Media ... Akela's Den!
A Rail Trail Blazer
No snow, no problem for musher set to enter epic Yukon Quest race
Monday, September, 14th, 2009
There's something uniquely enjoyable about an hour-long run aboard an ATV, especially when the engine's purr is overpowered by the collective growl of a half-dozen straining huskies.
Bart De Marie might have his machine in low gear, but there's no shortage of extra pull coming from up front.
With snowfall weeks away and his sled still in storage, De Marie has exchanged the horsepower of his ATV for canine power, harnessing his dog team to pull the 200-kilogram machine around a training circuit in the northern forest.
The 26-year-old local musher and a select few of his best Alaskan husky athletes are getting an early start on the sled dog season in preparation for competing in 2010 Yukon Quest scheduled for February.
"I keep the ATV in gear, sometimes third, sometimes first, depending on how much of a workout I want to give the dogs," De Marie says, taking a break from his training session.p>De Marie said using the machine helps simulate climbing steep slopes for his dogs. On the Yukon Quest adventure, the dogs will cross five mountain ranges.
"Sadly, we don't have mountains in Saskatchewan, so we improvise," he laughs, looking over the six muscular dogs hooked to his ATV.
Taking part in the 1,600-kilometre wilderness journey from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Whitehorse, Yukon, has been a long-held dream of the Christopher Lake musher. De Marie is an athlete with a surprisingly philosophical outlook towards his sport.
"It is my goal to promote the ancient bond between human and dog, to inspire and motivate the young and old, to honour our respect of nature, the dogs and cultural traditions," he says.
Set to become the first Saskatchewan musher to compete in the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, De Marie is proud to be representing the province. Getting this far has been no cakewalk. In order to qualify for the event, race organizers require competitors to have completed a 300-km and a 500-km qualifying race.
Not only did De Marie finish the 2009 Canadian Challenge International Sled Dog Race in Saskatchewan and the 2009 Caledonia Classic in British Columbia, he won both qualifying races.
Now De Marie has claimed his spot amongst North America's top mushers to compete in one of the world's toughest races. Joining him is his team of brother Stefaan De Marie and sister-in-law Tanja Tabel. The threesome run a medium-sized racing kennel along with a small sled dog supply business called Akela's Den Sleddog Supplies.
Hidden in the trees, the clearing where De Marie keeps his team is a musher's paradise. The pristine spot about 45 km north of Prince Albert offers a wonderful practice ground for the musher and his team to perfect the skills needed to take part in such a gruelling race.
Straining at their chains, wide-eyed sled dogs reach out wet noses towards the lucky few huskies picked for the training session. With training just starting, all 50 howling dogs will have their turns in harness.
De Marie smiles at the raw energy all around him.
During the race, his sled will be pulled by 14 dogs, so De Marie will spend the fall and early winter carefully selecting the team from his kennels.
The logistical demands for the 20 to 30 teams expected to compete in the Yukon Quest are enormous. The winner of last year's event took about 10 days to finish the race. Checkpoints and resupply posts along the way can be as much as 300 km apart so racers have to carry sufficient food for themselves and their dogs, as well as hauling bedding straw for their animals.
With overnight temperatures expected to dip to -40 C or -50 C, the wilderness sled dog race is a real battleground when it comes to struggling against the elements.
There's also a great deal of expense involved, much of which the Christopher Lake team hopes to offset through sponsorship. While first-prize money for the Yukon Quest is between $30,000 and $40,000 US, even winners are fortunate to break even when they count up their costs, says De Marie.
Nevertheless, he and his team are 100 per cent focused on this major undertaking.
De Marie and his team will spend two to three weeks in the mountains prior to the race, trying to recreate the terrain and conditions they're anticipating during the race. Just finishing this epic trek is a major achievement for mushers and their teams, he says.
"It is a continuous work in progress; from raising funds, to getting vast amounts of gear ready, to training for the final event itself."
© The StarPhoenix (Saskatoon) 2009
Gone to the dogs
Belgian-born brothers embrace Canadian tradition of wilderness sled dog racing
Monday, February 11, 2008
CHRISTOPHER LAKE -- The blood-curdling howls from the 30-dog chorus proved a touch unnerving for this visitor, but it was pure music to the ears of Stefaan De Marie.
