Dogsled race organizers take note: the bar has officially been risen. The inaugural Bootleg Gap Dog Sled Races, held Feb. 21-22 just outside Kimberly BC, could easily be called Western Canada’s most successful mushing event of the season. With 2,500 spectators on the first day alone, 49 competitors racing 69 teams, a waiting list for people wishing to volunteer, and $17,500 raised for charity, it would be a hard claim to debate. But despite the overall success, Race Organizer Brenda Birrel was a nervous wreck on Saturday morning. She hid in the ladies’ room of the Boot Leg Gap Golf Course club house, unsure whether “anyone was going to show up.” Seven weeks without snow, a new trail, a first-year event, and a group of rookie volunteers in a town without a significant dogsledding history gave her good reason to have the jitters. Kimberly, a quaint little ski town of about 6,000 people nestled in the heart of the East Kootenay mountains in southern BC, is not a mecca for dogsledding. It was once known as having the world’s largest lead and zinc mine, which shut down in 2001 after almost a century of operations. In 1971, a group of downtown retailers worried about the imminent mine closure decided to create a Bavarian theme, and the town centre was redesigned to look like a German Village to increase tourism. Today, most visitors come for the skiing at Kimberly Alpine Resort in the winter, for hiking and biking in the summer, or for the famous Kimberly International Old Time Accordion Championship, now in its 36th year. It’s hardly a boom town. Kimberly is the kind of mountain resort where you can still find an affordable single family home, the guy at the hardware store knows your name and you can still enjoy fresh track on the ski hill at noon some days. Pierre Garsonnin, owner of The Bean Tree, a local coffee shop/art gallery/hangout, says, “There’s something about Kimberly. It’s a different kind of place.” He says that a lot of people expected that with the ski hill, the international airport nearby and its proximity to a major centre—Calgary is only a four-hour drive away—the town would “take off.” But, that never happened, and for many of the locals, therein lies Kimberly’s charm. “People who live here love it,” says Garsonnin. “It’s fantastic.” It’s also the kind of town where, “whatever it is, if something’s going on, everyone wants to be involved.” And at February’s Sled Dog Races, involved they were. Over 100 volunteers ensured that everything from parking and registration, timing, trail maintenance and handling was taken care of efficiently. They were on hand for the 6-dog 6-mile open and purebred classes, 4-dog 4-mile open and purebred classes, 2-dog 4-mile skijoring, a 2-dog 2-mile junior class plus a nail-biter of a kid-and-mutt event. In fact, a waiting list had to be created for people who wanted to volunteer when all the positions were filled. Next year there may still be a waiting list; Birrel says that so far 98% of the volunteer teams have committed to helping out in 2010. Manitoba musher Shelley Ramsay of Canadog was impressed not only with the sheer number of volunteers, but their capabilities, especially those handling the dogs. “A lot of times with volunteers, they’re kids. High school students. They’re helpful, but not really helpful. These were all big, strong adults. Enthusiastic.” Ramsay competed in the skijoring and 4-Dog Open events. Her husband Rob and their three children also mushed. The Ramsays have been dogsled racing and touring for over a decade, and they carefully select the races they will attend each winter. They chose to include Bootleg Gap on their agenda this year because “we knew Brenda. Being an inaugural race we wanted to support it. The web site was fantastic, and Brenda is a musher with some pretty fast dogs herself, so we trusted what she said about the trail.” Ramsay says that often at races, the trail is designed for a purebred dog’s speed. “You take your top Open teams out, and it’s just not safe.”Mushers agreed that the Bootleg Gap trail was safe, but also exhilarating. “It was challenging,” says Ramsay. “Expertly groomed. The amount of snow that (the groomers) left on was perfect. They didn’t leave so much that you’re going to punch through. It was built for speed, and it was incredibly exciting for the dogs. Twisty and turny but then there were times when it opened up so the dogs could run at top speed. The corners were nice and wide, so there could be passing safely even there. I thought it was excellent.” Cambell Aitken competed in the 4-dog open class. Originally from New Zealand but now living in Whistler, Aitken has raced with First Mate/Whistler Dogsledding for the past three years and has been to