THE NORWAY WAY: A VISIT TO NORWAY

Continued from Mushing Magazine issue 113Per Olav and I took the dogs out for a training run, past herds of sheep, and more red cows for a half hour conditioning run. They are exuberant, fantastic dogs. Here we discussed the dilemma of Norway. Sprint racing is diminishing and distance mushing is increasing. For the moment, the kennel is divided into two units–one for Elisabeth’s long distance team and the other for the ridiculous, flop eared, and monstrously powerful and fast pointer crosses with the short hair and warm heads. For pure fun, a one or two hour thrill of raw power, the Norwegian pointer crosses are incomparable (in my opinion.)I told Elisabeth that I cannot imagine discontinuing her pointer line, but she is philosophical and is considering shifting her efforts to long distance dogs. To do so, the dogs must have a heavier coat to battle the serious winds further north and smoother muscle. The only practical way to do that is to change the breeding selection to straight huskies.Finally, on the last day of our visit, we arrange to visit Robert and Elin Sorlie in the rural community of Hurdal on the outskirts of Oslo. Elisabeth decides to drive 20 miles through a private forest, strictly maintained for lumber production, grazing, and recreation and show me some of the trail options used by she and the Iditarod Champ Robert Sorlie. With a special key, we unlock the gates and pass clear lakes, fast running creeks, and beautiful forest and meadows. Occasionally a primitive logging road forks and Elisabeth tells me this is another great training loop. In a month, the road will be covered with snow.Finally we reach Robert’s house, with a view overlooking a trout filled deep blue lake. I saw him for a short time at the symposium, and then he left the next day, determined to stay on his work out schedule of running, biking, and weight lifting. He arrives about fifteen minutes after our arrival from a massage session, smiles, and tells me it’s tougher to get in shape when you are fifty. Others have told me he is very serious this year, and even biked 60 km to the symposium to maintain schedule.After lunch, we walk out to the kennel where he obviously enjoys lounging with the dogs that come over and lean against him. He ambles slowly from house to house, stopping to pet each dog, talk, and savor the afternoon sun. I get a detailed history of each dog, and learn that this year’s team consists of 12 males and only 6 females. All but two have Iditarod experience. This means that the team, in total, will weigh more than previous teams and he should have more power and maturity. The issue of harnesses is revisited again, and Sorlie has decided to stay with the traditional harness for more power.Although there may be some short hair pointer lingering in the background, Robert tells me the dogs are in “type” straight husky. He has tried the pointer crosses and finds they are not suitable for distance.A neighbor, who happens to be employed by Polar Heart Rate Monitors, stops by to say hello and now I see why Sorlie’s team is listed in the research by harness maker Jan Rienertsen. Without asking I learn how Sorlie can safely train such a small number of dogs. First, he tells me that he trains slowly with the four-wheeler on the forest roads. Then with the snows coming in October, he uses the dogs to break out his trails. “It’s no problem with the speed,” he tells me. “The best race I had was when I broke trail and went slow–I think it’s very good training.” He also mentions that the temperature rarely falls to minus 10C and is relatively warm.Besides the 150 km of training available near his house, he plans to truck to other training locations and even do some races–but always with a view to the safety of the team. The Femundlopet, just three and a half weeks before his departure to Alaska will be a 600 km test. The goal is training, not winning.By 22 January, all serious training will end. The Femundlopet in February will add form to the dogs. Finally, he will arrive a week before the Iditarod and limber the dogs up with one 6 hour run, and two 3 hour runs. Surprisingly, he tells me that the direct flight to Fairbanks is actually less stressful than the 24-hour drive to races in northern Norway.Sorlie feeds a 25% fish and 75% meat diet year round for his racers. He is careful to point out that he does all the cleaning, training, and feeding. “You have to know the dog–the hand that feeds them is the one they trust.” His greatest training asset, he volunteers, is the power to keep the dog’s spirit up.I could easily write a tome on this guy. He is a unique trainer of animals and I am not alone in noticing his special relationship with sled dogs. Susan Butcher, for one, talked admiringly of him in 2003. Above all, the attention to musher and animal physical conditioning, the close bond with the dogs, may be one undervalued and consistent attribute of the great Norwegian trainer.“I am never predictable in training. The dogs never know when we’ll go,” he told me. I am reminded of a mule trainer who declined to enter his wagon team in a weight pull, because, he told me, “I never want them to learn they have a limit.”Of course, I wanted to ask him about his strategy for 2007 and the looming battle of wits with Jeff King and Doug Swingley. Nevertheless, as a fellow musher, out of respect, you simply do not ask that question. It’s obvious. He is impressed with the bold move of Paul Gebhartd, who pushed to the Yukon in 2006, and understands the early scintillating speed of King and Swingley. By nature, he is inclined to control the race, preferably at the front. Certainly, he has thought longand hard for a year, especially after flying the Iditarod as a bystander in 2006. Just as he has made a final selection for the 18 members of his team, he has a dedicated plan and he has a mind set.We will just have to patiently wait until March of 2007 for the details.

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