And they’re off: Sled dog races a highlight of 2020 Winter Festival

The Prince Albert Winter Festival sled dog races took place on Saturday and Sunday outside of the Alfred Jenkins Fieldhouse. (Jayda Noyes/Daily Herald)

Last minute decision pays off for Porcupine Plain sled dog musher Carl Knudsen

As mushers harnessed up their sled dogs this weekend leading up to a race, the canines often jumped up on their hind legs in anticipation. Spectators could barely talk to each other over the sound of excited barking.

The sled dog races are a classic event of the Prince Albert Winter Festival that the city looks forward to in the weeks leading up to the festival’s outdoor site. This year was no different.

With free sled dog rides and future racing puppies to cuddle, it’s no doubt the event sparked smiles from the crowd of spectators.

For the mushers though, it’s serious business. They’ve been training their dogs since the beginning of fall.

Carl Knudsen, a 26-year-old musher from Porcupine Plain, decided last minute to join the 10-dog race at the Prince Albert Winter Festival. He was going to continue training leading up to the Open North American races taking place in Alaska in March.

Out of over a dozen teams in his category, his won first place with a combined time of about one hour, 42 minutes and 30 seconds. The dogs ran over 20 km on both Saturday and Sunday.

His dogs were the second team to cross the finish line in Saturday’s race, and then first in Sunday’s.

Ten-dog race winner Carl Knudsen holds up the cup during the awards ceremony on Feb 23, 2020. (Submitted by Chrissy Halliday)

“I’ve had a pretty good record this year, come in first and second in five races or so,” said Knudsen.

Despite a successful finish in Saturday’s race, his team had a rough start with a tangle only about 50 metres out.

“Then I had to make another stop a little further having a dog, its neckline come off, and with the hook not holding very good, I had to have some assistance in holding the sled. It takes a little extra time, but at least we got lots of passing practice. Got past every team pretty much.”

Knudsen’s love for sled dog racing began when he was about 10 years old.

“(I) tried to hook up a yard dog to go out and check my rabbit snares, didn’t like that that much and thought I’d maybe get some huskies. A local guy used to have some actual race dogs, so when I went and visited him, it kind of escalated quickly and suddenly I had 20, 30 and I must have 40 dogs now,” he said.

Knudsen said the key to the dogs performing well is keeping them happy, but there’s a lot that plays into that.

This includes taking them on training runs every second or third day, giving them proper feed and lots of it and simply giving them attention.

“They’re all pretty much pets. They could all come in the house and sit on the couch if they wanted,” he said.

Although sled dogs were traditionally purebred huskies, Knudsen said “racing a husky is like racing a sumo wrestler against the real Olympic marathon runners.”

His dogs are Greyhound German Short-Haired Pointer and Alaskan Husky mixes.

“They’re pretty much just built for speed. I mean, there’s no animal on earth that’s got the endurance of these (dogs).”

Honorary Chair Gordon Sproull steps up to the microphone

Sled dog announcer Chrissy Halliday, with the help of 2020 Honorary Chair Gordon Sproull, keep spectators updated as the teams take off. (Prince Albert Winter Festival/Facebook)

Gordon Sproull, the 2020 Prince Albert Winter Festival’s honorary chair, was the voice of the sled dogs for 51 years. On Saturday, Sproull joined announcer Chrissy Halliday and picked up a microphone once again.

“You meet a lot of people over the course of the years. It doesn’t matter what you do,” he said.

“I do rodeos, I do stalk car racing and I do chuckwagon racing, I do these here. I meet a lot of people and, you know, they’re all good people. I enjoy every bit of it, but you’ve got to back away sometime.”

Over Sproull’s half of a century announcing the event, he’s seen the true excitement that comes with the sled dog races and how well mushers look after their dogs.

“People might not think (so), but they’re fed well and they know how to feed them and they’re in good shape. They’ll run their hearts out for you as long as you keep them well fed.”

Sproull stepped back from announcing in 2016. After that, the mic was passed on to Chrissy Halliday.

She’s been a Winter Festival board member for the past six years.

“I’ve always helped out with the outdoor site and three years ago they handed me a mic, asked me to do the one-dog (race), and they didn’t take the mic away, so three years later I’m still here,” said Halliday.

As a little girl, she always begged her family to take her to the Winter Festival to watch the sled dog races.

“I was always brought up that you don’t go talk to the mushers or anything, and I mean it is a safe rule because you don’t want kids to be touching dogs that they don’t know and I probably would not have been a kid that would have kept my hands to myself,” she said with a laugh.

Just like the King and Queen Trapper event, Halliday said “You see a lot of generations that are involved with the sled dog family.” There’s always newcomers though, who are willing to teach you their skills.

“Anyone who wants to try it out, there is somebody who will take you under their wing and teach you everything they know.”

Emery Mielke came in first in the one-dog race, Liam Conner in the three-dog, Jessica Joyal in the four-dog and Tamara Harvey in the six-dog.