events throughout BC and Alberta. “It was an incredible trail,” says Aitken. “Really exciting. Super fun. When you did get a chance to look around, the views were incredible. Not that you could spend much time gawking though. You wouldn’t want to lose your concentration for a second. Not on a trail like that.”Mushers weren’t the only ones to get a thrill. A volunteer with a “clicker” counted just under 4,000 spectators for the weekend. Many more walked onto the course the back way, and were not included in the tally. “It felt like the whole town was there,” said Aitken. Marg Holman was one of the “back-door” spectators who was probably not included in the official count. She lives near the golf course, and thought the whole weekend was fantastic. “It was the best thing ever for this town,” said Holman, who was born and raised in Kimberly. “I loved it. Never seen anything like it. Amazing. What a weekend.” First Mate/Whistler Dogsledding had a constant stream of people at their unique RV/dog trailer, talking to mushers, petting dogs and picking up free samples that the team’s dog-food supplier had provided. “They were lined up to talk to us,” says nine-year-old Jack Fawcett, a Junior competitor. Fawcett was an enthusiastic ambassador for the sport, answering questions about his equipment and training techniques, and introducing people to his dogs, Harley and Twix. Fawcett was thrilled to win $20 and a toque for his participation. Birrel says the event was modelled after the Rosebud Run in Alberta, a race she and her husband John competed in a few seasons ago. “I mentioned the idea of having one here to Bill Windsor, the organizer at Rosebud. He gave me his whole manual. Job descriptions for volunteers. Time lines. Everything. He coached me. Also Jack and Pam Beckstrom who did Race the Sky in Montana. I may have had the title of Race Manager, but it was a huge group effort.” Of course, Boot Leg Gap Races were not entirely problem-free, but the logistical issues were “solved” creatively before they became biggies, and by the end of the first day, Birrel was all smiles. For example, warm temperatures made organizers bump the six-dog classes to early in the morning from their originally scheduled mid-day time slots on the second day. This was done before the mushers even had a chance to request the change. “They knew what needed to be done and they just did it,” says Ramsay. Also, a lack of snow in the parking lot was solved before competitors and their trucks arrived: a Bobcat and some energetic volunteers moved just the right amount of white stuff into the parking lot for dropping dogs and preventing damage to sled runners. Unlike most other sled dog races, the Bootleg event dedicated money raised to a worthwhile charity, one that is region-specific. Facilities for victims of cancer and other serious illness in the Kootenay Rockies are non-existent and patients afflicted with such ailments must travel to Vancouver or Calgary for treatment. The East Kootenay Friends of Children Fund assists the families of patients with the financial burden of this travel. “I felt if I’m going to put in the time and effort, if we can have fun, we can make a difference and we should give back to the community,” says Birrel. “It’s important. It makes everything so much more worthwhile.” Organizers had originally hoped to raise $10,000 through sponsorship, fees, a silent auction and the sale of merchandise. In the end, $17,500 was donated to the Friends of Children Fund, and competitors still shared a purse of $5,000.Plans are already underway for next year’s Bootleg Gap Races, which will be held Feb. 20-21. “Right in the middle of the Olympics,” says Birrel. A few changes are planned to improve on the positive momentum of Year One. “We’d like to add a 6-dog 12-mile race if we can map it out and get the distance,” says Birrel. “We want to straighten out the course, and we’ve been in communication with the company that owns the land beyond the golf course, so there’s a possibility there. We also want to make the Friday a community festival, kind of a locals’ day with demo sports, ice sculpting, that kind of thing. A barbecue on the deck. Possibly we might add a 2-3 dog recreational class. We see that as the future of dogsledding. More people with smaller kennels. It’s an expensive sport. The future is in some smaller teams going some longer distances. We’d like to play around with that idea.” Kimberly has shown it has the enthusiasm, teamwork and determination to make dogsledding in the Kootenay Mountains a “can’t miss” on mushers’ calendars. Katherine Fawcett is a freelance writer based in Pemberton, BC. She can be reached at:


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