Organizers call Canadian sled dog race spectator sport with a difference

The Canadian Press ~ The News
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Most people think hockey when it comes to winter spectator sports - not a 520-kilometre trek through northern Saskatchewan.
But organizers with the Canadian Challenge are hoping cold-loving Canadians will consider sitting out in the wilderness, instead of at the rink, to watch some of the fastest sled dogs whiz by in a bid to win the country's longest dog derby.
"It's a spectator sport with a difference," says Gill Gracie, president of the Canadian Challenge sled dog race.
"You have to be willing to stay up late because it runs 24 hours. We're trying to encourage people actually this year to follow the dogs along."
"It's quite a lot of fun," she says.
The Canadian Challenge is actually four sled dog races that start Feb. 10 in Prince Albert, Sask.
Gracie says they put snow on Central Ave. in Prince Albert for the ceremonial start and the dog teams take off across the North Saskatchewan River, heading north. A team leaves every two minutes.
"The dogs are really exciting, they're all barking and wanting to go," says Gracie.
"They just love to run. These dogs are athletes and they just love the sport."
The flagship race is the 12-dog race. Over the course of four days, it runs roughly 520 kilometres from Prince Albert up to La Ronge, north to a little place called Grandmother's Bay and over to Stanley Mission before heading back to La Ronge where the finish line is located.
There's an eight-dog race that runs about 320 kilometres from Prince Albert to La Ronge and a 120 kilometre long junior race from Prince Albert to Elk Ridge Resort.
There's also a new open race from Prince Albert to Elk Ridge Resort.
Gracie says that's a good race for new mushers - the person who competes with the dog team and sled - and for mushers who don't think they can make the long distance, "but they'd like to have a little run."
The race started in 1998 when some mushers in Prince Albert wanted to promote the support of sled dog racing.
It's grown to become the longest sled dog race that starts, runs and finishes in Canada. It's also a qualifying race for the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest.
The race follows a route similar to that of the old sled dog trail used for years by trappers, the North West Mounted Police and First Nations community to travel between Prince Albert and La Ronge, according to the Canadian Challenge website.
"We've been adjusting the trail over the years and we've got a trail now that is just really awesome. The mushers love it," says Gracie.
"It runs the gamut from the highway ditch for part of the way, right up north into the Canadian Shield country and down the Churchill River. It's quite spectacular some of those parts."
Mushers have been known to come from across Canada and the northern United States for the Canadian Challenge. A man from Belgium came out to try the race several years ago and "it stuck," says Gracie. The man's brother joined him in Saskatchewan and races now too.
Gracie says all the mushers are very dedicated.
"They do it as much for fun as for any prize money, some of them. The prize money really doesn't pay all their expenses so it's a labour of love."
But what she'd also love to see are more people following along and enjoying the communities on the race route.
Most people don't get up to the north but there's a lot to do, says Gracie, who lives in La Ronge. There's snowmobiling, ice fishing and "awesome" cross-country skiing, she says.
The challenge runs until Feb. 14 and will be followed by the Prince Albert Winter Festival, scheduled to start Feb. 16.
Festival organizer Jim Stigliz says they hope people will go to the Canadian Challenge and stick around for the festival. There will be snow sculptures, a beard-growing contest and a vintage snowmobile show to name just a few events, although his favourite event is the Country North entertainment show.
"You'll see nothing better on TV," says Stigliz. "You have to come up here and see it, it's an incredible show."
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If you go . . .
Canadian Challenge - The race starts Feb. 10 at noon in Prince Albert and ends the morning of Feb. 14 in La Ronge. www.canadianchallenge.com
Prince Albert Winter Festival - Starts start Feb. 16 and run until Feb. 28.

Organizations: Prince Albert, Canadian Challenge, Elk Ridge Resort North West Mounted Police First Nations Canadian Shield

Geographic location: La Ronge, Northern Saskatchewan, Prince Albert, Sask. North Saskatchewan River Canada Stanley Mission Iditarod Churchill River United States Belgium Saskatchewan

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