By PATRICK SLACK
After months of preparation and the aid of some timely snow, the inaugural ‘Spirit of the North’ Winter Warrior sled dog races will be held at Camp Ripley, Feb. 16 – 17.
The event, put on by the North Star Sled Dog Club (NSSDC), is the first of its kind in Morrison County. A diverse range of participants will be in action, with the youngest entrant just 7 years old and racers from as far away as Vermont and New Hampshire entered.
Many styles will also be on display, including sprint races of four, six and 10 miles and a mid-distance race of 40 miles, among others, with spectators able to see the start and finish of each race.
For people unfamiliar with the sport, it will be an ideal family setting to watch, learn and enjoy, NSSDC member, past president and co-event organizer Bob Bzdok said, with no fee to spectate.
“Anybody with any interest will be amazed by how much the dogs love to race and how athletic they are,” Bzdok said. “The start is chaotic. The dogs jerk and bark and are ready to go. The dogs that have been doing it for seven or eight years, they know what the countdown is. When it gets to five seconds, they know it’s almost time to go.”
Due to weather restrictions, the winter racing season lasts only nine weekends after the start of the year, Bzdok said, so most teams race every week they can.
The Winter Warrior races were originally the only event scheduled for this weekend in Minnesota, Wisconsin or nearby Canada, until earlier events had to be rescheduled due to a lack of snow.
Nonetheless, turnout is expected to be strong, Bzdok said, due in large part to the support of several local sponsors. With the help of the sponsors, prizes will be awarded to the top competitors, a necessity to attract larger teams from further away in future years to grow the event.
And while competitors vie for success, they remain committed to helping beginners develop their skills as well.
“What’s neat about sled dog racers is that they come from all walks of life,” Bzdok said. “I’ve known loggers and farmers, lawyers and business owners.”
“It’s a very sharing community,” he said. “Because of that there are no secrets, per se. You can’t race by yourself, so everyone’s always really willing to share and give pointers.”
The best piece of advice?
“The number one rule is ‘don’t let go of the sled,’ because the dogs will keep going on without you,” Bzdok said. “It’s not hard to get them to start, it is trying to get them to stop.”
Most teams start “dryland” training sometime around the end of August and beginning of September by pulling an ATV. Then, sprint dogs gradually increase their speed, while distance dogs work to increase their mileage while holding a steady pace.
Races will run from 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. both days of the event, with directions to the course given at the main gate of Camp Ripley.
Representatives from the Humane Society will be on hand to accept goodwill donations and concessions will be put on by Morrison County Hoofbeats.
People interested in volunteering as trail help are asked to contact Bzdok at (320) 248-2540.
Volunteers are able to see the dogs in their element in parts of the course that spectators are unable to see.