The sound of howling fills the air. Hundreds of people milling around in the snow. Colourful banners, bunting and flags adorn the trees on the picturesque flats of Dinner Plain. Four wheel drives with mini caravans and trailers line the Great Alpine Road. And adrenalin courses through veins. It is the annual Advance Sled Dog Challenge at Dinner Plain.
Each August for the past 15 or so years, dozens of mushers and the hundreds of dogs that form their teams, descend upon Dinner Plain for the highly celebrated sled dog race, the only event in the Australian race calendar held on-snow. So popular has this race become that competitors come from all over Australia, and also overseas; especially New Zealand.
The attraction being the opportunity to race their dogs on what is their natural racing surface – the snow – a stark contrast to the dirt tracks they compete and train on for the rest of the year. And without a doubt, the happy look in the faces and the ease of acclimatisation of the dogs, is evidence of how natural it really is to them.
The dogs have an opportunity to train at Dinner Plain the preceding weekend, and then return for two days of race events. These include 2 dog, 3 dog, 4 dog, 6 dog and Touring class. Touring being a newly introduced class which offers a slower pace for older and previously retired dogs to have their fun.
And this year, we were also treated to the introduction of Skijoring which was open to one, two or three dog teams pulling a cross-country skier.
The breeds of dogs that compete in the sled dog races are traditionally Alaskan Malamutes and Siberian Huskies.
Malamutes, the larger breed, are renowned for their ability to travel across enormous distances at a steady pace, displaying endurance and stamina, and can be identified by their dark brown eyes, and grey and white, black and white, or red and white coats.
Huskies, the smaller breed, are famous for their ability to travel shorter distances at a greater pace, and are readily identified by their often bright blue eyes, and sometimes mixed blue and brown eyes, with similar coats to the Malamutes.
At Dinner Plain we also saw many fine examples of another racing breed which is well represented in sled dog racing worldwide – a mixed breed which has evolved purely for racing … the Alaskan Husky. These dogs look quite different to the familiar sled dog breeds, with longer, athletic legs, muscular shoulders, shorter coats, and a variety of colours … though you can recognise the characteristic piercing eyes of the Siberian Husky in some. These dogs are particularly fast over race distances, hence their increasing popularity.
Many teams are exclusively one breed, however some mix the breeds together. And then we saw the occasional non-traditional breed: Doberman, Laborador, and others who love the chance to race.
The competitors are seriously dedicated … in order to participate they must have competed in 3 dirt track races in the season, and are required to present with a fully-optioned sled. These are imported from Canada and Alaska purely for this single race each year, and they’re by no means a small investment! Each is worth thousands of dollars, and is equipped with a sled bag, brakes, snow hooks, snub lines, line cutters – and they look impressive and beautifully crafted.
Their dogs are their pride and joy, and beloved members of their families … and you can see this in the way they treat them (some surely have a better life than many humans). Life with a sled dog breed is a major commitment (I live with a Malamute so understand the deal), and these mushers truly love their dogs.
The length of the race depends on the number of dogs in the team, and the class. Two and three dog classes run heats of 5km, and a race of approximately 12km; and the larger four and six dog classes have heats of approximately 10km and a race of 20km; the new Touring class runs a comfortable and leisurely 3-4km. The Skijoring event was quite short, and really an introduction to the race style for Australia.
As the dogs line up team by team for the start, their howls and screams become shrill. They’re held back by handlers who restrain them as they leap in the air with excitement. One-by-one each team awaits their start by a beeping timer … the familiar sound of which sends the dogs into a frenzy.
And once they’re released, they leap, airborn, and with the mushers holding tight onto their sleds and reins, steering and commanding their team as they fly away from the line. The dogs’ eyes light up, their tails trailing behind them or held high, and smiles across their faces. It’s a very exhilarating moment.
The musher has a tough job along with his team – you will see them pushing the sled along to help the dogs. It’s not all about steering. Frankly, anyone who can wear a pair of skins in -3 degrees must be working pretty hard!
As the teams make their way through the course their pace reduces to a more steady trot, and they weave their way through trees along the track. It’s a breathtakingly beautiful environment, with snow-covered snowgums and the quirky buildings of Dinner Plain in the distance.
As the track turns back towards the town and the finish line, it passes behind the lodges which makes for a very picturesque scene.
The dogs run home with tongues hanging out of their mouths and grins of satisfaction. Their long tails curve up and back over their backs in plumes, indicative of their happy and satisfied state. And the finish line is a mass of bright coloured signage with crowds lining the sides, cheering on the dogs – who respond with a final downhill dash for the finish. It’s very exciting, with the dogs as the heroes … and they know it!
While quite serious about their sport, the mushers true love of their dogs is demonstrated at this final moment of the race. The excitement of the finish with people lining the track and calling out in excitement, can be both distracting and motivating to the dogs; and it’s not uncommon to hear a musher laughing at his team. It’s a reassuring moment as it illustrates that although these are race dogs, the mushers know they are free-spirited animals, and the activity is primarily for fun.
One of the most fun opportunities of the weekend is to mix with the mushers and their dogs, who gather in groups studded around the course. Many mushers are happy for a chat, and their dogs eager for a pat or a tummy rub! Though it’s always essential to check with the mushers whether it’s appropriate to approach their dogs.
I fell in love with one magnificent Malamute, named Bear. He reminded me of my own Malamute who shares the same name. Not only that, their personalities are very similar – both friendly, affectionate, chatty – and they both say “hello” in human speak! Bear was also a hit with Squidge and her friends.
I was impressed to hear that Bear and his team-mate “Malik” (Arabian for “king”) were both Queensland-based rescue dogs who had travelled down for the race – so like my own beloved boy, Bear, who I rescued from the RSPCA at 12 months of age, their pedigrees are unknown. I also met people who had travelled from interstate purely as spectators of the sport – it truly is becoming a famous Australian event!
Dinner Plain came alive for the event, and the traders accommodated the race fraternity well (along with Omeo which hosted most of the mushers and their teams). The DP Hotel was bustling, while Cilantro had an out-doors stall of fabulous snacks. We had a lovely lunch with friends who came up to DP especially for the races.
The event was a huge success!
9-10th August, 2008