Originally written for Dog World, www.dogworld.co.uk

For about half-an-hour very, very early on Sunday morning, it looked like this year’s Siberian Husky Club of Great Britain and Arden Grange Aviemore sled dog rally was going to turn out to be another tale of two very different days. After an unusually rainy Saturday, pre-dawn Sunday was bright and very cold with a clear, starlit sky making the frost sparkle as we left the village of Aviemore and took the well-travelled ski-road the few miles up to the race site. It even began to snow gently as vans full of Siberian Huskies along with the other sled dog breeds who take part at this famous and long-running race arrived and began to set up camp on the large hay meadow at Glenmore Forest Park. Unfortunately, as the horizon began to get lighter with the oncoming dawn, the wind picked up dramatically and the flurries of snow changed to a face numbing blend of sleet and freezing, driving rain that seemed to quickly penetrate every single layer of clothing!

Historic rally

January 25 and 26 saw the 31st running of what is a hugely popular event in the purebred sled dog working calendar. Aviemore is an historic rally for the breeds represented there and the many time-battered cups and shields that are handed out for the coming year at the Sunday evening presentation are engraved with the names of dogs (and, in some cases, mushers) who have since joined the immortal sled dog team I like to imagine setting the trails of the Northern Sky alight. It’s often a weekend to reflect on those that are no longer with us to make the annual trip to the Cairngorms. The Siberian Husky world has lost many fabulous dogs over the past 12 months and poignantly last year saw the sad and premature passing of the man who was in the early days of the race ‘Mr Aviemore’ himself, the greatly missed and lovely John Evans whose finish line banter at SHCGB races made many of us almost miss our own partners coming in.
However, while it is undeniably seeped in breed history, the race is no relic of the past. As the move towards more and more open racing in the UK gathers momentum, any high profile event limited to purebred dogs will always attract a bit of criticism. In fact someone even wrote a letter to the editor of the local paper urging people not to take the dogs and mushers who take part seriously! If anyone thinks many of the dogs who travel to Aviemore are anything but serious canine athletes they need to actually visit the race again and watch some of the teams in action, some of whom would be vying later in February for a place to represent Great Britain in the European Dryland Championships next winter. This year’s event saw some great competition and some extremely good course times and the racing scene had been abuzz with speculation who would win what for weeks before the countdown began.
This year saw a brand new ‘Team Aviemore’ take on the task of organising the massive event, headed up by husband and wife Mark and Tracey Squires. Mark tells me being asked by the SHCGB committee to take on the job of organising the Arden Grange SHCGB Sled dog rally was a real honour and quite a challenge.

Team spirit

“Not only because of the size of the event  but because of the history also – 31 years and still going strong as the largest sled dog rally in the UK,” explains Mark, who races Siberians and Alaskan Malamutes and has organised several successful races for the Alaskan Malamute Working Association. “We had fantastic support from the SHCGB committee and we were overwhelmed by the numbers of mushers who offered help in any way they could. For me as a rally organiser the greatest thing is seeing everyone come together and all do what they can, be it setting up, taking down, marshalling and whatever else is needed to make the event work then getting out to run their teams and enjoy a great race.
“The trail conditions were great this year but the terrible weather was a real test for teams and mushers alike. Standing at the finish line and seeing the happy faces from both musher and dogs made all the hard work leading up to the race worth it.
“We are already looking forward to next year and will try to take the event forward to keep it as a firm favourite in the Mushing Calendar!”
Oh yes, Mark mentioned the weather. It did play quite a part in the weekend! As the loud speaker announced the imminent start of the racing on Sunday, the painful sleet showed no sign at all of letting up. Normally at Aviemore, the start chute is lined with spectators, with some people making very long journeys to watch our canine athletes in action. Saturday had been fairly busy at the race site in spite of the ‘heavy showers’ with plenty of visitors milling about the race site eager to meet and photograph some of the dogs. Sunday was very quiet with only a few people braving the howling winds that kept Cairngorm Mountain closed to visitors and the ski road snow gates firmly locked all morning. Kate Muncaster who was setting off the big teams and doing an admirable job of telling spectators all about sled dog racing in the UK commented over the loud speaker that the people huddled up at the start looked like a family of Emperor Penguins!
Most of us were soaking wet by this point whether or not we were actually running dogs. Bear in mind we are generally the sort of people who take buying outdoor gear quite seriously so no one was trying to ward off the elements with jeans and a sweater. My branded waterproof gloves were soaked through within an hour and by the time I set my other half off with our six dog team I had to run back and raid the van for another pair before (well it felt like they would) my fingers actually fell off. We all watched shaking our heads as one competitor desperately tried to get his gloves over his cold and wet fingers at the start and fail as the countdown started, setting off with bare hands. Ouchy… Sadly the weather also meant photographs of the event are at a premium as few people wanted to risk their cameras with the elements!