Straining at their chains, each of the wide-eyed sled dogs reached out wet noses toward Stefaan and Bart De Marie while at the same time serenading the two brothers with a canine concerto of ear-splitting dimensions.
"They want to race, and they want to go right now," says Stefaan, one of the owners of Akela's Den Sled Dog Supplies and Racing Kennel at Christopher Lake.
It's as if the small, taut-muscled dogs know their big race is just around the corner. Starting Wednesday, the panting, pent-up dog energy will be strapped into harness, hooked on to the sled and pointed toward a grueling, 520-kilometre wilderness journey called the 2008 Canadian Challenge International Sled Dog Race.
Setting off from Prince Albert, Stefaan and his younger brother Bart will each drive a 12-dog team, joining other competitors battling winter weather and rough terrain that will take them as far as Stanley Mission before winding up in La Ronge.
An eight-dog category and junior races are also part of the Canadian Challenge sled dog races with all
competitors setting off from Central Avenue in Prince Albert.
Hidden in the trees, the snow-covered clearing where De Marie keeps his team, is a musher's paradise as far as the 32-year-old is concerned. This pristine spot about 45 km north of Prince Albert is certainly a long way from the busy Belgian city where he grew up.
How did a young European urbanite end up raising and racing sled dogs on a northern Saskatchewan acreage?
As a youngster, De Marie had always relished the idea of trying his hand at running a dog team. He almost had the chance to fulfill his dream during a high school exchange which brought him to the Yorkton area in 1993.
"I was told about a musher who lived around there, but missed the boat when he and his family moved away to Christopher Lake that same year."
When De Marie returned to Saskatchewan to spend a vacation with his host family in 1998, he made sure to track down the musher, Jim Tomkins. It took just one sled-dog ride and the young Belgian instrumentation technician was hooked.
"The whole concept of mushing, the dogs, nature, the adventure and all the other challenges would turn my life around 180 degrees," he says.
He came back to Christopher Lake in 2000-01 to work with Tomkins, who was a successful mid-distance musher, and began shaping a hard-edged reality to his childhood dream.
That year he met Tanja Tabel, the Saskatchewan woman who would become his wife during a memorable northern wedding. They both said "I do" in a wilderness setting, accompanied with music provided by two dozen sled dogs.
Eventually, the couple bought out the established Tomkins family operation, naming it Akela's Den Sled Dog Supplies and Racing Kennel.
In 2005, Stefaan's brother Bart came from Belgium to spend a month's vacation watching his sibling compete in a 12-dog race. Bart, who works as an airplane engineering administrator in his home country, was overwhelmed by his first experience of the sport.
"It all really started for me when I saw my brother racing. The challenge to face nature, to manage a team safely to the finish line -- just you, the dogs and nature. It's a simple truth that I was not able to find in Belgium," the 24-year-old says.
Bart says the only thing he knew about Canada was what he'd been taught at school, seen on TV or read in books. His first impressions where very positive.
"I felt welcome in this strange land. Not only the connection with people, but also with the dogs and nature."
Since that explosive introduction to the sled dog tradition, Bart has returned to Saskatchewan every winter. In the mushing season of 2005-06, he was here for six months to train and race a team owned by Jim and Elaine Tomkins. Bart's enthusiasm paid off in his first Canadian Challenge triumph, when he became the first European to win the six-dog race.
The following winter, he spent three weeks helping his brother and wound up as his handler for the Canadian Challenge 2007 sled dog race.
"Now I am back for a year, to find out more about this sport, to get really into it and find out what it is to live a life as a musher in the Saskatchewan bush," he laughs.
All his eventful and positive experiences of life in northern Saskatchewan convinced him to begin immigration procedures so he can settle permanently in Canada.
"I am in the middle of this process and looking forward to a positive outcome so I can establish myself here in Saskatchewan and start a new life."
Right now, thoughts are focused on the big race. The Canadian Challenge 2008 will be one to write in the books, says Stefaan. The majority of the trail is new, much of it crossing lakes. Mushers and their dog teams must be prepared to run it in above zero temperatures or frigid -30 C temperatures with a howling wind, he says.
"Our dogs are being trained for all those circumstances and have between 2,000 and 2,500 kilometres of trail under their harnesses."
