Two thousand sled dogs are set to run in the three-day Sled Dog World Championship in the tiny Swedish town of Åsarna, which counts a population of just 7,000, pulling 270 drivers from 17 different countries.
“This is absolutely the biggest sled dog competition ever,” race spokesman Niklas Andersson tells AFP as he straddles a large snow scooter, the only way besides using skis or dog sleds to get through the waist-deep snow to find a spot along the wooded route the dogs will soon take.
With the engine roaring in our ears, we are enveloped in gasoline fumes as we bounce along, swerving boulders and ducking low-hanging branches until we finally find the perfect spot to see the dogs and their drivers, or mushers, fly by.
Sunlight reflects off the sparkling snow as the first musher, standing straight on metal runners and holding onto a canvas-clad sled, speeds past pulled by 12 panting Siberian Huskies, their breath billowing like smoke in the sub-freezing early-morning air.
From March 7th to 9th, dog teams numbering anywhere from one to more than 14 animals pull mushers on sleds — a category in which men and women run side-by-side — or on skis where the sexes compete separately.
“You don’t need as much muscle to be pulled on a sled … sometimes women can have an advantage because they are lighter,” says Martin Hanselle, a German sled dog enthusiast who has come out into the trail with heavy photography equipment to try to get the perfect shot of the animals.
Siberian Huskies, the fastest runners, compete in their own category, while the three other sled dog breeds, the bushy, muscular Alaskan Malamutes, the stocky Greenland Dogs and the fluffy white Samoyeds, run together.
The day before the race, owners driving special trucks with cages equipped in some cases to hold dozens of howling and yelping dogs queue through the centre of Åsarna waiting for veterinarians in fluorescent yellow vests to give them the thumbs-up to compete.
“We’re checking that they have no signs of illness or injury,” says veterinarian Maria Lundvall as she inspects Jochen Wypukol’s truckload of Siberian Huskies that he has driven up from Germany.
“This is the first time he’s on a table,” Wypukol, 48, explains as Shadow, a white and brown-speckled husky with one brown and one piercing blue eye, whines and squirms under Lundvall’s firm grip.
She inspects his sharp, canine teeth, his eyes, ears, paws and then asks Wypukol to take him for a short run to make sure he does not limp.
“Most of the dogs I’ve seen today have been healthy, but 15 so far have been disqualified,” she says.
One of the unlucky owners is 39-year-old Simon Manning, who has just spent three days driving his six huskies up from Yorkshire in Britain to try sledding on snow for the first time.
“I’ve only done one practice run, and I fell off and the dogs took off, so I think staying on the sled will be the hardest thing,” Manning says as veterinarian Catharina Freskgård begins checking his dogs.
One of the animals has an injured eye and has been taking eye drops, which Manning unfortunately has not thought to get a special permit for.
“It’s off the list. It can’t start,” Freskgård says as she sprays a circle of red paint on the dog’s rear to show it has been disqualified.
“We may as well just turn around and go home,” says a devastated Manning, shoving his hands in his pockets as the howling wind whips up a cloud of dust-like snow around him.
Another team accustomed to racing dogs using wheeled carts on dirt roads was more lucky: three mushers from South Africa, who had borrowed dogs in Sweden to avoid the required six-month quarantine for animals from their country, were on Friday preparing for their first races on snow ever.
“The good thing is that falling on snow is like falling on the clouds compared to falling on dry land. That hurts a lot more,” Cindy Foggitt, 30, who has been South Africa’s sled dog racing champion for the past three years, tells AFP just a few hours before she and her four-dog team set off from the starting line.
Even if you do not have to transport dogs and equipment from far-away places, sled dog racing is an expensive sport that demands a lot of hard work and commitment, competition spokesman Andersson tells AFP.
“In Sweden a good dog costs around 9,000 kronor ($1,500), and in Germany it could cost even 20,000 kronor, but the dogs are only a small part of the cost,” he says, sitting inside one of four large teepee tents planted in the middle of a large parking area where hoards of dogs wait impatiently to run.
Andersson and his musher-girlfriend Marie Israelsson own six huskies and two hunting dogs themselves, and food alone for the animals costs around 35,000 kronor a year. On top of that comes fancy equipment like a racing sled, snow scooter and dog park.
“And we hire two masseuses for the dogs to help them stretch out after competitions,” he says.
“It isn’t cheap,” acknowledges Pierre Slabbert, 43, another South African who is preparing to compete with a six-dog team.
“But when you manage to bond with a husky, there’s no describing that feeling.”