Sioux Lookout couple tops podium in major Canadian sled dog race

A couple from Sioux Lookout turned winning at a major Canadian sled dog race into a family affair.

Jesse Terry and Mary England, who are married, both competed individually in the Canadian Challenge Sled Dog Race in Saskatchewan last week.

They both entered the 10-dog category and raced for 320 kilometres, where Terry finished first and England finished third.

England said there aren’t a lot of dog sled races outside of the Yukon, so the Canadian Challenge is important as one of the few races which allows competitors to qualify for longer races.

“Any musher who wants to move on to do the [1,600 kilometre] races or some of the long distance mushing, needs to have these qualifier races which are races that are [480 kilometres] in length that you can prove that you can do, so that you'll be eligible to enter those longer races,” she said. “The Canadian Challenge has done a fantastic job of preserving that and attracts mushers from all over the country who need these qualifiers.”

She added the race also makes other racing distances like 80 kilometres and 160 kilometres available, which helps keep the sport alive by offering different options.

Terry has experienced success at dog sledding, repeating his win at the Canadian Challenge this year and finishing sixth at this year’s Beargrease sled dog marathon in Minnesota.

He grew up around Sioux Lookout and is a member of the Lac Seul First Nation. He said, while dog sledding is in his family bloodline with relatives living on the trapline, it was his parents who brought dog sledding into the home when he was 11.

“The way that I remember the story goes is my dad was asking if we wanted to get a snowmobile or start to get a team of dogs. [As] kids at the time, we’re like “Let's get a snowmobile!”” he said. “And the next thing I remember is he was bringing dogs home and there was no snowmobile.”

“But I couldn't be happier with my dad's decision to not listen to the kids and get a dog team because I wouldn't be sitting here with you today chatting about this amazing lifestyle that I think we have with our dogs.”

Terry runs On the Land Kennel with England, who also works as a family physician, and said it takes a lot of time and effort to train the dogs for the races.

“Well there's literally hours and hours of training of these dogs to get them prepared and to get them ready,” he said. “The training starts typically in September where the dogs start pulling an ATV or quad around on logging gravel roads and their conditioning starts basically there.”

England added, “It's neat, the dogs start off running five kilometre runs, really short runs there. They need to be conditioned like any athlete.”

“And so you could see that transition happen over several months from running five kilometre runs to suddenly running 50 mile runs or higher, which is closer to 100 kilometre runs.”

England, who is relatively new to dog sledding, said the sport and taking care of dogs with Terry and their kids along with her medical practice gives her a full and rich life.

She said the start of the race is chaos.

“You've got 10 teams of dogs raring to go. They're barking. They're screaming. They're jumping in their harnesses,” she said. “You get to the chute and you have to wait for your turn to go and [the dogs are] going crazy.”

“Then as soon as you lift the hook, your break’s off, it’s silence and there's no more noise. It's just the sound of the sled and the sound of their feet and then you get into the race and you're wandering through these trails that are so beautiful. Wandering through muskeg and the boreal forest onto lakes and, and the dogs, you can hear their breathing, you can hear the patter of their feet, you can hear the whooshing of the sled,” she said.

“For me, it's the most peaceful time I've ever experienced being on the back of a runner, watching the team,” she said. “My brain doesn't really do anything except just think about the land and the dogs.”

In addition to a third place finish, England was given the vet award, which is given to the best kept team as determined by a vote from the team of veterinarians who look after the dog teams throughout the course of the race.

“It just is such a vote of confidence,” she said. “I feel like Jesse and I both work so hard to make sure the dogs do stay well and healthy and enjoying their job and their life with us.”

Terry said the dogs are checked by vet teams prior to racing, to assess whether they're a suitable weight, with no soreness or stiffness.

“Then throughout the race, the vets are checking up on your teams, they are helping you to work through any issues you might have with the dogs. So they're always present and always watching the dogs throughout the whole course of the race.”

“We always learn a lot from working with the vets and to be recognized by that award is what all we mushers say is like the best prize to get,” he said. “And so for Mary to get, that is absolutely a huge, huge honour for her and I couldn't be prouder.”

Terry said the well-being of the dogs is the top priority for any of these races and one way to tell they are doing well is by looking at their wagging tails at the finish.

“The dogs are happy at the end of the race and you would never know that they just ran well over 300 kilometres to cross that finish line in first place with an average speed of [16 kilometres] an hour for the whole time.”

“I always love talking about how amazing these animals are, about what they do and their passion to move down the trail in a pack with us holding on the back of the sled is an absolute amazing thing to be a part of and to witness,” he said. “I always tell people how inspiring these animals are. For them to allow us to take on the leadership role among them is really a humbling experience. It's one of the greatest privileges of my life.”

Eric Shih, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Thunder Bay Source