With warmer winters, mushers and sled dogs face changes in a sport they love
Teams of sled dogs and mushers from across the United States and Canada traveled to Laconia this weekend for the 93rd annual World Sled Dog Championship.
The runners were in good spirits, even though they faced slushy conditions on Friday and Saturday – a situation that has become more common, many mushers said, as climate change causes winters to get warmer.
Vince Buoniello was the head judge for the Laconia race, which has a deep and prestigious history in the world of sled dogs. He compared it to the Super Bowl.
“Laconia has always been a magical name. Everyone wanted to race in Laconia,” he said.
In his 65 years in the dog sledding business, Buoniello has seen big changes – fewer people seem to be involved in the sport and it’s harder to find undeveloped land for sled runs. And, he said, warming winters have made races difficult to schedule.
“We raced every weekend for years and years. It was an exception if ever a race was cancelled. Now forget that. It has changed drastically,” he said. “Seeing mud blows your mind. It just never happened.
Buoniello, who is 90, said judging the race in hot conditions made him a bit tired. But, he says, his love for sports and animals has been worth it throughout his career.
“Dogs got me going,” he said. “It was just such love. It was just pure love.
Warmer conditions create difficulties for dogs
Jules Struzyna, a musher from Vermont, said mushers aren’t the only ones who love the sport.
“We love doing it, obviously, but not even a fraction as much as dogs do,” they said.
Struzyna said they and their dogs have seen the effects of climate change on the sport. For their team, race days were rare, but that made the weekend outing even better.
“If we can organize a race, that’s great,” they said. “Some years we don’t get any…so we’re excited to be out here running and having a great time.”
But the track was slow this weekend. It’s harder for dogs to run in slush, Struzyna said. A Saturday race was moved to start half an hour earlier to avoid more melting.
And Sunday’s events were called off, after a cold night turned slush and water to ice, creating dangerous conditions for dogs and people.
Struzyna’s team comes from the Cobble Hill Kennel in Vermont, where the dogs take tourists on errands, using a wheeled cart when there isn’t enough snow to use a sled. But dogs like to run better, Struzyna said.
At the start line, each dog team met the spectators with a chorus of excited yelps. An ATV, sled brakes and several humans were needed to keep the dogs from running before the start call.
Dog handlers rubbed snow on some dogs to cool them down.
Sally Manikian, a shelburne mushersaid hotter conditions can overheat his dogs.
“Dogs are hot, like everyone else. It’s kind of like running a marathon when it’s 100 degrees and it’s humid,” she said.
She started her race with dogs Flora and Cobalt in the lead, but replaced Cobalt after the stress of race day proved too much for the pup. But for Manikian, that was the point – she wanted her young team to acclimate to the feeling of a crowded race.
“There are a lot of spectators,” she said. “That’s why I signed up.”
Climate change is shaping training seasons around the world
Fernando Ramirez brought his team of dogs to New Hampshire from Utah.
“World Championships are definitely one of those prestige races that really tests your team to see how you stack up against the best mushers in the world,” he said.
Ramirez monitors the temperature and snow conditions every year while training his dogs in Utah. And he’s seen big changes there too, especially in the last five years. Before, he could start training in September, but the temperatures aren’t low enough to start before mid-October now. The end of the season is also coming sooner.
“I have it in all my training logs. We’re pretty much out of our sleds in February,” he said. it’s really strange… If we have a very good snow year, this is what our average snow years looked like.”
In Quebec, the training season was also affected by the weather, said Guy Girard, a musher from Saint-Thomas de Joliette, whose team won the open class events on Friday and Saturday.
This year, COVID-19 presented an additional challenge for Canadian teams. Girard and his friend Jean-Philippe Lacasse, a musher from Gaspé, were able to get by, but quarantine restrictions and the risk of transmission caused others to stay away.
“Some mushers, they have to go to work on Monday,” he said. “They cannot stay here two more weeks because they have a positive test. Even if they really care about it, you never know.
Spectators find community and joy in the race
For the hundreds of spectators watching the event, the mud didn’t get in the way of the good times. But many seemed aware of how warming up New Hampshire winters change the landscape of Recreation.
Merry Fortier, who now lives in Canterbury, grew up watching dog sledding events in Tamworth – a race that also knows changes due to warmer winters. She says climate change has also changed her experience as a viewer.
“Now that the climate is different, it’s increasingly difficult for these events to take place in New Hampshire,” she said. “Just not enough snow, or snow then rain, which doesn’t work well for dogs and handlers.”
But even with the mud, the Laconia World Championship was an exciting event, she said.
“It’s just a really fun and joyful thing to watch, to watch the dogs and their teams go out and be outside and have a great day.”
And winter sports are meaningful not just for the runners, but also for the communities that host them. Kayla Bradshaw, who moved to Laconia last year, said the event showed her the beauty of the Lake District community – something that helps make winter a little easier.
“It’s amazing to see everyone come out and support each of these events – the ice fishing last week and here today with the sled dog competition,” she said. “There’s always something going on in the winter to keep you going.”