The morning broke soon for us on this early November Saturday in the far North of Scotland. Our second rally of the year brought us as far North as we were to go this working season to the Scottish Siberian Husky Club’s first rally of the year in Culbin Forest, near Nairn. The drive up at times had felt never-ending, coming from the borders of Somerset through the endless traffic and up a surprisingly busy A9 on a Friday night. It also brought us through a most welcome dusting of snow in the lower Cairngorms which, after so much fruitless praying for cold rallies, was an incredibly hopeful sight. The previous few weeks of frosty mornings to train had both us and the dogs very excited about the prospects of the weekend and our first ever Scottish rally event.
A little hotel luxury the night before left us reluctant to get up when the alarm went off at the typical 5 AM rally time, but we were soon packed and loaded and walking through a drizzling rain towards the van and headed north towards the coastal forest.
To the deep disappointment of us and the rest of the mushers, the temperature seemed to rise nonsensically as the morning light crept into the sky, and by the time we had arrived at the forest site the temperature was what we had come to expect in the far south, around the 10 degree mark. Still though, we were in Scotland, and our spirits were high. There is a comforting familiarity to the rally environment and though this was our first event both in Scotland and with the SSHC, the routine was the same and we soon settled in to our normal preparations and had no trouble finding our way around and sorting out what we would be doing on the day.
This event – organised by Sharon and Gregor McNicol – consisted of two one day rallies on the Saturday and the Sunday morning sponsored by Trailbaby and Royal Canin.
The trails in Culbin Forest felt surprisingly similar being so far from our normal stomping ground, and the smooth and well groomed trails could easily have been in Swinley Forest or Thetford. The trail was a nice one, consisting of a nice flat, compacted forest trail at an approximate distance of 2,8 miles with long straights as well as some twisting turns and some grassy areas. Despite the local Scottish weather the trail was mostly very dry and a nice one for the dog’s feet.
The weather was mild if not cold all morning, and to our surprise stayed continuously dry throughout the morning preparations. Prior to the event going forward, the organisers had let everyone know that the number of entries received had meant a lack of the requisite number of helpers required. In typical musher fashion, messages flooded in offering help from partners and friends on the day, so happily the event was able to go on. This did of course mean things were a bit busier for us with both Tim and I being scheduled to marshal at different point in the day, but we were happy to help as was everyone else there, and it lent to the entire event a great sense of comradery and intimacy that can only come when competing teams are all helping each other set out, and the smaller number of entries meant that it felt very much like a group effort from likeminded friends throughout the weekend.
The classes for the event included the larger husky teams of B, B2, C, C2, CU, E, E2 which went out first thing in the morning, followed by the smaller husky teams and freight teams D, D2, DU with Bikejor and Scooter completing the day on the long course and the Canicross and Juniors wrapping it up on the shorter 1.5 mile course.
Though we were still suffering from a bit of a driving-hangover from the past few days, the musher’s meeting began not long after our arrival at 8 am where were introduced to the course, the organisers and the other mushers. Tim was immediately off to marshal for the larger husky teams at the start whilst I stayed near the start line to lend an extra hand where necessary. There was a great sense of closeness and friendship amongst these mushers –and they moved and laughed in equal measures of comradery and friendly competitiveness.
Being used to running freight dogs myself – it was great to have a chance to watch the Siberian Husky teams going out in the larger classes of 6 and 4, and the speed at which they returned. The start line at this rally was happily right around the corner from the finish, so once the teams set off it was only a few steps to wait for their return, and in this case it was not a long wait at all. The first teams came back in under ten minutes with Ian Robinson coming in first in B class with a time of 9:31, Ashleigh Dean winning C class in 9:18 and James Smith in E class with a time of 9:49.
Despite going out much later than we are normally accustomed to, before long we were doing our final check and harnessing the dogs to go out. To our dismay the sun came out just as we were about to go out and the temperature rose to a level that was just at the edge of what we were happy to run. Clouds were fast moving in and so we decided to go out anyway, but the dogs definitely felt the heat. Having said that the trail was very nice for them, and the other freight teams handled it well with Cherry Fairley finishing with an impressive time of 14:52.
The dogs took a while to cool off after their run, but the cool Scottish forest floor of heather was helpful in that regard, and as soon as they were back and watered I was off to marshal for the Bikejor class. It was a nice experience getting to watch the dogs get round in this quick class, and though a few very accommodating cyclists did appear on the trail, happily there were no dog walkers to be seen. I also had the pleasure of sharing the trail with local photographer Tom Salway who took some amazing photos of the event over the weekend (see his facebook page for full photo gallery at https://www.facebook.com/studio57north/?fref=ts).
The day was finished with the canicrossers running the main trail and the scooter and the junior class running the 1.5 mile trail.
The sun sets early in the far north and we found ourselves at the awards ceremony part of the day at around 1:30 pm in the already dimming light. It had been a good first day of running despite the warmer than expected weather, and the tired and cheerful mushers had a laugh with each other amongst congratulations and collecting the bags of food donated by Royal Canin for the winner and the ‘pom pom’ awards presented by the organisers.
After that for many it was off to the campsite for the evening, but for us it was another day of semi-luxury with proper accommodation in Nairn. After so much driving a real bed was warmly welcomed, and we celebrated the evening of our first Scottish run with wine, haggis and two very sleepy Malamutes.
We were very pleased to hear that racing would begin half an hour earlier the next morning at 8:30 am and even happier to wake up to a slightly cooler morning and a light drizzle of rain. Despite the impending day of being wet, we remembered well from our time in Scotland how the rain normally cooled the day, which was certainly the case on the Sunday.
Despite not having to run our dogs until after 10 – it was another early start and set off from our hotel as Tim was once again marshalling for the early teams. This morning I had plenty of time to stretch and feed the dogs and spend some time with them before setting out. There was definitely a feeling of being more prepared in our camp the second day and leaving behind the disappointment of not having an icy Scottish morning to run in, we were eager to get the dogs on the trail for a more competitive second day.
Once again the larger teams were out early and were comparably fast to the previous day. Once again Ian Robinson came in first in B class with a remarkable 9:31 – the exact same time as his Saturday run demonstrating an incredibly amount of consistency with his team! Sharon Jones came first in D class with a time of 13:43, and Cameron Pack finished first in Bikejor with a time of 9:55.
For my own little team, they enjoyed the trails much more on the second day and the small drop in temperature made a huge difference to them. They all came back with big grins and contented faces and slept happily for the rest of our afternoon adventuring in Scotland. I was incredibly impressed with the Malamute racing teams in Scotland – and wanted to thank the other competitors for making it such a nice weekend of racing, and for being such great competition! It’s always the best rallies with the teams running are all within a minute of each other’s times – we sincerely hope we get to run again with you all soon!
Once again we all met in the cloudy afternoon for awards and a rainy goodbye. Thank you so much to the organisers of this event for putting it on and for all the work that went into it, as well as to all the mushers for helping out and for the warm welcome we received.
Also a huge thank you to Tom Salway at Studio 57 North for contributing the images to this article from the race! http://www.studio57north.com/
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All photos taken by Red Anderton-Tyers and used with her kind permission.