It was a long haul back down from Scotland for our team after last weekend’s rally at Culbin Forest and a long week of walks in the high snowy hills of Glencoe, but one that was well worth it to get back in time for the much anticipated Swinley Night Trek.
This event, hosted by AMWA and by kind permission of the Crown Estate, was once again this year organised by Louise Cursons and her extended family and friends. This event marks the first official AMWA trek of the season, and is one of the most enjoyed event of the year. This trek is well situated in November as it is a single night trek and offers three trail distances of 7.5 miles, 10 miles and 13.5 miles – the perfect early trekking distances for teams, allowing a good stretch of the legs on excellent trails at this early stage. It is also an ideal event for those attempting their first long distance trek as the distances are on the shorter side whilst still giving the musher and dogs the experience of trying longer runs, and probably even more importantly they are great trails for those who are just starting out with trekking. They are well groomed, smooth trails but with lots of winds, turns, and ups and downs which keep the dogs interested and excited throughout without it being too physically tasking for any involved.
This event is also impeccably organised and set out, and even if this is your first night event, finding your way is never difficult and it is both marked and marshalled extremely well.
This event last year was definitely a challenger for our favourite of the entire season, and so we were happy to cut our Scotland visit a few days short to make sure we were home in time to attend. Last year the weather was as good as it gets in Southern England with temps so low the dogs came back smiling from ear to ear and covered in ice. I remember well that some teams came back and couldn’t be unhooked from the rigs until warm water was poured over the clasps to unfreeze them. It was a special event due to the unusual cold this far South, and though it was a bit disappointing to have warmed (and definitely wetter) weather awaiting us this year, we happily found that it didn’t deter from the enjoyment on the night at all.
Storm Angus was well in force and on its way on the night we headed towards the event, but we were lucky enough to arrive with only heavy cloud cover barring our way and a quick stop for coffee beforehand found us still relatively dry and an assessment of the temperature quickly let us know it would be cool enough for a nice run if not as wondrously frosty at the year before.
Last year was our first at this event, and as we only had a single team at the time I had the pleasure of setting off teams whilst then waiting with other musher’s mates at the main tent having a warming drink, a bit of soup so happily provided by the organisers and chatting away until the teams started to return. Even with the waiting and not being out on the frosty trails myself I still thoroughly enjoyed the event as the atmosphere was so fantastic and the comradery and excitement so palpable.
However this year to my great excitement and anticipation – I was to be joining the teams going out. With Tim running our older two-dog team of siblings Memphis and Sam, and me taking my boy Sawyer out as one dog on the shortest distance offered, I was extremely excited to arrive and get set up.
Showing up after dark for the musher’s meeting which began at 5:30 it can be a bit tricky finding the turn into Swinley Forest – even being here many times for events we still find ourselves peering closely at the woodlands as the turn appears so suddenly out of the dark. The forest was well lit in the distance though once we made our turn the drive down to the parking lanes was a quick one.
Parking instructions had been posted on the facebook page prior to the event but even so the number of teams arriving and the vans parking meant it was a bit of a tight space and many of us were blocked in for the night. However no-one minded and as the social bit of this event is one of its highest commendations – we also were happy to stand around in the pouring rain under event shelters drinking warming soup and the odd nip of whisky brought straight from Scotland.
The mushers meeting at this event is always incredibly clear and well presented, and we want to send our thanks to the organisers for the effort which is always so evident. Laminated maps of the trail were provided to every musher along with treats for the dogs and those running. We all waited with somewhat juvenile anticipation to see what ‘shiny’ things would be provided this year. We weren’t at all disappointed at the blue tyre lights and the glow sticks provided….it was a well-lit and colourful place in Swinley Forest last Saturday night!
The night runs began with the larger teams of sibes going out first, many of them doing the longer distance of 13.5 miles. The evening moved quickly on as it always does, with the organisers helping teams go out and generally being present anywhere they were needed and reminding everyone who was up next. The musher’s meeting had also included a clear time table of when the teams were to go out and the night had been pre-organised into 8 groups this year so that everyone knew ahead of time when they would be running and with whom. The first two larger teams were out at 18:30 and 18:50 with the rest of the teams heading out at ten minute intervals.
