If the weather gods were kind for our previous rally in Cumbria, they made up for it last weekend in the Southern Downs.

This was our first British Sleddog Activities (BSA) rally of this year, and a new rally for this year to boot, so despite knowing we’d not have the snow we had for the last rally, we prepared for this new rally with all the enthusiasm of the unknown.

Put on by BSA and organised by Matt Eames, this was set to be a two day rally with a trail of approximately 2.9 miles in the hills of West Harting Down in Sussex.  We were given constant and very helpful updates online in the weeks leading up to the event with the trail conditions, the work being done and the running orders.  It was very clear that a lot of work had gone into the event long before we arrived, and so it was perhaps all the more disheartening to see how hard the weather worked to make it a difficult rally for organisers and mushers alike.

The forested area –a location new to us for running the dogs – was made up of nicely arranged paths, and the original trail for running the dogs encompassed a mix of grassy chalk and forestry commission gravel tracks.  The class order was set to be in keeping with most of the BSA rallies, with the larger teams (DR6NB/4B, DR4) beginning the rally and working up to the smaller teams, freight teams and Junior teams.

However, the profound amount of rain and general wet that descended on the country in the day and night before the event changed pretty much everything for the morning it was all set to begin.  The weather forecast did not look particularly pleasing with wet called for all Saturday and some of Sunday, but it was at least cold, so the worry about the temperature for the dogs was blissfully absent (something I can hardly say for other rallies so far this season).  So with waterproofs, wellies and several changes of clothes, we left out at 5 am heading East to the downs.

The directions were excellent and the event was well sign posted, so there was no trouble in finding the otherwise remote and secluded location (it’s always good to know you are on the right path whilst driving up a long winding path in dark woods as the light is beginning to creep into a very wet morning!).  There was a long uphill drive at the site entrance which unfortunately ended with a number of musher vans stopped on the path and awaiting instructions.   The roadside parking which had been ample and safe a few days before had become a slippery, muddy mess that vans were either getting stuck in or could barely get past.  The organisers were cheerfully working hard to get all the vans situated somewhere safe, but in the end for many of us it was a matter of parking in the road a ten minute walk from the start line, with mushers being blocked in until the end of the day.

Parking Problems

Despite the inauspicious start and the hard cold downpour that met us when we opened the van, spirits at the start of this event were very high.  I didn’t hear a single complaint about the parking dilemma, and everyone got on with the business of preparing their dogs for running and settled in for a very wet and muddy day.

The event began with the larger team classes and as I made my way up towards the start line for a much needed warm coffee from the tireless bunch at Sam’s Mobile Catering food van, I noticed that even the first teams coming back were literally the muddiest I have ever seen.  Scooters, dogs and mushers were coming back without a mudless spot on them, and as I asked one passing musher how it had gone, a wry shake of the head pretty much said it all.   With all the added rain and the increase in very sticky mud, it was a tough trail to run.  The first bit was downhill – a bit slippy and fast for some of the teams, but speaking to a musher who ran DR2F class (two mixed freight dogs) it wasn’t as bad as he was expecting.  However the hill back up to the start line was hard work for everyone, and it was a lot of very muddy, very tired dogs and mushers who returned.

The Finish Line

The original trail hadn’t included the hill as it was – but due to the state of the trail the last minute changes determined it was the safer route to send the dogs on, and ended at the trail being approx. 2.1 miles.  Even at this shorter distance, it was a lot of work for everyone, and the big plates of cheesy chips and burgers provided by the food van after were very, very well earned indeed!

The rain continued to pour down for most of the morning, and the temperature stayed very cold.  The helpers and organisers were in a constant state of movement, helping and working through any problems the weather created, and though most mushers admittedly didn’t find the day an easy one, for some they had a great time on the trails.  Husband and wife canicrossers Dan and Rachel Browne both thoroughly enjoyed the trails for canicrossing.   Dan said “Regardless of the weather and the trail condition, I actually enjoyed running around it and would have happily done so again tomorrow! The mud made it that little bit more adventurous . Great call with the Mass Start for Canicross - I certainly think this should be considered for future events, it makes the race more interesting/challenging/competitive for us runners rather than plodding around on our own hoping to catch somebody or looking behind to see who's creeping up on you.”

Not long after the freight classes ran it was announced that the second day would have to be cancelled due to the further deteriorated state of the track.  And whilst it’s never pleasant for the mushers or easy for the organisers when that decision is made, everyone there that I spoke to felt that it was definitely the right decision, and relished perhaps even a little bit more the effort and the work that went in to running the dogs on that first day, without having to return the following morning to do it again.  Everyone was in good spirits despite the cold, wet and the mud of the afternoon and there was a palpable trill of excitement at the notion of getting home to a shower and clean clothes and something warm to eat.

The awards ceremony was pushed to the next and final BSA rally at Moors Valley on the 6th of March – something we look forward to with great anticipation.

Getting out of the event took a bit of manoeuvring for some of the vans parked in the lanes, and a lot of team work went in both to getting vans moving so everyone could get out as well as helping the odd person out of the mud as well.

Happy Sam

A massive thank you to all the organisers and support staff at this rally – you managed to keep spirits up and things running smoothly despite all the obstacles.  Also to all the attendants at this rally for the excellent atmosphere and care and awareness of everyone else’s space and dogs – it was a very smooth running rally in that regard, and everyone showed a great deal of respect for other teams running on the day.

For the full race results and information please check the BSA website

"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 Red Anderton-Tyers and used with her kind permission.

Red Anderton-Tyers is a writer and photographer originally from Houston Texas. Her kennel, Flint Sky Alaskan Malamutes, run working sled dogs in various sporting events in the UK. SnowPaw Store is delighted that she has joined our team of article contributors and Red will be writing race reports on many events attended this season.