THE SPRINT RACING CAPITAL OF SASKATCHEWAN
A remote community in Northern Saskatchewan keeps the tradition of running dogs alive!All season long they have shared their knowledge about dogs and trained on the same trails. But when it comes to race time, each one of them is highly competitive. Sled dog racing in Southend, Saskatchewan, is a community tradition and the Southenders are as proud of their mushers’ achievements as towns are of their hockey teams. When the local races are going on the streets of the remote Cree community are deserted. The noise of a 100 hyper barking dogs reveals where the community members can be found: Old and young are down on the ice on the south shore of Reindeer Lake, where the annual sprint races are held. While the racers hook up their teams, memories of the past are brought back to many watching elders. “I can never stay away when there are dog races. It’s like a magnet. I have to come and look,” said 71-year-old spectator Roderick Thomas while he watched the sprinters disappear around one of the several thousand islands on Canada’s 9th- largest lake. Like many other Southenders, he remembers vividly the time when they still used dogs for trapping. A trapper would own only as many dogs as he would run, usually four to seven. Often men and dog would spend the whole winter together in the Bush and would get sincerely attached to each other. “Dogs were your everything,” said renowned sprint racer Tom Bird, remembering when he went out trapping with his father as a young boy. “You would depend on the dogs with your life. Once they followed a trapline, they would find the way again and again, no matter what conditions. Some of them could read the ice and find the safest way across the lake. When we checked nets, the dogs would rest and sleep until we were ready to go. Trapline dogs were well trained. Sometimes we used them for hunting moose. We would turn them loose and if they would find a moose they would encircle it. Some dogs came back to show us the way, the others would keep the moose on its spot until we got there. You could always rely on the dogs. You had to.” Although nobody uses dogs as working animals anymore, the racing history of Southend started with those trapline dogs. Dog racing between trappers is a tradition that reaches further back than anyone can remember. “When my Dad met another trapper in the Bush, the race was on,” Tom Bird said. “Often they would come from the Bay Store with a sleigh load of groceries when they met each other. They would drop their flour bags to gain speed and beat the other guy. Afterwards they had to travel back miles and miles to pick up their goods from the trail.” At Christmas time trappers would return to the community from their traplines and trappers would race their dogs in single file pulling heavy toboggans. Bird went into those local races with his dad’s, uncle’s or neighbor’s dogs starting at age 12.While Bird’s father never travelled to any races outside of Southend, 58-year-old trapper and musher Jacob Morin remembers the day early in the 1960s when the radio operator at Southend told him about a dog race in Prince Albert. Fellow trapper Phillip Ballentyne also wanted to compete in that race and the next day they set off to La Ronge – by dog team since there were no roads at that time. La Ronge is still the closest town from Southend and 220 km away by a winding gravel road. From La Ronge they hoped to catch a ride in a truck to Prince Albert. “’It’s not far,’ Phillip told me,” Morin said. “Not far,” he laughed. “It took us four days. Phillip Ballentyne, Richard McCallum, his son Oliver and me set off from Southend. We spent the first night in Brabant, where we picked up Fred Cook. Most travelled with seven dogs, I ran six. We took turns in snowshoeing ahead of the dogs. The next night we spent just north of Stanely Mission. We didn’t want to stay in town with the dogs. From Stanely to La Ronge we travelled on the winter road. It was a good road. We didn’t need to snowshoe. The dogs were fast. We arrived at La Ronge before nightfall. Someone knew somebody at the fish plant and we camped out there. Next day we loaded the dogs and toboggans into a semi and went to P.A.” When the six men took off to Prince Albert, none of them had more than $5 in their pockets and it was uncertain how they would get back. The five teams from the North placed between 3rd and 7th place in the Prince Albert Winterfestival and won enough money to make their way home. Previous Southend mushers have also done well in races. Pierre Morin from Southend used to travel to the Pas Trappers Festival in Manitoba, where he won the World Championship sled dog race in 1963. Although the Southend mushers had competitive racing teams, the dogs’ main purpose was still hauling freight: furs, fish, wild meat, logs or whatever needed to