The Aviemore Sled Dog Rally obviously deserves recording in the Club’s History. There must, however, be a point at which this history starts to take on the structure of a list from Yellow Pages and that is really not the way to record for posterity the most lively and longest running of the Club’s Working Events. An informal approach may perhaps then be the best, so my apologies for not listing all the winners and record times, I shall leave that for the annual lists and continue to enjoy the luxury of reminiscence.

Quite how the perpetually popular BBC TV Children’s Programme ‘Blue Peter’ came to be associated with Smirnoff Vodka remains a complete mystery, but it certainly was to the gain and benefit of the Club and, indeed, Sled Dog Racing in the UK as a whole. John Evans and I were asked to train, for publicity, the Winner of the Smirnoff Dream-of-a-Lifetime Competition to drive Sled Dogs prior to his running in an Alaskan Race along with the BBC Presenter, Peter Duncan. (!) Aviemore seemed a safe bet for snow in March (how times change – is it true about Global Warming?) so off we went. As an aside the training went well but, importantly, race trails were identified and, more to the point, very friendly Landowners and Locals. The Aviemore Race was on and, already tempted by the experiences of the Glen Esk Snow Rally in 1983, the UK Mushers were keen.

The first race? 20 entries and only 12 managed to brave the weather conditions. So it was a very select few teams who ran around the Loch an Eilein trails in 1984. Rob Hyden was one of them …. and is now the only Musher to have competed at all the Aviemore Rallies. He even stayed in the Aviemore Fire Station one year ….. their hospitality was not as good as that of the Coylumbridge Hotel, but a bit cheaper and anyway his stay was only a couple of nights as Michael his new-born son had stayed at home with Chrissie …. now Michael, a regular Junior Musher, will be competing in the main race in 2003.

The race continued to run for the next couple of years on the interesting trails of Loch an Eilein, part of the Rothiemurchus Estate, one of the most beautiful areas in the Highlands of Scotland. Looking back to-day it seems hardly possible the Mushers survived, the faster British Teams of the 21st Century would certainly have had a degree of difficulty circumnavigating the tree roots … not to mention the bridge, but as they say – things were different then. Of course, there was the momentous Race when John refused Lesley Monk permission to run as the weather was just too dangerous. Lesley moved on to bigger and better things soon afterwards …. I believe she remains one of the most prolific Brits. to run the Iditarod. In hindsight, perhaps Lesley should have gone around the course – but who knows she might have been put off for life!

Lack of snow on the lower slopes forced the Event to move further up the hill to Glenmore the next year and away from the hospitality of the Rothiemurchus Estate on to Forest Enterprise trails, where we remain to-day. These trails too have distinctly improved over the years. The Club even paid towards the cost of joining the Car Park to the old Forest Entrance, thus enabling Teams to walk to the start of the rally rather than run a shuttle by car and van. It was even with mixed feelings that the infamous ‘Water Butt Turn’ became a comparatively gentle bend during one Summer. Never again will there be a video of Mushers one after the other falling off their sleds into the snow ….. would be nice to see snow again as well wouldn’t it? But I digress.

Feelings within the UK Mushing Family have always run high about Aviemore – when snow cancelled an event in Aberfoyle, it just didn’t happen and everyone happily settled for a one-dog sprint in the car park instead. When the snow gates were closed and Aviemore almost had to be cancelled due the mushers getting caught up in a huge 7 mile traffic jam of skiers, the ripples of aggression reached to the next AGM of the Club and beyond. Even to this day people still bear a seemingly illogical grudge – such is the height of feeling for this Event. Like Marmite, you love it or hate it …. with no half measures in between.

So what is it about the Aviemore Rally? It is difficult for me to say – being biased and all that – but I know it has been a mammoth task to organise and has influenced my life over these past 20 years in many ways. It has always been in the front view and for years I have spent a lot of time apologising for its effect and popularity. Size, I suppose, is its main gain but also and at the same time, its problem. From those first 12 teams in 1984 by the year 2000 in what is, in truth, a relatively short time, our annual total now exceeds 200+ teams and that’s not counting the 40+ Juniors and 80+ Trekkies. This is some entry and with the additional focus of the highest level of media coverage for a UK Sled Dog Event, the rally is now a year-long task to run. What else was there to do on Christmas Day afternoon but to write out all those cheques and certificates anyway?

More recently and particularly since the loss of our original sponsors, Aviemore has become an entity in its own right, always held under the Club’s banner, but now the outside world has an interest in its running too. Cairngorm Connections, a group of local Aviemore Businesses, sponsored the 2001 Sled Dog Rally in order that the event should not be lost, and to form a stop-gap before we could identify our new partners for 2002 and hopefully beyond – Royal Canin. Without Royal Canin, I would be writing in the past tense. Talking of Sponsors, we must never forget what we all owe to Jon Delap of Spillers Petfoods, who was brave enough to visualise the Event’s potential and yet never take it beyond its natural growth patterns. Due to this early trust and confidence, sled dog racing in this Country was given a boost for which we shall forever be indebted and those early rallies hosted by Jon and his wife, Tuggy, will remain the best for many Mushers.

