THE NORWAY WAY: JOE RUNYAN VISITS MUSHING KENNELS IN NORWAY

Mushers of Norway have a long tradition of entertaining their friends from North America at their annual September gathering and symposium. The guest list over the years includes luminaries Susan Butcher, George Attla, Rick Swenson, Jeff King, Doug Swingley, et al. This year my daughter and I were the lucky travelers to spend a week in Norway with the Norwegian mushers. I reminded my daughter that the first time I visited Norway was in 1989, the year she was born. It seems that this country has grown even more orderly, maintained, prosperous and beautiful. To prove the point, my daughter was impressed to discover that Oslo was recently given the prestigious distinction of being the most expensive city in the world, and national health care in Norway is paradigm. On the world globe, Norway is a long small sliver compared to Alaska. Yet there are plenty of good training opportunities and uninhabited, stark, wind-blown tundra to stage long distance races like the Finnmarkslopet and Femundlopet. In addition, the traditions of arctic explorers Nansen and Amundsen give the sport a national raison d’etre. Norwegians point out that Norway is just a little country with only five million people, but I retort that Alaska is a big country with just 600,000. As the mushers of Norway gradually steal the limelight from skiers, especially with the national media attention following Robert Sorlie’s Iditarod win in 2003 and 2005, it seems the Norwegian economic engine is gradually falling behind the mushers. A recent and beautifully produced hardbound book on Robert’s Iditarod wins is now in Norwegian bookstores. The book is giving the sport even more credibility. Written by the well-known and very popular filmmaker and adventurer Lars Monson, this book is well done and informative. I have a signed copy from Robert, and although I do not read Norwegian, the photos and illustrations are great. We were met at the airport by sled builder and musher Snorre (pronounced Snow Ray, a possible trademark) Naes. Naes is Norway’s representative for IFSS (International Federation of Sled Dog Sports.) In fifteen minutes, we were outside the confines of Oslo and found ourselves amidst forest and rolling farmland. Thanks to very enlightened zoning and good planning, an uninterrupted and expansive perimeter of forest is maintained around Norway’s largest city. Urban workers, like mid-distance phenomena Elisabeth Edlund and long distance master Robert Sorlie, can work and train sled dogs on over 90 miles of trail-–and still not use the cross country ski routes. Contrasting this to the pathetic and wanton degradation of trail corridors from Anchorage to Wasilla—suggests Alaskan city planners should take a trip to Oslo. Now, onto business. What did I learn from the Norwegians?On the first afternoon, Snorre took me to the shop of Jan Rienertsen, one of Norway’s top harness makers. Studious and serious, readers may remember his research on the heart rates of working dogs, a subject he was to discuss at the symposium. He gave me a private tutorial and summarized his work. In short, the closer a dog is placed to the wheel, the higher the heart rate, and therefore, stress. The trick is to balance the team so that hard working dogs are actually to the front–so their efforts will match the team and heart rates and output remain balanced. Incredibly, dogs function during exercise at 250 beats per minute and can accelerate to plus 300 bpm, objective tribute to their incredible metabolic capacity. In addition, Rienertsen volunteered that he had seriously studied Jeff King’s “shoulder pull” harness and it was his conclusion that the traditional harness that essentially pulls off the hip was superior. This was a subject addressed again and again when I visited the kennels of Asbjørn Erdal Aase, Stein Håvard Fjestad, Elisabeth Edlund and Per Olav Gausereide, and Robert Sorlie. The Norwegians, unanimously, are remaining contrary to King.My host, Snorre gave me a detailed explanation of his recent sled designs. He tried to have aluminum runners designed in Norway, but acknowledged that Tim White’s design and choice of alloy (not readily available in Norway) was superior. Using an innovative pulley system of sailboat origin, he could change the attitude of the runners for side hill, and adjust the rock in the runner for loads. Of course, he was looking carefully at Iditarod winner Jeff King’s caboose sled for more inspiration.The symposium, for those of you who have attended one, is a great social gathering. Some participants drove a thousand miles. Readers will recognize some of the Norwegians like Tunheim, Andersen, and Sorlie, but I was surprised when I met Nina Hotvedt. Now a music teacher, she raced the Iditarod just once in 1986 and placed 19th as a rookie. Not only that, Nina was the first Norwegian woman to finish the Iditarod. More incredible is how she did it. Then just 20 years old, she made a deal to use a random twenty of Joe Redington Sr.’s numerous sled dogs. She also managed to gather chains, harnesses, and a sled. Without any real