be transported. When the snowmachines took over these tasks, many trappers got rid of their dogs. For a short while it looked bleak for the tradition of dog teams. Life became easier with the invasion of technology and hardly anybody missed the hardship of trapping and fishing with dogs. What many trappers missed though was running the dogs and the dogs themselves. When Bird’s father gave up his dog team in the early 1980s, Bird was determined to get his own team. Together with his friend George Sinclair he started catching stray dogs and trying them out. If they wouldn’t turn out, they let them loose again. Between 1982 and 1984, Tom traded half of his fishing outfit for five dogs of Southender Henry Morin and his mine earnings for another 10 dogs from Dave Fallis in Alberta. His efforts paid off: In 1984 he won seven out of eight races as 1st place winner. “I had to work hard for it,” Bird said. “Racing was different 20 years ago. I pedaled the whole 18 miles!”The first successes encouraged other Southenders to get back into dogs or to keep their dogs. Today the community of Southend counts about as many dogs as people, which is close to a thousand. Kennel owners have tied their dogs at four different locations on the outskirts of the community, fenced in against predators and unwanted breedings. Southend counts 12 kennels in total, but the number of mushers is a lot higher. Many mushers get help from family members in looking after their dogs. Often two or three children, grandchildren, nephews, nieces or neighbor kids, give a hand feeding and cleaning. They get to train yearlings and help to harness break the puppies. In involving the young generation, mushers hope to keep Southend’s tradition of dog racing alive. “It’s important that young kids are doing it,” said Bird, who believes that dogs make a man a better person. “You can always talk to your dogs. The good thing is they never talk back!” Bird added: “If you have dogs, you are always active working with them. It gives your life a structure. It also gives us mushers and the kids that are attached to it the opportunity to travel. This way we get to see the country and meet lots of people.” The Roy Bird Memorial Junior Dog Race proves that the adult mushers are sincerely about involving the young generation: This 5-dog race is a big event during the Southend Winterfestival. Many mushers save their fastest dogs to give their children a good chance of winning. Whoever doesn’t get a chance of competing follows the race around the 8-mile loop by snowmachine, encouraging and cheering mushers and dogs. Following the race by snowmachines gives the chance to experience how competitive the racers are: Some grab snowballs in the run or pick up spruce twigs to trough at a dog that isn’t giving 100 percent; others get snowmachines to pace their team. Following the race by snowmachine, you can’t help but noticing another thing: at no time will you catch sight of a dog with a loose tug line. The dogs in Southend are strong and fast. Throughout the history until today one of the Southend mushers can be found each year under the top sprint racers of the province. In 2005, the teams of Jack Cook and Robert Cook did extremely well. In 1998, Bird won the Pas World Championship dog-sled race. Their secret to success? Bird believes the key of their victories over the years is the long tradition of their competitive yet compassionate racing attitude. Mushers in Southend not only share their knowledge about dogs, they also share dog food, studs and the same trails each day. If they meet each other on the trail, the race is on, just as it used to be for their fathers and grandfathers. Another reason is the support from the community. Modern sled dog racing in Southend today is born out of the long tradition of the dog team as the only way of transportation. Since the last trapper who trapped by dog team died 16 years ago, dogs are exclusively used for sprint racing. But the young people are still listening very interested to the stories of traveling by dog team and camping out with the dogs. Dreams of the past might be relived one day. But for now it’s fishing season and not dog mushing season. Many of the Southend mushers work as commercial fishermen or fishing guides during the summertime.In the summer, now half of the kennels will be on several of Reindeer Lake’s countless islands. Males, females and puppies have their separate island kingdom. But all the same they will be anxiously waiting for the fish boat to come, while they dream about the first snow in winter.Miriam Körner was born in 1975 in Germany. The love of running sled dogs brought her to Canada in 2002. Miriam runs mid- and long-distance races and enjoys winter camping trips by dog team. She currently lives with her husband Quincy Miller and their dogs at Potato Lake, Saskatchewan.