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Dog-Sled races not just for snow anymore

Kevin Sullivan and Mary Jordan
The Washington Post
Vail, CO Colorado
Kevin Sullivan/Washington Post Frisco, left, and Leia lead a team of Alaskan Huskies on a sledding spring from Jukkasjarvi, one of Sweden's northernmost villages.
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JUKKASJARVI, Sweden ” Sixty Alaskan Huskies yipped and yelped and howled on a frozen river 120 miles north of the Arctic Circle, itching to run.

The dogs, five teams of 12, tugged impatiently at harnesses tethering them to wooden sleds, where 20 tourists ” from Britain, Portugal, Denmark and the United States ” sat in insulated snowsuits, bracing themselves against subzero temperatures and wind. Then the sled drivers shouted, “Hike! Hike!” and the dogs started pulling and fell silent.

“They are happy when they run,” said Kalle Leissner, a bearded Swedish musher whose dog teams are part of a global boom in sled-dog racing and tourism that stretches from the snowy woods of Alaska to the sandy Outback of Australia.

Tens of thousands of people in dozens of countries compete in dog-sled racing on snow and, farther south, in proliferating events known as “dry land” races, in which dogs pull bikes or scooters ” or even runners, according to the International Federation of Sleddog Sports. Warming climates, thinning out the snow, have helped drive interest in dry-land competitions in places not normally associated with dogs and sleds, such as Argentina, New Zealand and Mongolia.

Tens of thousands more people, meanwhile, are traveling as tourists to the world’s far north ” including Alaska, Canada, Norway, Sweden and Finland ” to spend a few hours or days being towed by teams of dogs.

Dog breeders and tour operators said the rising interest comes in part from the bull market for environmentally friendly vacations. “There is a kind of beauty in it ” it’s environmental, and the down-to-earth part of it attracts people,” said Kenth Fjellborg, Leissner’s boss, a local dog breeder who said he takes at least 5,000 people on dog-sled tours a year, up from 200 people in the early 1990s.

Fjellborg said his clients have ranged from honeymooners to children to royalty ” in 2006, he led Prince Albert II of Monaco on a dog-sled expedition to the North Pole.

Prices for dog-sled tours vary by region ” a four-hour trip in Canada can cost $100; four hours in Sweden costs more than twice that much. “It’s definitely important to the economy. It’s become very, very popular,” said Harald Hansen of Innovation Norway, which promotes trade and tourism.

Alaska’s famed Iditarod, a 1,150-mile race widely considered one of the world’s greatest endurance tests, has drawn a record 111 mushers this year who will compete for nearly $1 million in prize money, said race spokesman Chas St. George.

St. George said more than a third of this year’s racers are younger than 30, which he called an indication that dog-sledding is growing in popularity with a new generation. About 4.3 million people visited the race’s official Web site last year.

Globally, 40,000 people competed in races in 2003, the most recent estimate, said Sally O’Sullivan Bair, an official with the International Federation of Sleddog Sports, a rise from 25,000 in 1997.

Norway and Sweden have traditionally been Europe’s most active dog-sledding nations, followed by France and Germany, said Lars Svanfeldt, president of the European Sled Dog Racing Association, which has clubs in 19 countries. The fastest growth has been in Poland, the Czech Republic and other Eastern European nations.

But changing climate conditions bedevil the sport. Poor snow conditions have forced the Iditarod’s organizers to modify the race course in seven of the past 10 years, St. George said. Unreliable snow cover has forced cancellation of up to 40 percent of the International Sled Dog Association’s competitions in recent years.

While the growing emphasis on dry-land events is largely because of climate change, other people respond by moving farther north, to places where snow and ice are more reliable.

One such place is this town, famous for its canine majority ” 630 people, 700 dogs.

Jukkasjarvi is one of the northernmost villages in Sweden. Elderly people push sleds loaded with groceries and walk with ski poles. It is surrounded by dog-sled trails crisscrossing frozen lakes and forests filled with pine and birch trees.

Leissner, an experienced musher in Jukkasjarvi, stood at the back of his sled one recent day and guided his huskies down narrow trails as gusting winds drove the chill deep. Even at midday, the arctic winter sun cast a weak, bluish-gray light; by about 3 p.m., it would be fully dark again.

The dogs pulled the sled at about 20 mph, with no sound save for the sled’s skis gliding over crusty snow. Leissner, 26, had no reins and steered simply with his voice ” using “haw” for left and “gee” for right, directing the dog team with the traditional Alaskan commands.

Cutting through the vast forest, where elk tracks occasionally crossed the trail, Leissner said people are sometimes surprised by the look of his dogs. They expect them to be Siberian Huskies, which have the classic blue eye most commonly associated with the breed.

Alaskan Huskies come in brown, black and yellow and white, and are smaller and faster than Siberians, he said. “Siberian Huskies are bred to look like sled dogs,” he said. “Alaskan Huskies are bred to be sled dogs ” we don’t care what they look like.”

Animal rights activists have occasionally targeted the sled-dog business as cruel. But people in the industry say dogs are treated with care and respect ” and they insist that the dogs enjoy the sport.

“The dogs love their job, and that’s why I love my job,” Leissner said. “In the morning when I harness the team, all the dogs are jumping, like, `Take me! Take me!’ “

Without breaking stride, the dogs dragged their open mouths through snowbanks alongside the trail, using their tongues to cool themselves. For many delighted children riding the sleds, the highlight was not the tranquillity, but the dogs pooping as they ran.

An hour into the trek, Leissner and the other guides stopped their teams in front of a wilderness cabin, a round wooden hut with a peaked roof and a big wood fire crackling inside.

“It’s not a metal, modernized, mechanized machine,” said Jo Lees, a teacher from Liverpool, England, admiring the old-fashioned wooden sled on which she had arrived, its parts fastened together with twine. “It’s so peaceful, and it’s something new.”

After 20 minutes’ rest, the dogs started howling again, demanding to run.

Special correspondent Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.


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