23/12/96 UK: HIKE! HIKE! HUSKIES LAP IT UP IN THE FROZEN WEST.

 

By FRANK KEATING.

Frank Keating trails after the National Sled Dog Racing Championships in the howling wastes of the Forest of Dean

THE bitter wind lanced not so much round you but through you. High in the Forest these raw blasts which howled through the fir trees were drowned by eerie wolf-like howls all around from the dogs. The call of the Arctic wild all right. This was Dr Zhivago scripted by Jack London, illustrations by Bruegel. One had honestly never felt colder than in the Forest of Dean this weekend.

"What utterly perfect weather," beamed Marion Bradbury, wife of Michael, who was successfully to defend his title in the six-dog class. "Simply terrific," relished J-M Littman, one of the favourites, "Look how the dogs are loving it." And to be sure, the huskies looked most happily at home.

It was the first of the winter's four-heat National Sled Dog Racing Championships. The competition, and the convoy of vans and wagons packed with dogs and driven by the devoted "mushers" of Britain, continues for three more weekends at Ardcastle Forest, Argyll (January 4 5), Thetford Forest (January 18 19) and Aberfoyle, Trossachs (February 1 2) until the all-round winners are decided in the various classes. The International Olympic Committee has already voiced an enthusiasm to include dog-sled events in the Winter Games of 2002.

"Quite right," says Littman, known throughout the mushers' freemasonry simply as J M - "ours must obviously be one of the most ancient race sports in the history of the world."

On England's ancient Forest heights which split the Severn and Wye it was a warming delight to witness more than 300 dogs racing through and revelling in the bitter cold. Nearly all were Siberian huskies, a breed imported into North America at the turn of the century. Their speed, control and power - each can pull up to 20 times its own body weight - was a revelation when watched close-to as successive teams galloped through the tight curved forest paths.

The six-and four-dog teams raced for five miles, the three-and two-dog teams for three miles. At the finish they were whacked and all-in - but still obviously revelling in it - and their mud-spattered drivers were ditto. The three-or four-wheeled rigs, rather like single chariots made out of kids' pushchairs, can weigh up to 40lb. When snow falls, they hitch on the genuine sledges with a delighted "Whoop!"

"The usual stupid comparison is that we are playing at Roman chariot racing," says Littman, "but in fact it is serious high-adrenalin stuff, none of your Ben Hur antics or gallery-playing."

As well as the gloriously evocative yelps of the dogs, the sharply barked orders of the mushers themselves reverberated around the wind-frozen forest wastes - Hike! ("Let's go! Get on with it, lads!), Haw! (the command to turn left) or Gee! (right). The actual word Mush! - a corruption of the old French trappers' command "Marche" - is hardly ever used.

Even though, in Britain anyway, it is nearly always a "wheeled" sport, it is still exclusively a winter one. What did these obsessive mushers do in the summer, gather in groups to watch the film Scott of the Antarctic? No way, they said, for Scott in fact had failed to return from the South Pole in 1909 almost certainly because his expedition had used horses instead of dogs.

The great adventurers and explorers of the snows, Amundsen, Byrd and Peary were the wise men who had put their trust in dogs which were bred to the frozen wilderness, like these this weekend in ice-cold Gloucestershire.

Littman, in his thirties and pony-tailed, worked in the music industry in London until he and his girlfriend Sarah became hooked on their dogs a decade ago. "They are racers first and foremost. They are totally non-aggressive and human friendly, and to us they are also pets. But they always have to be kept on a lead because by nature they are roamers, adventurers and very, very inquisitive. They will get under fences, or over them - especially if they see a small furry four-legged thing like a rabbit."

The sponsor for this opening round of the championships was Michael Bradbury. Marion races two-dog teams - "but a six-dog is far too strong for me; I might get round on adrenalin alone but, if anything happened, I know I couldn't hold them. It's as much as Michael can do" - Her husband, on whose land the meet was held, is a fencing contractor and a former champion cyclist (trials and cyclo-cross) who gave up two wheels for four feet when he smashed his collarbone on, or rather off, the bike.

When they heard the weekend weather forecast on Friday night - "bitter, cruel cold straight from the Arctic" said Michael Fish - they say they jumped for joy. "We were thrilled to bits for the dogs," she said, "the colder it is, the less they get heated."

At the finish line, as the successive teams came through, with their panting breath making puffer-trains from each of them and the steam rising from their bodies like it sometimes does from a rugby scrum, the dogs looked heated all right. Which is more than can be said for the human icicles who were watching them.

UNITED KINGDOM

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