'I can see it dying down': Dog sledding on Labrador's south coast might disappear

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'I can see it dying down': Dog sledding on Labrador's south coast might disappear

'I can see it dying down': Dog sledding on Labrador's south coast might disappear

Already once in this lifetime, dog teams have left Labrador's south coast.

Years ago, snowmobiles made their everyday use obsolete.

Hobbyists brought them back.

But now, there's something else threatening the future of dog racing.

"I got two sons and they're not real interested in the dogs like I was," said Bill Russell.

He's a present-day musher — one of two in Port Hope Simpson.

In his father's time, dogs acted as ambulances and helped lug wood, water and whatever was killed while hunting.

"They were happy enough to get rid of them, I suppose, when the Ski-Doo came," said the community's other musher, Dennis Burden.

"It's a lot of work taking care of a team of dogs, especially back then."

Even now, it's not easy.

Burden hunts 20 seal in the fall just to keep his team fed.

He mixes that meat with full fish and boiled rice most days — a chore well worth it to him.

"It's pretty thrilling," he said.

"Not only race day either … You get a nice early morning, maybe –20 with the sun just peeping in the east out there, and, you know, you put them in and go for a little ride, right quiet — steam pouring out of them. It's almost unexplainable."

That thrill is what Burden hopes will hook his youngest daughter into picking up a team of her own.

She helps prepare the dogs' food sometimes and visits the pups with her dad, but doesn't race yet.

The younger generation

"Ah, I think I could do it," said 15-year-old Kendra Burden.

"But, I mean, I don't plan on staying in Port Hope."

There are five people in her grade — one of the bigger classes in the school.

She loves her father's dogs, she said, but after graduation she plans to leave southern Labrador.

"I like it here and stuff," she said.

"But I just don't see — there's no jobs here, no universities for me to attend and, you know, I kind of want to go away and actually do something."

Dogs draw residents out

Her dad and Russell travel to neighbouring communities for races.

Each town generally hosts an annual event in the spring — the one in Pinsent's Arm is named after Russell's grandfather, the Stanley Campbell Memorial Dog Sled Race.

"It's the only thing that gets anybody out anymore," said Burden.

"Scattered time, one of your friends would drop by through the year or something but race day, we might be 200 Ski-Doos out there on the lake."

Southern Labrador has an aging population — not unlike a lot of places in the province.

Elders are still around to reminisce about the day when dogs were the only option. 

But that institutional knowledge is thinning, along with the apparent interest from the younger generation.

The future

"I can see it dying down really quickly, actually," said Kendra Burden on the future of the tradition.

"After my dad and Bill I just — I can't really see it continuing on."

But her dad remains hopeful he can trust the heritage in her hands — and that, maybe later, the tie will carry her home.

"I'd like to get her at it," Dennis Burden said.

"It might make her want to come back someday, you know?"

Port Hope Simpson's race — the Eric Rumbolt Memorial — will be held on Easter Monday.