The two-front runners for team Lars Erik Gausen show their excitement before the start of the Bergeby endurance dog race.
Arctic Norway is host to some of the most beautiful nature on the planet, famed for its mountain ranges, fjords and the Northern Lights. However, it is also home to a myriad of winter sports that take full advantage of the high levels of snowfall.
Every year hundreds of ‘mushers’ compete in sled dog races all over the country, where only the toughest teams succeed. In this photo essay, I follow some of the participants of the Bergeby race, Norway’s second longest race at 670km (approx 415miles), from training to the finish line.
There are three classes in the Bergeby race: 650 - the highest class with 14 dogs. 350 - the medium class with 8 dogs. 150 - the shortest race with 8 dogs.
Mikal Lanes poses with his sled dogs.
I was lucky enough to get behind-the-scenes access to two mushers and their training bases, Mikal Lanes (pictured) and Jan-Øystein Dervo.
For many in northern Norway, dog racing is a passion rather than a full time calling. Masters graduate and government employee, Mikal Lanes has been ‘mushing’ since 2003. Originally from Tromsø in northwestern Norway, he is now a regular within the sled dog community and is on the committee for the Bergeby race.
The Bergeby 650 race, at 670km long, is only second in length to the Finnmark’s race which occurs in March. In fact, many of Bergeby’s competitors use this race as a dry run for what is hailed as the biggest dog race in Europe.
Owner, Mikal Lanes, checks a lump on one of his racing dogs.
With so many dogs to look after you can imagine veterinarian bills could be huge. The mushers have to know their dogs and check on any ailments they might have. Dogs are assessed by a race vet before the race to establish their health and suitability for the race, including ensuring they are trained well enough to participate.
Mikal explained that the relationship between musher and dog is rather complex. “There has to be a working mentality but also friendship. The main thing is the dogs must respect you, otherwise they won’t do what you want them to.”
Musher, Jan-Øystein Dervo, checks in with one of his pack.
Jan-Øystein has been a musher since 1997 and has made a business out of selling dog racing accessories. Having previously owned up to 90 dogs at a time, his 22 current dogs have an intense training regime. Dogs take about 2 years to train to race standard, they then go on to train together from the end of August (using summer sleds with wheels) right up to competition season in February.
A pallet of freshly slaughtered chicken ready for distribution among the dogs.
Like human athletes, the dogs are finely tuned machines who require exercise and a strict diet. Food varies in content and quantity depending on the stage of the season. Weight loss is common after the long races which needs to be replenished, whilst keeping the dogs lean. The dogs typically receive one chicken each (at a time) after the race in order to regain their strength.
Jan-Øystein out training with his dogs.
This musher will take part in 8 races this year so training is a full time occupation. Although routines vary from musher to musher, Jan-Øystein takes his dogs out every day and, notably, the dogs don’t wear socks when training. Runs tend to be lighter and shorter between races to reduce the likelihood of injury or fatigue.
A dog receiving a final inspection before the beginning of the Bergeby 350 endurance dog race.
Winners of the highest class receive a new sled with a worth of around 30,000 NOK (about US$4000). In a bid to boost public interest, the 350 began right in the centre of the town of Vadsø this year. The 350 class is a shorter distance of 365km (approx. 225 miles) and teams consist of 8 dogs.
Fans hold their hands out, hoping to get a high five from their local heroes.
The organisation behind the Bergeby race is immense and mostly volunteer driven. The entire race has a budget of 200,000 NOK (approx. US$25,000) and “not a single kroner is taken in salary,” reports Mikal Lanes proudly. This is no mean feat to keep a 670km (415mile) course clear, with maintained checkpoints and temporary road closures in place. The race also has official support in the form of snowmobilers who are available to help teams in trouble.
The dogs are geared up ready to go at the start line.
It’s not just man that is excited to get underway, there is notable frustration and excitement that emanates from the dogs when they can feel the impending start of the race. The dogs wear socks, as required by the rules of Bergebyløpet, to protect their feet from the cold and injury along the length of the race.
Bergebyløpet is underway for this team.
The dogs and musher will now have to endure over 600km (approx. 400miles) across country in all weather including snow and strong winds. Although the teams have support vehicles (called ‘handlers’) that meet them at checkpoints along the way to refill the hundreds of kilos of food throughout the event, musher and dogs will be mostly alone throughout the whole race.
The race is run as a time trial with a few minutes interval between each departure.
A musher high fives fans as they tear off the startline in the Bergeby 350.
The dog teams can carry their loads to speeds in excess of 20km/h (approx. 15mph), with almost immediate acceleration, but tend to maintain speeds of around 15km/h (10mph) to maintain energy.
Although dog sledding is serious business, there’s a very accessible feel to the whole experience. People in Finnmark see dog racing as a part of their culture as well as competition. Fans of all ages come to show support at the race start, including a great deal of kindergarten kids.
A musher feeds his hungry companions at a checkpoint in the Bergeby dog race.
There are checkpoints all along the 670km (approx. 415miles) course with mandatory rest periods. The time spent at rest stops is dictated by the official race veterinarian’s guidelines and ranges between 3 and 7 hours, with a total rest time of 30 hours in the highest class.
The rests are intended as a break for both the dogs and their masters and an opportunity for both to sleep and eat. Although regimes vary, this competitor stated that he feeds the dogs 10kg of meat at each stop and about 4kg worth of biscuits as snacks every two hours during the run.
On board as a dog team races across the Arctic countryside.
Dog teams race for long periods between checkpoints, with few breaks. Competitively, every second counts but the wellbeing of the dogs is of paramount importance. Strict rules govern their welfare and veterinarians are present at manned checkpoints to assist. Even with these precautions dogs sometimes experience injuries and frostbite in extremities is fairly common.
A racing dog rests with his team at a checkpoint during the Bergeby endurance dog race.
This particular checkpoint is unmanned, which means that teams must rest, eat and sleep outside in the elements. The dogs remain coupled to each other and sleep on straw for heat insulation in temperatures that can be colder than -20ºC (-4ºF)
Reaching the finish line is the biggest challenge.
Despite being well trained and well prepared, sometimes nature’s irresistible force makes its mark on Bergebyløpet. 2015’s race was halted due to extreme weather after a storm ripped across Finnmark. Only one participant (not pictured) managed to finish in the top class before the race was cancelled.
A dog relaxes in his kennel.
After the exertion of 670km (approx. 415miles) over 6 gruelling days, it’s time for the dogs (and owners) to rest for a bit. Many will have only a short break before resuming training for the Finnmark Race that starts in early March.