NORTH HOPE INTERNATIONAL STAGE RACE

Colorado musher Leslie Fields needed to learn six team commands in Russian when she partnered with a Russian musher to compete in the North Hope stage race held in late February at Kotkishevo near  Russia’s western Ural Mountains February 24 to 26.North Hope was billed as the first international stage race held in Russia. The event was a high point in over five  years of effort at  the North Hope  orphanage of St. Nicholas Parish  to help  boys grow emotionally and spiritually while they develop a work ethic through training  and conditioning  dogs and organizing events. Eight American mushers shared teams with Russian competitors. Among the mushers were 22-time Iditatrod veteran Terry Adkins, Wyomng race director Frank Teasley, Jean Wise, Barbara Schaefer, Stacy Teasley and Fields. Two orphanage teams were shared with young mushers. Fields’ daughter, Megan Gabarino, 17, partnered with Dimitry Zapultin and  Cameron Byers, 19, teamed with Alexi Kotor.  There were two all-woman teams. Wise was teamed with Maria Bakunera and Stacy Teasley with Olga Sorokina.  A lone Russian woman, Lavrova Alyona, was in the  separate  individual category that had seven entrants. In addition, a five competitor Skijorng field competed on an exhibition basis.Terry Hinesly, a thirty-year mushing veteran from Oregon, who now officiates at races, was race marshal. Hinesly has visited the orphanage regularly since 2005 when he set up the initial dog training and sled racing program. Also on the trip were Hinesly’s wife, Cari, Dr. Caroline Griffiths as  event veterinarian, Wyoming photographer  Chris Havener, and Richard Berdner, husband of Barbara Schaefer. “I tried to work out something to get American and Canadian teams to come to Russian to race, but it was going to cost tens of thousands of dollars to get them over and back, and miles of paperwork and still you wouldn’t be sure you’d get in,” said Hinesly  At that point Russian musher Mikhail Bragin, asked if it would be possible to share teams, with Russians running them one stage  and Americans the next. PRACTICE/SEMINARSHinesly said the Russians are mostly involved in short distance sprint races. Russian mushers had the opportunity to pickup skills and recommendations from their American counterparts during four days of interaction that included seminars and training runs  before the stages started. Russian mushers learned to use the sled brakes from the Americas. Initially the Russians would yell out “No brake, no brake” whenever an American started a team.  “They were able to get across that you had use the brake on the very first day the guys were working with them,” said Hinesly. Still, one Russian racer intent on a fast start didn’t brake into the first turn of the first stage, lost control, lost his team and broke the sled, sidelining him from the event.“I had to learn all my commands in Russian. My team didn’t speak English,” said Fields. “The first day they really didn’t pay much attention to me. The second day they looked at me kind of funny. I must have had the wrong accent.” By day three the dogs and Fields were used to each other. Language was a barrier between Russian musher Ergeniy Alexeyev and Fields as well as the dogs. Translators were available, but they weren’t always present at ideal times when the Russians and their guests practiced. “We managed to work around that. He was pretty interested in learning what he could about working with the dogs and equipment to improve things,” said FieldsFields had four days to train with Alexeyev and his mixed team.  There were three Siberians owned by Alexeyev and two Malamute-Siberian mixes  from the orphanage’s kennel.“Apparently owning multiple dogs is fairly expensive in Russia. Many of the mushers had to share and combine their dogs to make a whole team. I was really impressed with the cooperation of the Russian mushers to put together a team. A lot of the people we talked to later on were mushing combined teams,” said Fields.“Every Russian I talked to was willing to learn,” said Atkins, “Mushing in Russia is quite a ways behind mushing in America, but still the people are anxious to learn.” Russian development isn’t as far along as North American mushing when he began competing in the early 1970’s, he said.Russians lack role models that can help them advance rapidly in sled dog racing, Fields concluded.  “Without any mentors it’s a tough way to go. It makes me realizes how important having a good mentor and being a good mentor is. You learn something from everyone.” DOG TRAINING/CONDITIONINGBoth dog conditioning and training weren’t at the same level as usually found in North America, Fields said. “The Russians don’t train the dogs the way we do,” said Adkins. “Most of the dogs in the race were Siberians, although there were some Malamutes, said Adkins, who teamed with Bragiun. “He spoke some English, he had trained his dogs with ‘gee’ and ‘ha’, but they didn’t know a lot of other terms. It was a good team. It was a fun little team to run.”