One of the highlights of the NVSDC Classic is often a guest speaker at the Sunday night banquet. Australian mushers who've competed overseas and international guest mushers have presented their stories and photos over the last few years. This year, the guest speaker was sort of both. Christian Turner is the youngest Australian to compete in the Iditarod, as well as in sprint mushing in Canada. Although he's an Australian by birth, he was introduced to the sport while overseas, and until this year, had never competed in dryland mushing at all, let alone in Australia. It puts him in the unique position of understanding Australians much better than the international mushers, but of seeing the sport from an outsider's perspective, and I look forward to hearing him speak again after he's had some more exposure to the Australian mushing scene.
Christian is actually the third Iditarod finisher that I've heard speak in the last few years. Karen Ramstead was an inspiring speaker at my first NVSDC Classic, and I've followed her blog with great admiration ever since. It was also fascinating to hear Wayne Curtis speak last year at the SHCV Championship Show. For those of us who can only imagine what it's like to be outside in the extreme temperatures of the Alaskan tundra, let alone camp out with only a team of dogs for over a week, these stories inspire our imagination, and the images that accompany them delight our eyes. Of course, few of us ever get to visit Alaska, and perhaps that makes Christian particularly special - proof that an Aussie really can do it - not just follow the Iditarod, but actually complete the required qualifiers, finish the race, and finish in the top twenty!
I knew before he spoke that Christian had been introduced to mushing while traveling in Canada - hence his only recent debut in racing in his own country - but I hadn't previously heard or read about his time working for a tour company in Canada, nor his experience competing in sprint races while he was there. Thoroughly hooked on dog sledding but burnt out by the tourism patter, he looked around for another challenge, and settled on the Iditarod. He landed a job working for Dallas Seavey, and completed his Iditarod qualifiers running teams out of Dallas' kennels. When Dallas Seavey won the Iditarod in 2014, Christian finished with Dallas' puppy team, achieving a 38th Place, thanks to the snowless conditions that brought many mushers unstuck that year. Dissatisfied, Christian set out to achieve a top 20 finish, and did so, again, running a puppy team again for Dallas this year, while Dallas took out the championship again.
Christian showed us beautiful photos of dog teams in wonderful powder, of wild Alaskan scenery, of freezing conditions with limited daylight. He spoke about training, highlighting, as Karen Ramstead did, the difference between conditioning - also known as "getting miles on a dog" - and training. The former, being about fitness and a dog's ability to keep the best pace for the distance it will run, is vital, but so is the latter, where the dogs and musher learn how to work as a team, as in any dog sport. He showed us equipment - custom built carbon fibre sleds and guns for dealing with Alaskan wildlife - that reminded us how different the Yukon River and sea ice are to our dirt tracks through small swathes of managed & patroled bush. He spoke briefly about the work that he'd done to finance his dog sledding - working in the mines in Karratha and in Dallas Seavey's kennel in Willow - and his search for sponsorship - unfortunately, being unaware of the racing scene on the east coast, he was unable to reach out to the greater community of mushers who would have been keen to help one of their own compete in the most prestigious sled dog race in the world. Christian is pretty inspirational as a person who worked so hard to achieve his dream!
Getting up and speaking in front of a group of strangers is also a challenge, and all three of the Iditarod Finishers I've seen were impressive in their public speaking skills - articulate and well spoken. Their biggest challenge was their lack of knowledge about their audience - particularly Wayne Curtis, who visited outside of the Australian racing season. Before I heard Karen Ramstead speak, she'd already been in Australia for a few weeks, staying with Australian mushing families and visiting a number of events, and she made a concerted effort to speak to topics that would interest her audience, some of whom heard her present several times during her stay. The challenges facing a distance musher in the northern hemisphere are obviously extremely different to those experienced here. The harnesses and dogs are the same, but many of the strategies, equipment and conditions are very different.
I thought the most interesting point of difference that Christian commented on, was the behaviour of spectators. As Christian pointed out, overseas, particularly in Alaska and Canada where mushing is a very popular sport, spectators are really keen to see their heroes. We see ranks of fans braving the cold for the Ceremonial Start of the Iditarod, and hear of people in remote villages hosting check points with great enthusiasm and hospitality. Crowds turn out for the Fur Rondy, the Race to the Sky, the finish line of the Yukon Quest... all the races we follow here with such joy. Crowds who cheer, hold up banners for their favourite mushers and celebrate each competitor. Here, as Christian pointed out, we are pretty quiet. I've heard camera men comment on the same when the media turn out to film us. Of course, my immediate question is why.
One possibility is that Australians are more reserved than other folks. We are more likely to cut the heads off a tall poppy than to wax lyrical about how amazing something or someone is. We sometimes look at American enthusiasm with disbelief and skepticism. Christian probably understands that, and he chose to lead by quiet example - on Monday morning he was visibly present at the start chute, clapping politely as each competitor came over the line. Folks followed his cue, and perhaps this is something that will develop over time.
Another reason for us being quiet at the finish chute is that we are conscious of crowd shy dogs. With the small teams, this is rarely an issue, as most of these dogs are family pets. They live in normal households and are walked in normal streets, so they are generally acclimatized to crowds and noise. But some of the big teams include young, skittish dogs who live and train in the country. Managing large numbers of dogs can make it hard to find time to socialise puppies during their crucial learning phase, especially if the dogs live in kennels in country areas and don't regularly have the opportunity to experience crowds. We saw one team dive into the bushes rather than enter the finish chute on Saturday night, which resulted in a terrible tangle - the swing dog ended up with three of its legs so badly wrapped in the gang line that it was in danger of being dragged along on its belly. That team was unable to finish the race, despite having made it all the way around the course quickly.
Of course, all this is assuming that we have spectators at the finish chute!! The Classic is one of the few races we attend where members of the general public may be present, but the majority of the folks present are still mushers and handlers. Many people compete in multiple divisions, and not everyone has a family group to support them - often a handler will assist several teams in a busy start chute. And these Nationals were certainly busy, with over 200 entries. One musher said to me, "every time I came through the finish chute, there were still teams queuing to leave the start chute". Handlers would get their team out the start chute and then either rush back to their camp to get their dogs ready for their next race, or move to the finish chute to await the returning team. Once the teams came back, handlers were grabbing hold of dogs and steering them back to their camping spot - a lot of the dogs wanted to stop and drink from puddles or go visiting other camps! So the number of people standing at the finish chute was pretty limited. After my experience with members of the public on the track at Dinner Plain last year, I'm included to think this might be a good thing!