Dog welfare is of the utmost importance at sled dog racing events in the UK. The Aviemore Team includes race trail marshals who had been out and about on the four mile trail since first light assessing the surface for safety. The trail at Glenmore is undulating with a very long downhill section and the whole thing can be extremely fast running so it’s incredibly important for the sake of our dogs that a close eye is kept on the conditions underfoot. Before the larger teams went out, a last minute check was undertaken. The trail was slushy and very, very wet and the winds were strong but there were no major areas of ice and the second day’s racing was allowed to go ahead. Of course every musher has to take responsibility for their own team and at every race (and Aviemore is no different here) you have to do a personal risk assessment in your head taking into account the fitness and ability of your dogs, your equipment and your own skill and experience to get them around with no hiccups against what you know about the trail, the temperature and other conditions.
This year’s race saw some fantastic times put in. Just under 200 teams were entered and after a couple of years of four-dog teams dominating the results, this year saw the quickest course times come once again from the six dog class. On the Saturday, for example, five of the six dog teams put in finish times of under 14 minutes which is really raising the bar again. The quickest time of the event was that of Gareth Bowyer and his team of yearlings at their first Aviemore (the pups, not Gareth) whose two day combined time was a fantastic 26.32 minutes. The team is made up of siblings from a single litter and their breeder Jim Bryde (himself an Aviemore veteran of many years) must be bursting with pride at their achievement this weekend.
Gareth was thrilled to win the six dog Siberian class and said he was left feeling a mixture of pride, humility and gratitude to his amazing dogs.
“Our epic drive home took until 3.30am so I am still a bit tired but I am feeling immense love for my dogs because win, lose or draw they complete me,” he said. “It has been an honour and a privilege to live with and train such a superb litter of puppies.”
Second in the six dog class (with a combined time of 27.07) was my other half Kev Spooner and our home bred team which includes four siblings along with their dad and uncle. If you are interested in dual purpose dogs then you might like to know one of the dogs on our team (Ch Charoite Witch’s Brew) is a show champion and his litter brother who ran cheek to cheek with him has a couple of tickets (the same applies to Alex Marvin’s team that came in second in the four dog class with Ch Northtrail Son of Anarchy on the team!).Third out of the 20 teams who ran in B class both days was our lovely and ever smiling race organiser Mark Squires with a combined time of 27.43.
Aviemore has an eight dog class which is fairly unusual in the UK and makes use of an extra loop to push the distance up to around seven miles. First, second and third were Callum Paterson, Adrian Tilsed and Barbara Terry. C Class (four Siberians) was topped by Adrian Tilsed with Alex Marvin second and Karen Jones third. C2 (for four freight dogs) saw Darren le Fevre, Claire Henry-Buxton and Wayne Mort first, second and third. E Class (three Siberians) was topped by Stuart Hanson with Karl Binns second and Alan Daniels third. E2 (the three dog freight class) saw the ladies dominate with Cheryl Gow and Lorraine le Fevre in first and second place with Stuart Marle third. D (two Siberians) was another win for Stuart Hanson with a brilliant second for Debbie Brading (who really deserved her fastest lady musher in the class shield) and third place went to Colin Spalding (who caught my loose team when I fell off at a race last year so I was especially cheering for him at the presentation!). The two dog freight class was won by Jay Wadrup with Alan Ballantine in second place with his Samoyeds and Stuart Lindsay third.
The junior event at Aviemore is always hotly contested. This year Alfie Blyth-Russell won J1 with Luci Ezzi second and Marco Ezzi third. Jessica Wright was first in J2 with Cerys Fagg and Charlotte Hill in second and third.

Like minded people

Competitors travel from all over the UK to take part with many making the trip as their annual holiday. The race itself is the usual SHCGB two-day format, with the four mile trail around Glenmore and the edge of Loch Morlich normally run on three wheeled rigs although occasionally the weather makes everyone’s holiday and gifts us enough snow to go out on sleds. Aviemore week isn’t just about the race though. There is also a test of strength where sled dogs (mostly Alaskan Malamutes with some Siberians and Canadian Eskimo Dogs taking part) compete to pull ever increasing weights over a short distance, a race for junior mushers and a longer trek which takes in the remote and lovely scenery of the Cairngorms at a more relaxed pace. For many people, it’s also a chance to catch up with old friends and talk dogs with like minded people in a village that, for this week at least, is totally dog friendly.
You can find out more about the race and see the full results by visiting siberianhuskyclub.org.uk.
All that’s left to say is our long weekend just didn’t feel anywhere near long enough this year and we are already planning for 2015. Hike on!