Taking on all challenges

Competitors pull away from the start line for the first leg of the 2019 Prince Albert Winter Festival 10-dog race on Saturday, Feb. 23. -- Jason Kerr/Daily Herald

There is only so much organizers can do to carve out a perfect sled dog trail.

The rest is left up to the elements.

Unfortunately, organizers saw their best efforts go sideways at this year’s Prince Albert Winter Festival Sled Dog trials, as inclement weather turned the festival’s immaculately maintained trail into a bit of a winter wonderland.

“We had the perfect trail put in and then mother nature came along and threw a little hitch into it, with the wind and the snow,” Winter Festival outdoor director Tammy McGunigal said after the first day of races. “The trail was drifted in, so we have people out there now working, trying to bust the drifts so the dogs can see the trail.”

Those challenges didn’t seem to dampen the spirits of the dogs, the mushers or the fans. An enthusiastic crowd lined both sides of the starting line to send competitors off with a round of applause for the first leg in the 10-dog race Saturday afternoon.

Although the mushers acknowledged there were a few difficulties, each took it as point of pride to overcome the challenges.

“Conditions today were a bit rough, but if you’re a musher you can handle it,” chuckled Cliff Smith, one of several mushers from the Prince Albert area competing in the 10-dog race. “The dogs are used to handling this type of condition, so I think everything worked out generally quite good.”

“There were a couple of spots in the 10-dog (race) where the lead dogs lost the trail, so it happens,” McGunigal added. “It’s Mother Nature. She likes to have fun with us.”

After years where snow was at a premium, some competitors were just happy there was enough to race on. In 2017, the races were cancelled outright due to warm weather conditions,

Competitors and organizers say the winter festival isn’t the same without the sled dog races, so they’re happy to keep racing, no matter what direction the weather takes.

“In my opinion, the sled dogs and the King Trapper is where the Winter Festival all started,” McGunigal said. “That’s what the original events of the festival were, and everybody likes dogs.”

Yes, the last couple of years have been pretty warm, and we had to cancel, but this year with a lot of snow we had a beautiful trail,” Smith added.

50 years of racing

After five decades as a musher, Cliff Smith hasn’t just outlasted most of the competition, he’s outlasted a few venues too.

Smith’s first race as a musher started on 15th Street West and continued across the Queen Mary School grounds. To train and exercise his dogs, he’d mush down the River Street road. Today things have definitely changed.

“Today, you cannot do that with all the traffic,” he chuckled. “But, that’s what I did.”

These days, Smith lives outside of Prince Albert city limits, so he has more freedom to exercise and train his dogs. It’s his love for the animals that’s kept him mushing for exactly 50 years this winter.

“I like working with the dogs. When you raise some dogs, you see them from the time they’re a pup until the end of their lives,” he said. “Some of them stay with you. It’s nice.”

Of course, he also enjoys the competitive side of mushing. Smith travels across Saskatchewan for races, and makes the occasional foray into Manitoba. His appreciation for his fellow competitors is strong too.

“Everybody respects each other,” he said. “We have a lot of fun out there. Yeah, we’re competitors, but at the end, we all respect each other out on the trail, most of the time.”

Prince Albert Winter Festival Sled Dog Championship Results

One Dog Race

1 – Emery Mielke

2 – Wyatt Delawski

3 – Gabe Adams

Three Dog Race

1 – Liam Conner

2 – Eldon Campbell

3 – Avery Campbell

Four Dog Race

1 – Todd Sinclair

2 – Tammy McGunigal

3 – Mya Hartum

Six Dog Race

1 – Tamara Harvey

2 – Hailee Delawski

3 – Harry George

10 Dog Race

1 – Aaron Campbell

2 – Rob Peebles

3 – Matt Legal