with it all. I think you go out farther towards your limits in the Finnmarksløpet. Mushing long distance is an experience sport. When all the dogs are tired, and that dogs isn’t eating, and you are tired and everything is just shit, you have to be able to keep it together to run that last 5 hours, and not get upset when you look at your watch and can’t figure out whether you have been running for 3 or 13 hours!BAS: What is the longest distance between the checkpoints in Finnmark?BA: That is between Karasjok and Alta. It is between 130 and 140 km. BAS: Tell me a little bit of the history of mushing in Norway. When did people begin with what we think of as modern mushing in Norway, with bigger teams and sleds. BA: The Finnmarksløpet started 30 years ago. There were three guys who ran then. After the Femundløpet started, there started to be more interest. That was in 1999 or 2000. Then Kjetil and Robert both ran Iditarod in 2002. They finished as number 10 and 9. I think mushing in Norway got some air after that. Then there was more interest again amongst other folk, it was not just interest within the mushing community. BAS: Was long distance mushing comparably big before Robert and Kjetil ran Iditarod?BA: It was big, but it got bigger. There were more participants and a higher level of competitiveness. BAS: I am hoping to run the Amundsen race next year. The first leg of that race is around 130kms. That must be pretty tough to not burn out early. BA: I have run it two times. Robert won the first, I won the second. The beginning is pretty tough. The first leg is 130km. The second leg is 70km to Tandalin checkpoint. Robert and I ran right to Tandalen both times. It is a challenge to run fast enough to that point and then still keep the speed later on. We had trained for it. Others tried to follow and didn’t make it. BAS: The first year you ran Amundsen there was a big storm right at the beginning. It didn’t seem to be a problem for you. How do you train for something like that?BA: I try and show the dogs that kind of weather once or twice a year, just so that they have seen it before. I think doing well in that type of whether is more about the musher. That the musher has confidence that nothing is wrong. BAS: How do you train your leaders to go through stuff like that? BA: I put them up with a dog that is good at it and has experience doing that type of thing. BAS: It is easier to do that than to train a youngster to do that without a experienced adult. BA: Yeah, the dogs learn much better from each other than from us. BAS: That is my problem now. When I moved from the US, I sold more than half of my dogs and the easiest dogs to sell where the best ones. So I sold all three of my leaders, and after two years I still don’t have another one that is as good. Bad call on my part. BA: You can train young dogs without an adult, but it is difficult. It is nice to go into the mountains after Easter, when the snow is hard and you can go where you want out of trail. That is great for teaching the dogs. BAS: You said that competing in a race is 50/50 effort between musher and dogs. What do you think is the most important part of the 50% that a musher must do in a race to compete?BA: The most important is to look after your dogs and yourself. You have to eat and drink as well as the dogs. The more you cheat on care the slower your team will be. BAS: Sleeping must be part of that. In the Finnmarksløpet how much did you sleep?BA: I slept less in the Finnmarksløpet this year than I did the years I ran Iditarod. BAS: People talk about hallucinating when they run. BA: Yeah, that happens to me.BAS: Every year for the last ten years or so there has been maybe three or four teams running the big races that have been good enough to win. Now there seems to be between 8 and 10 teams that, when I see the start list I think; they could possibly win this.BA: The competition has gotten better. The sport has developed since 2002 and forward. The dog care, breeding of dogs has gotten better. We have seminars with presentations where good mushers discuss these things.BAS: In Alaska, you can find kennels with 300 or even 400 dogs in the kennel, whereas in Norway between 20 and 40 is about as big as you see, there being only a few exceptions. Why is it that Norwegians have fewer dogs in the kennel but, are still are very competitive?BA: I’m not sure. I have 25 and I have never had so many as I have now. I like it that way because all the dogs know me and I know them. In Iditarod 2002, Kjetil Bakken started with 18 dogs in training, in December two were out and he ran the Iditarod with the other 16 and was in the top 10. It is better with quality than quantity. I think it is just part of the culture in Alaska, it is how they have learned to do it. There are different ways to think. But, a good dog is a good dog. BAS: Right, absolutely. Well that is it for the questions I have. Thank you Bjørnar for sitting down and doing this interview. BA: You’re welcome. •

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