“In the U.S. you tell your dogs to go, then don’t say a lot unless you want them to do something,” Griffitts explained. “In Russia the mushers are constantly saying ‘let’s go.’  If they hear you a lot  they will tune you out, I think.”Passing other teams and loose dogs or people on the trails was more of a problem then seen in the U.S., Griffitts said. She attributed that, in part, to dogs tuning out their mushers. “They allow their dogs to go off the trail and pee and relieve themselves. U.S. mushers don’t allow them to do that,” said Fields.  “One dog would hop off the trail to pee and that would bring everything to a stop.”The dogs had fair conditioning by North American standards, said Fields. The two from the orphanage had not as much, probably because the orphans had focused more on their other teams.  “Conditioning really showed up in the results of the race. The less conditioning they had, the poorer they did,” said Fields. “They are learning how important conditioning is.”Economic conditions play a role in dog conditioning.  A bag of commercial dog costs about $100 in St. Peterburg.  Alternative sources of protein for the dogs are scarce, Adkins said, noting that all parts of a cow-–liver, tongue, and head, are used for human food.  “Dog food is at a premium over there, A reliable source of cheap protein is virtually unavailable,” said Adkins.Training isn’t quite as rigorous either, Adkins found.  On the 65 kilometer course many teams did between five and six miles per hour, while Adkins team was capable of seven or eight miles per hour in  the good conditions. He noted that teams in this year’s Iditarod hit six to seven miles per hour in worse conditions.“Because they don’t have large kennels over there, the dogs are almost more like pets than sled dogs. A lot are kept in the house,” said Griffitts. For some teams, training was more a weekend activity than a full-week routine, she added. But Russian mushers quickly grasped the points of their instructors and others throughout the interchanges. Commented Griffitts, “I think we’re going to see them changing very rapidly.”EQUIPMENTFields and Alexeyev used his sled the first day, but she described it as pretty rough. For other stages they  borrowed an orphanage sled.“The equipment was all the way from home made rustic to the finest available,” said Fields. “I think (the orphanage sled)  was an European sled to begin with. It still wasn’t what we’d consider a racing sled in the U.S., it was more of a training sled in order to take abuse.”“They use carabineers on the tug lines  instead of snaps like we do in the U.S.,” said Adkins. “The carabineers would hook into the dog next to them on the harness and it would take you five minutes to get it worked out. One Russian musher had a eight to ten foot rope to his snow hook requiring quite a sprint to his sled once he pulled the hook.”THE COURSETrails weren’t as hilly as the ones Field usually encounters in Colorado and terrain compared more to that found in Minnesota.  She said trail conditions were similar to those found on mid-distance events in the U.S., not as wide or well prepared as a sprint trail.On one trail section where it was  torturous Adkins was glad to have a smaller team.  A 12-dog team would have had a hard time making it through the area, he said. He considered snow conditions good. The trails were created with a snow machine and there was one section with a challenging hump, said Adkins. The trails were pretty good overall. Markers consisted of little twigs with little red spots on them, not the lath or reflective devices found elsewhere. “The dogs did a good show of handling the snow,” said Atkins. “I saw a few booties being used, but I didn’t have to bootie a dog in my time.”“The snow was really good. It wasn’t icy or very mushy or slushy either. We had light snowfall over the days  there,” said Fields.  “But if you stepped off the trail it was anywhere from knee deep to crotch deep.”THE RACEFour stages were run over three days, with Russians running the first and third stages in the International Team competition. Stage one at 65 kilometers was the longest.  Stage two on day two was 35 kilometers, followed by a 35 kilometer night run in reverse on the same course..  The last stage on day three was cut from 65 to 43 kilometers.“The Russians don’t have the experience and trained dogs to run the long distances, so I shortened it down,” said Hinesly. “We had a couple teams drop out. For the most part the teams that went out ran well. Six-dog teams were allowed, but about half the contestants ran fewer.” Bragin and Adkins started with a five-dog team, but Bragin had to put one dog on the sled part way through the first  stage.  Adkins then ran four dogs on his stages.   Bragin had finished seven minutes, 10 seconds behind first stage winners Vyacheslav Demtchenko, who partnered with  Frank Teasley.  “I actually set the course record with four dogs on the second stage, 35 kilometer run,” said Adkins. “I made (Bragin) back his minutes and gave him some time. That was my goal. He was pretty happy about that.”Adkins bested Teasley by almost 10 minutes on the second stage. On the third stage Bragin topped Demtchenko by exactly three minutes.  Adkins and Teasley ran nearly equal times on the last stage.  After four stages and 177 kilometers Bragin and Adkins  took a five minute, 36 second win over their rivals with a total time of 13:3014. The team of Barbara Schaefer and Mikhail Koldayev claimed third with a total time of 15:41.03Alyona Lavrov took her team to first with a time of 14:52:55 in individual competition contested by seven Russians. Her time of 14:52:55 was  fourth best overall in the event.  Misha Sypko was second at 16:44:50 with a team of ten month old pups in individual standings.Hinesly was especially pleased by the result of 17-year-old Sypko, whom he first started to coach during his 2005 visit. Sypko  now attends trade school in Moscow. Boys at the orphanage raised and trained the pups and Sypko returned from Moscow every other  weekend to work with the team.“The pups were being pushed pretty hard,” said Hinesly. “We took him aside and explained to him that these are babies and to run for an hour and then stop for 10 minutes to play with the dogs.  THE ORPHANAGELeon Gubon, a Russian who lives in Australia where he mushes, first approached Hinesly about helping out at the orphanage when he was down under to officiate at a race. Gubon had linked up with the orphanage, 600 kilometers northeast of Moscow in the western Ural Mountains,  out of a desire to get back to his roots. North Hope is operated by two former Soviet-era scientists, Father  Bartholomew and Mother Parasekeva.“Father Bartholomew says that he wants save Russia one child at a time,” said Hinesly. “He goes to state-run orphanages and gets children interested in the church and brings them to the orphanage to work with them and teach them.”Boys usually come to the institution at around age seven and stay until about 17 when they will go to trade school or college. There’s usually about 20 to 24  boys in residence.Gubron had shipped some dogs including a Siberian Husky lead dog to the orphanage which already had Malamutes to create a kennel. Hinesly made his first trip in March 2005 and brought a sled and harness. The orphanage already had one locally build sled. His teaching started from scratch with both the boys and the dogs. “I started with the collars and the harnesses and showed them how to hook up,” said Hinesly.  “I also had to teach the dogs what it was like to pull something. They learned to pull a tire with kids running behind.”Initially he hitched kids to the sleds so they could get the sensation of steering.  By the time he left on his first visit the boys were running three and four dog teams. With wife Cari, Hinesly returned in the November 2005, and again in the late winters of 2007 and 2008. With each visit Hinesly saw improvements in dog care,  training and equipment. Women from the Velilkovo’s church worked with Cari to learn to craft dog booties. In 2007 the orphanage staged its first race, a five-day  contest that drew five entrants, including Sypko from the orphanage. The next year another stage race drew nine teams.“A big part (of the visit) was watching the actions of the kids with the dogs. Certainly the dogs have made a big difference with the boys,” said Griffitts. “They’ve had some tough lives…and were to the point where they weren’t trusting anyone. They started by interacting with the dogs, and now they interact with people as well.”THE AREA/TRIPAdkins described the area where the race was held as “pretty depressed” economically. Log homes on a corner acre could be had for $1,500 and they showed excellent craftsmanship, but didn’t have any preservatives so were  weathering. Many homes reminded him of those seen in interior Alaska. A good crowd, including the governor of the region,  turned out to watch the start of the event. Adkins compared it to crowds he’s seen in Ashton, Idaho and Hinesly estimated a couple thousand people were present.Travel time from the Untied States to Kotkishevo was more than 50 hours for most of the travelers and included a 10-hour trip on a train out of Moscow. On their return the group stopped in St. Petersburg where one highlight was attending a costume ball where the participants dressed as Russian nobility of the 18th century. In contrast, at the orphanage Adkins and the others slept on hay mattresses in a bunk house, ate a lot of borscht and had fish omelets in the morning.“The race went incredibly well. It did exactly what we wanted it to do. The boys learned how to mush and they acted like experienced professionals. It exposed the kids to the outside world,” said Hinesly.Tony Boom has been a reporter and editor for both daily and weekly newspapers on the West Coast and has written for  national motor sports publications.  During  winter he skis and in summer he competes in sports car hill climb and auto-x events. He lives in Ashland, Ore.

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