Racing day and night, musher Jillian Taylor and her eight Alaskan huskies earned a first-place prize at the 2012 Canadian Challenge International Dog Sled Race.
It was Taylor’s first win, with a finishing time of less than 39 hours.
Taylor, of Red Deer, started the 320-km race on Feb. 21 at 12:25 p.m. and crossed the finish line at 3:10 a.m. on Feb. 23.
Other than staffed checkpoints every 80 km, competitors are alone on the trail, without a cellphone or satellite phone, facing dangers from freezing temperatures and wind, getting lost, sleep deprivation, wildlife encounters, and more.
If a musher falls off their sled, their dog team will likely keep running.
“That’s one of my worse fears actually. You try with every ounce of your soul to stay with your dogs all the time. But (falls) happen, even to the big mushers in Iditarod (Alaska’s renowned 1688-km race),” said Taylor who has competed in mid-distance races, 240 to 320-km, for five years.
“That’s why they call it the Challenge. There’s always another factor you have to deal with. Usually, it’s the weather.”
She said this year weather was good at the Canadian Challenge, that runs from Prince Albert to La Ronge in Saskatchewan.
“It was beautiful, -15, maybe -20C, at the most. It was absolutely perfect. One year we ran it and it was 47 below. That’s not even counting the wind,” said the palliative care nurse at Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre.
She competed against four other sled teams in the eight-dog race that tests mushers and dogs with narrow bush trails and treks across wide, open frozen lakes.
After the first 80 km, Taylor was pretty much alone between checkpoints.
“Probably the best time is at night by myself. I really like it. People say you’re out there all by yourself — don’t you get scared? I don’t actually. I just feel very comfortable out there in the dark, by myself with my dogs.
“Some of my favourite nights are when the moon is so bright you don’t even need your head lamp.”
And there’s the twinkling, evening skies.
“The starry nights, when it’s just cold enough where you can hear the sled sliding across the snow and you can hear the dogs as they’re working, it’s just awesome.”
Taylor’s dogs ran an average of 16 km/h and her strategy was to run for four hours then rest for four. Every two hours on the trail she made a brief stop to give her dogs a snack.
Rests were usually at checkpoints where Taylor’s assistant would help her feed and care for the dogs.
Taylor took a break on the trail at night once, before facing the last 48 km, and dressed her dogs in coats for a snooze on straw she packed in her sled.
That’s when she met up with another musher, who finished in second place, forty minutes behind Taylor.
“I parked my dogs just in front of him and we just sat there and talked about dogs for two hours, training, and feeding, and just dogs in general. And then it was time to go, so we carried on and I just disappeared into the night.”
Her dogs included Hermes, Olive, Austin, Micah, Vesta, and Harvey, with Apollo and Flip in the lead.
Taylor won the Best Kept Team Award at the Canadian Challenge, based on exceptional dog care.
Her parents, Steve and Carol Taylor, have a kennel north of Rocky Mountain House with 34 dogs including the race dogs, puppies and retired dogs.
Taylor said her dogs aren’t like the big dogs with bushy fur in the movies. Her dogs weight about 20 to 27 kilogram, with a thinner coat and “leggier.”
They pulled about 112 kilograms, including the sled, Taylor, and supplies and emergency gear.
“Their endurance is absolutely phenomenal. They are such amazing athletes.”
She started training for the season last October and ran in a 193-km race in Grand Forks, B.C. and another 161-km race in La Ronge, Sask.
In 2011, Taylor didn’t finish the Canadian Challenge, making the win even sweeter.
“That’s been such a hard race for me in the past. Everything really came together. I’m still absolutely thrilled about it.”
She said severe weather while crossing Lake La Ronge, her inexperience, lots of rookie dogs, and a fast-spreading gastrointestinal virus among dog teams forced her to stop last year.
“That was one of my worst moments, so coming across the lake I was a little nervous about it. But the trail was much better this year and the weather was better.”
Every race is a learning experience, Taylor said.
“You have to put yourself in these situations so you can learn how to recognize what needs to be done or make changes to your strategy.”
Taylor plans to return to the Canadian Challenge — but next season it will be for the 520-km, 12-dog race.