LACONIA — The Laconia World Championship Sled Dog Derby will begin today, marking the first time since 2017 that mushers and their dog teams will race in the city limits.
The 2020 derby will feature a new location for the start and finish line. Instead of the field on Parade Road, dog sled teams will set off and finish at the Laconia Country Club, where there will be plenty of paved parking available for spectators in the lot across the street from the Country Club and at the nearby Elm Street School.
The public is invited to come and watch the racers, who will be competing for a $25,000 purse. Six-dog teams will begin at 10 a.m. on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The unlimited teams, one of which will take home the title of “World Champion,” will start at 1 p.m. on Friday and at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. A three-dog junior class will set off at noon on Saturday and Sunday.
A winter tradition
The Laconia World Championship Sled Dog Derby dates back to 1929, just four years after the famous 674-mile relay effort to deliver serum to diphtheria patients in Nome, Alaska. In fact, it was one of those hardy mushers, Leonhard Seppala, who won the first derby in Laconia, which then challenged its teams to race a 40-mile course.
The Lakes Region Sled Dog Club now manages the derby. Jennifer Hollows, an officer of the club, represents a fourth generation of local organizers who are hoping to keep the tradition going. However, in order to do so, they find that they are having to bend to Mother Nature’s will in ways their predecessor’s didn’t.
According to records that Hollows keeps, the race was only cancelled once – in 1974 – in the first 50 of its history, due to the lack of snow. But then organizers had to cancel it in 1981, and 1983, 1986, 1991 and 1992. In the 40 years since 1980, the derby has been canceled 13 times – or about once every three years.
This year, the staging area, and start and finish line, has been moved to the Country Club, because the ground at the field off of Parade Road is too soft for parking trucks. The route has been shortened slightly to avoid some patches where the snow is often thin, and crews have been adding snow to other parts of the course to keep them white.
“There’s definitely a warming trend, we can’t deny that. What’s causing it? There’s a lot of argument there,” said Hollows. Whatever the cause, there’s no denying the effect: “we’re getting way less snow that we have to work with.”
The 5.7-mile six-dog course will be contained within the Laconia Country Club grounds, Hollows said. The unlimited course, usually around 15 miles, is cut back to either 11 or 12.4, depending on whether organizers will be able to include a particular stretch.
“We were out there today, snowblowing snow from dump trucks onto the roadside, just trying to get snow onto a bad stretch of Trail,” Hollows said on Wednesday.
Laconia isn’t the only race suffering from poor conditions. There are now fewer dog sled races held throughout New England as well as eastern Canada. Hollows remembers, as a girl, traveling every winter weekend to a race on either side of the U.S.-Canada border. “Now, if you’re lucky, there’s a race once a month between New England and Canada. It’s a lot harder to pull these events off these days,” she said.
Harder, yes, but Hollows and the Lakes Region Sled Dog Club aren’t looking to throw in the towel. “We’ll do it as long as there’s mushers,” she said. “For me, it’s family history, just keeping it alive. It’s pretty cool that my great-grandfather started it in 1929, to be part of that history, all the racers and all the people that have been involved over the years. It’s pretty cool.”
Brittany Colbath, a veterinarian who lives in Gilford, is another multi-generational participant in the derby. Her grandfather and both of her parents raced, but it was primarily her uncle, Keith Bryar II, a two-time winner of the World Championship, who brought her into the sport.
Colbath met her husband, Leendert Van Dorp, through dog sledding, and both of them will be competing in the six-dog class this weekend.
Bryar’s competitive career was cut short when he died of cancer four years ago, at age 57. But his voice will be heard by at least one person during this derby.
“Every time I’m out there I’m thinking about what he told me and what he would tell me to do,” Colbath said.
Colbath has 10 active sled dogs in her kennel, as well as four retired dogs and one chihuaha. She said her favorite part of the sport is raising the dogs, starting to train them as puppies and watching them turn into skilled athletes.
She sees the sport facing threats on many fronts. First, there’s the weather, as they have to travel farther north or west to find good snow. There are other pressures, too, she said. Animal rights activists have criticized dog sledding, and local land use ordinances make it difficult for mushers to keep kennels with more than a couple of dogs.
Some participants in the sport have bowed to those pressures by keeping smaller kennels – “micro-kennels,” Colbath called them – and participating in sports such as skijoring, or dryland competitions such as canicross. Skijoring is cross-country skiing while being harnessed to one or two dogs, and canicross is a warm-weather trail race where the runners are leashed with a canine partner.
Neither of those would replace dog sledding for Colbath, though.
“I’ve been doing it my whole life, I love the sport and I love the dogs,” she said. There’s an experience she has while on a dog sled. If there’s good snow, she’s out on the course with no one around, the only thing she can hear is her dogs breathing and the sounds of their tags clinking, as every member of the team pulls together as one.
“When it all comes together like that, it’s a really special feeling,” she said.