The race has several checkpoints on the way, some where teams will stop to allow handlers to care for the dogs. Sometimes a dog team rests better away from a busy checkpoint, so the brothers plan on camping out on the trail at times. That means melting snow to water the dogs and carrying extra food and straw for them.
"Often there is not much time to take care of ourselves after looking after the dogs, so we survive on high-energy snacks like chocolate bars, trail mix or other stuff we can heat up fast," Stefaan says.
Mushers sleep when they can, usually not more than an hour or two at a time.
Because it is a continuous race, mushers must have a rest/run cycle, requiring them to continue through the day and night. They usually run and rest the same amount of time. For example, five hours of running will be followed with a five-hour rest, right through to the end of the race.
Stefaan is no stranger to this popular race. In the past, he's finished seven out of the eight Canadian Challenges in which he's participated, always finishing in the top five with a couple of close second-place finishes. He hopes to keep it that way this year.
Teams leave Prince Albert at noon Wednesday and Stefaan expects both he and his brother will be crossing the finish line in La Ronge on Saturday.
The two are not competing for the cash, he says. With combined prize money for the 2008 Challenge at about $20,000, any winnings will cover just a little of their dog food bill, he says. The adventure and the publicity they get for their company make the effort worthwhile.
Most of their racing bills are paid for through profits from Akela's Den Pro dog food, a high-energy dog food geared mainly for working dogs, although family pets also benefit from it, says Stefaan.
"We have it processed at Bruno Feeds. It's a quality food and very popular. We have even shipped it as far as Rankin Inlet," he says.
They are working with Horizon Manufacturing of Rosthern to commercially introduce a new product they are trial feeding to their dog teams participating in this year's Canadian Challenge race. This will be a major test, Stefaan says.
Owned jointly by the two De Marie brothers and Stefaan's wife, Tabel, Akela's Den has other irons in the production fire besides feed production.
For the past eight years Stefaan has mushed for the thriving northern tourist operation, Sundog Sled Excursions, combining the sport with wilderness touring.
They have also connected with a small, local manufacturing enterprise building runners and sleds and plan on developing products that are light and efficient, but still reasonably priced.
"We hope we can get these new products up and running and find a way to attract new people to the sport, because Saskatchewan is a great province to run dogs," Stefaan says.
To find out more about the Canadian Challenge International Sled Dog race, visit www.canadianchallenge.com
© The StarPhoenix (Saskatoon) 2008
A century of mushing progress
Nutrition and technology the major changes since dogsled racing began 100 years ago in Alaska
Monday, February 8, 2008
The first formal dogsled race was held exactly 100 years ago in Alaska.
In an effort to find a diversion from the doldrums caused by harsh northern living conditions, participants rigged dog teams to birch sleds and sped off into the tundra for the first ever All-Alaska Sweepstakes. With gear considered less than hi-tech by modern standards, the mushers braved the elements for a substantial cash prize and, of course, bragging rights.
The essence of dogsled racing remains the same today, but the equipment has certainly changed.
"In the olden days it took them two to three weeks to complete a course like the Iditarod," said Stefaan De Marie, a seven-year veteran of the sled-dog circuit. "But now they're down to nine days or so."
According to De Marie, advances in technology and nutrition are at the crux of this progress.
"Nutrition is a big factor," the Belgium-born musher said from his home just outside Christopher Lake. "In the olden days, the dogs' rations were meat and fish. Then kibbles came out and they started eating those. After that, people started adding this and that - extra vitamins and supplements.
"So these days there are probably a dozen high-quality dog foods that can enhance a good sled-dog's performance."
Of equal importance has been the development of high-tech equipment for mushers.
Two of the most crucial developments involved sleds and sleeping equipment.
"A good winterized sleeping bag is one of the most important things to carry along," said De Marie. "If something comes up and you have to sleep outside a checkpoint, a sleeping bag like that is a necessity."
As for the sleds, along with nutrition they are the single biggest reason why these races are now being run in record times.
"Everything these days is made of fibre or aluminum," said De Marie, before brother Bart interjected from across the table, adding:
"We both ride on aluminum runners and the sleds are made of just aluminum and plastic. That makes it lighter, so the dogs can go faster."