So now where does the memory trip take us? Let’s record some of the ‘extras’ which have made the rally so unique …..

Not many will perhaps remember the first years when Friday meant It’s a Knockout and the Ice Rink at the Coylumbridge Hotel was the scene of much hilarity, okay, so the Olympics 2002 has done more for curling than we did, but we all enjoyed ourselves! And then there was the year that Cynthia Mann was heard to breathe a sigh of relief for missing and ‘not killing’ all the clay pigeons in the shooting competition ! Fridays for a short time became Veterans’ Day once again around Loch an Eilein, but lack of support, mainly due to the fact the Veterans were running in teams in the main event, ended its run after only a couple of years. Started at the same time as the Veterans, the Weight Pull – run by Peter Carroll and now by our fellow organisation the Alaskan Malamute Working Association – took over the morning slot before the Mushers’ Meeting and continues to enjoy success to the present. In more recent, years the visit to the Highland Wolf Park has become a ‘must’ for enthusiasts. We have seen the Pack grow and thrive .. enjoying a trip to the Souvenir Shop after a walk round the enclosures.

Here we must mention the Juniors. Their tenacity never ceases to amaze me and their ability has grown immensely since those early days when the McCabe Clan dominated the event. I shall still hear the rattle of Norma’s biscuit tin and their calls to the finish in my sleep ! Run for many years along the Start chute, due to commercial and access difficulties we were not able to use the loop circuit until 2001 when at last the Juniors had at least a reasonable course to work on. Chris and Cilla Mindham started the Juniors off, taken over by the Leicester Crew, and then run for many years by Rob and Chrissie Hyden. I hope that Ewan Robertson will enjoy the same success in future years and wish him all the best for 2003 and beyond.

Of all the additional activities, however, the most popular is the Trek. Run in its first year from Inshriach to Loch an Eilein in the most horrendous of conditions – I think the local terminology is ‘blowing a hooley’ – it was enough to put anybody off the experience, but no, British Mushers are made of sterner stuff than that! Firstly the distance was increased to the edge of the Rothiemurchus Estate and when the number of entrants and thus parked vans and cars threatened to cause a major hold-up, lengthened to include the last part of the Glenmore Race Trails. The trek is not for the inexperienced (both Musher and Dogs) and in these days of awareness, we continually work to make this event as risk-free as possible, whilst retaining the attraction of the challenge and enjoyment for the dogs. Somehow they realise the Trek is not a race situation and appreciate the spirit of the event, running happily in multiple groups without the stress of the weekend’s competition. For many years the Trek was organised by John and myself with later help from Mick and Sue Jones, but when time and constraints required more detailed co-ordination, Elaine Burroughs, Mark Theaker and Bette Hawthorn and then Ian Robinson took on the job, now with Bruce Hall and Co. co-ordinating the 2003 Trek – a job they have unofficially done for some time!

So we’ve set the stage on the Event and its locations but we should remember those people from outside of the Club who have had an influence on the Aviemore Sled Dog Rally. First we should thank Graham Clarke whose inability to accurately follow the trails on that first Blue Peter Film Shoot identified the Race. His Company, Highland Drovers, provided the Marshalling Vehicles and prepared the course when it snowed for many years. It’s always a Family-Thing at Aviemore – Ailsa Clarke (now Black) and daughter Jennifer have also helped out on the catering side from time to time. Daniel Buck took over the helm of Highland Drovers followed finally by John Henderson before budget limitations required the Club to dispense with this luxury.

Local Landowners and their representatives have always played a large part in the running of the rally. Without the input of John Grant of Rothiemurchus and his wife Phillipa, particularly in the early years, we would not be enjoying our 20th anniversary. Laurie Wedderburn was Chief Ranger for the Estate when the first rally was run, he now helps out on the Whisky Tasting on Friday nights, like I said a Family Thing. That brings me to mention Frank Clarke and Mr. Smith of the Cairngorm Whisky Tasting Centre. Sadly, no longer open, so much of the organisation of the Aviemore Event has been plotted and researched within the hallowed Tasting Room – we even had the first Mushers’ Meeting there back in 1984. Of course, the Forest Enterprise must be the greatest provider to the Rally. Without trails, we don’t run. Jim Gillies the FE’s Leisure Officer has over recent years proved himself so much a friend of Sled Dog Racing. Jim started his association with the sport at the Rothiemurchus Estate and continues working with the Club to improve the Event. We should, however, also remember Alastair McLeod – the first contact at the then Forestry Commission – when a ‘Gentlemens’ Agreement and £50 was enough to secure Sled Dog Racing for a fortnight! Oh, what days ……

Peter Steinle, now of the Cairngorm Hotel and ex Coylumbridge and Barratts Time Share deserves his own mention. His determination to help Events in the Spey Valley has forged a close association over the years. Old timers might notice a pattern … it seems wherever Peter moves in his workplace, the Sled Dog Rally will follow, but it was his first link with Rothiemurchus and the Coylumbridge Hotel that set the original package in place. Dick Beech, his successor at the Coylum was not too sure of his inheritance back in 1984 when dogs and people bundled into the Hotel but soon learnt the Sled Dog People are a good bunch and became a firm friend before his retirement.

