SOUTHERN LABRADOR, NL – As the first signs of winter appeared in Port Hope Simpson, Bill Russell gathered his dogs and blew the dust off his sled.
Racing the dogs through old access roads, Bill spends much of his time preparing for the annual dog races across southern Labrador.
“Soon as we get the first drop of snow, I’m training the dogs,” Bill said.
Bill both organises and participates in Port Hope Simpson’s Eric Rumbolt Memorial dog race. The event is one of several races taking place in southern Labrador this winter, with others in Charlottetown, Pinsent’s Arm and Mary’s Harbour.
At one time in these towns, dogsleds were often the basic means of transportation, towing supplies like lumber and water during the winter. Now, these same communities honour this way of living and keep it alive with the annual races.
For people like Bill, dog racing is more than just a hobby, it’s a family tradition. In fact, the race held in Pinsent’s Arm – the Stanley Campbell Memorial – is named after his grandfather.
“Cousins, uncles, father – all had dogs, and all used them for hunting and hauling back in the day,” Bill said. “Dogsledding is definitely in my blood, Russells on the one side, Campbells on the other.”
Bill has been a long-time racer as well, now closing in on 26 years. He says he was 13 when he first held the reins in a dogsled race.
A few miles from Port Hope Simpson, Allister Russell is organizing the fourth annual dog race in honour of his uncle. Ron’s Race will be held in Mary’s Harbour towards the end of March.
The same dogs and mushers – the term used to describe driver of a dogsled –from the other races will also be showing up for Ron’s Race.
“At one time, every community would have a dog race which they’d call ‘Sports Day,’” said Allister. “We don’t have that now, but each community still has small groups of volunteers to put off a race.
“Some people naturally love it, and those are the people that will keep it alive.”
Like Bill, dog teams are not just a hobby for Allister, but a key part of the family lineage.
“My grandfather used to carry the nurse and doctor along the Labrador coast by dog team,” Allister recalled. “He took them through the various communities, even made trips as far as Goose Bay by dogsled. He was a really well-known dog rider.”
Four years ago when Mary’s Harbour was without a race for several winters, Allister and a few friends decided to put one together in honour of their deceased uncle Ron, who himself raced for many years.
Now with three previous races under their belt, Allister is hoping for another successful Ron’s Race this year.
“It’s fairly new for us,” said Allister. “It’s been 10 years since we gave our dogs up, so now we just host the race and try to keep the sport alive.”
As nearby ponds and waters start to freeze over, Bill will begin training his dogs along these stretches of ice. He says he takes the dogs out for a run nearly every other day, and often sees other mushers in the area doing the same.
Race dates depend on when waters freeze over, and all organizers this year are set on having their races towards the end of March – though no exact dates have been announced.
For now, organizers and participants will keep training their dogs and preparing for the annual events. Thanks to their efforts, the dog race offers both some wintertime fun and a continuing tradition for families and communities.