experience or money, she molded the team into a competitive unit and finished in the money. Following the race, she simply returned to Norway. Very impressive.After the symposium, my old friend and long distance champ, Stein Håvard Fjestad, an onion farmer north of Oslo, invited me to his new training camp, and for good reason. This is one of the best fall training sites I have seen – ever. On Sept. 4, we went for a short training run of 16 miles on trails with smooth stone and dirt. His exquisitely trained team of mostly black Alaskan huskies led us through lakes, across numerous clear creeks, past summer cattle camps, and into the forest . Most of his team were the progeny of a leader I owned named Niko. Because of the Norwegian quarantine laws, the line was produced from semen straws Stein brought from Alaska to Norway in 1990 (Some of them are still in storage.) Notable is the attention to leader training. We made several passes by the kennel, a big circle in a meadow and finally back to the kennel where he fed them fresh frozen fish. He was planning to leave them in harness and take them for another run before dark. He purposefully bred this group of dogs, and carefully trained them for two years. On this third year, he believes they are finally ready to race. They are a very impressive team.Our next destination was the kennel of Asbjørn Erdal Aase, near the Olympic site of Lillehammer. Asbjørn’s kennel is well known for mid-distance excellence and his pointer husky crosses. I met Asbjørn in Spain’s 2005 Pirena, a mid-distance stage race in the Pyrenees.I found him to be encyclopedic and knowledgeable. Here, one can see the great divide of sled dogs in Norway. The muscled and totally irrational pointer crosses who jump five feet in the air used for mid-distance racing on one side, and the longer muscled and more sanguine, straight Alaskan huskies used for distance mushing on the other. Of course, the Norwegians understand these dogs better than North Americans do. For mid-distance and sprint, their strength is hard to beat. For distance, the Norwegians understand the straight husky is better.Of particular interest was Asbjørn’s training facility, which is used by the Norwegian national ski team, and many European mushers who rent rooms and train their teams. Asbjørn showed me a storage room that was filled with tens of bundles of new cross county skis – literally worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. These were each tested by the athletes for functionality and glide. Even though they were all manufactured identically, differences apparently appear. Furthermore, the glide characteristics of the plastics are even more mysterious. According to the team specialist who oversaw the skis and the waxing process, the quality of plastic was the key to glide and suggested that for mushers the choice of plastic was critical. On return to the States, I followed up on this revelation and asked Tim White about the role of plastic formulas. At the moment, it seems the plastic industry is in flux because new environmental rules to regulate the amount of incidental toxins in resins has changed the characteristics of plastic. In effect, research to objectively test the plastics must be repeated. The plastics are simply different.The next morning, I stepped outside to look at a herd of Norwegian red milk cows emerging from the forest, their bells ringing in different tones. In several weeks, they would be removed for the moose hunting season. Just outside Oslo, our hosts, Elisabeth Edland and Per Olav Gausereide, maintain a very successful mid-distance kennel of pointer crosses, many originating from Asbjørn’s kennel. I have a very distinct memory of the strength and speed of these dogs and I should divert for a description of a near death experience.Elisabeth won the Spanish Pirena in 2001 and of course returned in 2002 to defend her title and battle the master of European mid distance mushing, Rudi Ropertz of Germany. In that edition, a very fast trail was scheduled for the evening at El Tarter ski station in the small mountainous country of Andorra. Elisabeth, at just over a hundred pounds, prudently elected to take just six dogs. However, on the downhill she may have generated more speed with her six matched swifts than otherwise. In the dark, I was riding a snow machine and discovered her off the trail, standing helplessly on the brake, while her dogs maniacally attempted to commit suicide by running straight down a precipice. It was a hell of a job, but we finally got the dogs back up the slope, onto the trail and attached the team to the snow machine. The knotted muscular strength of these large pointer crosses is incredible. End.Joe Runyan lives in Cliff, New Mexico and guides and outfits in the Gila Wilderness. He has officiated sled dog races in Europe, S. and N. America. Winner of Iditarod, Yukon Quest, and Alpirod, he now provides commentary and writes mushing, outdoor, and hunting articles. Runyan’s Winning Strategies for Distance Mushers (1997) is available from the author. Contact Joe at deserthound@starband.net.

Share:

More Posts