We were in Group 6 heading out at 19:20 – and though it always seems like a two hours wait from the musher’s meeting is going to be a long time - it never is. Once we were set up, the dogs were watered and walked and harnessed and my little bit of jittery nerves had played itself out for my upcoming first night event there was barely enough time to chat with friends and help a few people to the start before we were setting off.
One of the best things about treks is that you tend to go out with likeminded mushers and friends, so the tension leading up to the run is all but completely abated. I had a chat with the rest of our group made up of Julia Nichols, Josh Pitcher also on his first night trek, and Tim with our older team and myself. Two of our group had to pull out at the last minute, but Lindsey Hale and Paul Stevens still drove all the way down just to lend a hand, loan a bike and cycle the 7-10 miles out with us as support team! It was epic musher’s mate assistant from them and it made the night for us all an even more enjoyable one – so a huge thank you to them both for their support! Our team effectively split in two with the faster teams going out with one cyclist first and the other teams doing the longer distance going out second with the other cyclists.
I was also very lucky to have several pair of helping hands to the start line as my young boy’s over enthusiasm watching his sister and best pal leave ahead of him was almost too much to bear (big thanks to Michelle Anderson, Storm Wheeler and Maria Novell for helping me hold him while I got on the rig!)
From there on out it was an incredible night. It wasn’t the meandering icy trek through clear night skies they had last year as a slow drizzle began just as we were setting off, but the dogs were ecstatic, both with the cold night air, the brilliant windy trails and perhaps a bit of the electricity in the wind from the coming storm. Whatever the case – it was truly a night to remember! Sawyer was off like a shot and I’m sure remembered well the last time he was at Swinley Forest at night for his final rally of the year last March. I almost immediately tried to slow him down to a more trekking style pace, but he was determined to go for it, so run we did for the first mile. Memphis and Sam too were eager to be running together again as this was their first even this season as a team, and so even at a run it was several turns before we caught them up completely. The pace they kept on the trails was incredible and as always it’s so impressive to see the stamina and endurance these dogs have when settling into their most comfortable pace.
For my first night event I wasn’t sure what to expect, and though I was lucky enough to have an experienced musher to follow, I have to say the trails were incredibly well marked and easy to read and even had I been out on my own I have no doubt I could have easily found my way. The dogs took to the whole thing like old pros, even passing other teams we met along the way. By the time we reached the three mile mark and the first water stop we had caught up the group in front of us, a nicely paced set of teams who we quickly settled in behind.
As usual Memphis and Sam shouted their continued enthusiasm every time we stopped for a break, just to be sure everyone in the entire forest knew they wanted to continue! And Sawyer seemed to realize after a good long drink and lots of splashing through puddles that perhaps a trekking pace was more suited to this distance than his usual sprinting. Still – he continued to work hard and consistently for me, settling in to a fantastic rhythm early on and keeping it the entire time. Their enthusiasm was boundless and several times on the trek it got the better of them and they ran a little further in the most enjoyable bits of the trail.
There were a few uphills and a couple of steep down hills, but the dogs handled them all with absolute ease, and though I had settled in for a long evening of running at this beautiful loping trekking pace that is such a joy to watch in the sleddog and have a good chat with Lindsey who was our cycle partner for the run, all too soon we were at the final marshal point and making the turn for home.
Our dogs – still absolutely full of vigour at this late stage – put their ears back and headed home with renewed enthusiasm, which was only increased when they heard the mushers at the finish line calling them home.
Despite the fact that rain picked up markedly somewhere in the midst of that run and I arrived back drenched from head to toe, and the drive home in torrential down pour was somewhat harry at times – I could not have asked for a better or more enjoyable first night’s trekking experience.
No matter how cold or wet anyone was on the night, we all stood very happy and huddled in the awning together after, enjoying the soup and a laugh and slowly backing our vans out one by one and heading home.
A huge thank you to all the event organisers, helpers and volunteers who made this trek such an enjoyable one, and to all the mushers who attended that kept the spirit so magnanimous on the night.
We look forward to joining you all again next year!
For more information about trekking events or future dates see www.amwa.org.uk
"The opinions, observations and comments included in these race reports are solely from the writer and do not necessarily reflect the position of either Snowpaw Store or of any specific club. These reports are written from the point of view of a spectator and/or participant and though every effort is made for unbiased, factual accounts, they will likely not represent everyone 's experience of the event. You are warmly welcomed to attend events for a more first hand experience!"
All photos taken by Louise Burgess and Lindsey Hale and used with their kind permission.