In the early years, timing was done by stopwatch but numbers soon took over and thankfully, Mike Gettleson and his Mikrotime Crew have become an institution in their own lifetime at Aviemore. Never has their input been so great as the day of the Great Traffic Jam, keying in all the start times as they occurred was a feat not to be taken lightly. I am sorry, Mike, that the Musher’s Meeting causes such trauma but it is how the German Club did their draw in Todtmoos during the late 1970’s and from where the whole template for Aviemore was taken. At about the same time as electronic timing arrived, the quietest man in the Event made his entrance – Laurie Fraser has been providing the tannoy facility ever since, but perhaps this only came into its own when Sarah found her voice in 2001.

Catering at Aviemore has been sporadic to say the least ….. the early years were good and healthy but in mid span, food was not a main feature of the rally. I am happy to say this situation has changed, firstly courtesy of Jonathan Gatenby’s huge barbecue and then the arrival of Mary and Terry from Down South. Now their place has been filled for the past two years by Jeff Evans … a man with a sense of humour (very useful) and a growing devotion to our Sport.

This chronicle cannot continue without acknowledgement to John Evans. From the outset of the Aviemore Rally John was the front man for the event. His year was filled with thoughts and ideas for its improvement. Summer Holidays were spent walking courses and working at contacts, liasing with local landowners and representatives. I am so sorry that this association was forced to come to an end, but no one can talk about this Rally without due reference to John. We will always remember those Mushers Meetings (Ian Ankers and his tie would like to sometimes forget!) when John held an audience of some 400 or so people in his grasp and his work with the media was always superb, his hat will forever be their trademark. We really do owe him so much in this Sport, the Aviemore Rally, the Breed and the Club.

John’s ethics were strong and clear on the organisation of Aviemore, sometimes they lead him into trouble, but he stuck to his principles even when the going got tough. It is his pathos on which the event was founded and continues through to the present. But Aviemore must continue and work to the future so I was so pleased when Sarah Robinson agreed to share the organisation of the 2001 Rally, though I am not sure either she or Keith fully appreciated the commitment required. All I know is that her sense of humour and diligence to perform without either question or thought for herself has carried the Aviemore Rally to another level. One minute Starts are a necessity not a whim when entries top the 200 mark. She has taught us all how to behave up to the Start chute and thus saved the C and E Classes all from the dark foreboding that was promised by some. With the New Crew also came Kenny and Lindsey Sutherland as Race Marshals. Not the easiest of tasks as so much needs to be done at on the day to keep the Rally running smoothly. They are always the first point of call on the radio and their patience is pushed to the limit by Sunday night, so my thanks for taking on a very important part of the Aviemore Rally. My thanks also go to Alan Bowering for whom Aviemore is a difficult time but whose support has got me through these past and most two years and, hopefully, for many years to come.

I have to say for various reasons my belief in Aviemore for the 2001 rally was put to the test. Without the sponsorship and particularly the travelling monies enjoyed for so many years I felt the entry would drop dramatically and the doubters would at last be proven correct. It was, therefore, so satisfying to see the entry reach the high hundreds and this fact alone gave a boost on which the rally has prospered with the knowledge that a vote of confidence had been given to us all. At last the event stood with its own record of success and whatever it was about Aviemore, something must be right. The event had, so to speak, arrived.

We shall continue to build on this success and improve facilities and performance wherever possible. The Mushers’ Market worked, so will stay at least until a better idea comes along. The miniatures and sweatshirts, more legends in their own lifetime, will stay by hook or by crook – it was by the skin of our teeth in 2002! By mentioning a few, I shall forever be accused of forgetting the majority who work to put the Aviemore Rally together each year …. be it at the Mushers’ Meeting (a nightmare of its own making) the Awards Ceremony or Paul Norris for his superb photography (and Helen his better half) or where and whoever, but this history cannot go on without end. Safe to say thanks to anyone who has had input in the event has helped to make the Aviemore Rally what it is to-day, but of course, we must never forget that whoever does what, when and where …. a rally is nothing without its competitors so, most of all, thanks to all those teams who have run the course in sometimes superb conditions, sometimes horrendous, but as it is always said when the eternal question is asked …. ‘weather? who knows, but we will have some and we will have an Aviemore Rally!’

Meantime, my thanks for the chance to indulge myself, sometimes it only seems like yesterday that Gareth Pugh, the Smirnoff Winner, sat after filming with Blue Peter and asked if he could award a trophy to the New Rally and yet this exercise has brought to light so many memories. In the same breath it seems a lifetime since we all took the train from Perth to Aviemore with all the dogs in the luggage wagon because the roads were blocked with snow and we HAD to get through in time.

Happy memories …. and many more of them, please.