Both Stefaan, 32, and Bart, 24, will use high-tech sleds of their own design in next week's Canadian Challenge.
The annual northward trek begins Wednesday at noon from downtown Prince Albert.
Mushers in countdown mode
Belgian Stefaan De Marie, a seven-year veteran of the Canadian Challenge, shares thoughts on dogsledding
Monday, February 7, 2008
With the 2008 Canadian Challenge Sled Dog Race less than a week away, mushers from around the country are going through the final steps of preparation. Stefaan De Marie is one of those mushers. Having competed in the last seven Canadian Challenges, the 32-year-old De Marie knows a thing or two about what it takes to get ready for the race. He sat down with the Daily Herald to share his thoughts on the upcoming event and provide some insight on the sport he loves.
Q: First off, how did you get involved in dogsled racing?
Q: The Canadian Challenge is coming up. What kind of preparations have you done for the race?
Q: After all the preparations are done and you start competing in races, what are some challenges you face?
Q: Does weather play a big part in how your team performs?
Q: Speaking of weather, would you rather it be warm or cold?
Q: OK, last question. What is it about dogsledding that attracts you?
Sage’s advice propels local to first in race
Monday, February, 2006
SPRUCE HOME — There’s a new fox in the warren.
Bart De Marie took the advice of the Silver Fox, Jim Tomkins, and was able to outmanoeuvre a tight pack and break away for the win in the six-dog race of the Canadian Challenge Sled Dog Race on Sunday.
De Marie left early from the first scheduled rest point in Weyakwin just after 7:40 p.m. Saturday, opening an instant 40-minute lead over second-place finisher Charlie Conner of Peerless Lake, Alta.
De Marie never relinquished the lead and crossed the finish line at 11:16 a.m. Sunday at the Spruce Home Trail Riders Arena.
The Belgian musher, now living in Christopher Lake, was advised by Tomkins, a recently-retired Christopher Lake sled dog veteran, to put in a smaller share of the required nine-hour rest stops earlier in the race on Saturday and get a quicker start.
That allowed De Marie to run strong and unfettered by other teams during the night, finishing nearly two hours ahead of Conner.
“I decided to leave early so I wouldn’t have to cruise along with (Conner),” said De Marie. “I thought everybody would get ready and chase after me right away, but they didn’t.”
Most of the mushers, including the 12-dog race which started Wednesday and wrapped up at the same time, spent extra time at the Weyakwin stopover. De Marie felt this cost others the race.
Soon after De Marie crossed the finish line, Jessie Royer, from Fairbanks, Alaska, came in to win the 12-dog race at 11:23 a.m., albeit with only seven dogs. She had to drop six dogs from her young team along the way.
De Marie started slow, but he soon caught up to the leaders. A slushy point 15 kilometres out of La Ronge forced some mushers to lose time, but De Marie was tied with Solomon Carriere of Cumberland House at the first checkpoint in Weyakwin.
Only 20 minutes separated De Marie from Shellbrook’s Luke Naber who was running in fifth place. But it was the quick start from Weyakwin, and running his dogs without protective boots, that allowed De Marie to increase his lead.
“There was a risk of cutting their feet, but they never did,” he said.
De Marie had been expecting a second-day letdown from his dogs as they neared the Anglin Lake checkpoint Sunday morning — a typical occurrence — but they instead ran strong.
Running alone also worked for De Marie. Usually the dogs run slower on their own without another team to chase or keep pace with, he said.
Again, on the advice of Tomkins, De Marie gambled on running alone without interference and the dogs cruised in for the win.
In the 12-dog race the lead changed hands several times after the mass start on Wednesday. Royer eventually edged out front but was only 11 minutes ahead of Ed Rolles of Star City by the time they pulled into the last checkpoint at Anglin Lake.
In the end it was the former top 10 finisher in the 2005 Iditarod who finished first ahead of Rolles.
“It’s hard to say what the difference was,” said Royer. “Our teams were pretty well matched, but everyone has a different way of conditioning their dogs up to a race, so it’s hard to say what happened.”
For the first time in the history of the race, all the teams that started the Canadian Challenge 12-dog race made it to the return leg, according to the race website.
David Smallwood scratched in Weyakwin in the six-dog race, the only known scratch at press time.