Training in Waitarere Forest and Autumn Burn Sled Dog Derby

July last year I re-connected with the Central Territories Siberian Husky Club (CTSHC) and joined them at a training day in Waitarere Forest, north of Levin.

Living where I do, this meant being on the road by 5am Saturday morning to reach the meet up point at 6am, then a 10-15 minute drive into the middle of the forest to a small open area. Three teams were there for training that day.  Laurie with his scooter.  Cushla & Peter, Nardine & Richard with their rigs. The weather was overcast and pretty cool, which is ideal for the dogs and we humans just have to wrap up warm with enough layers of clothing.

Huskies and rig training
Husky and scooter training
Dogs and rig training

On arrival it is all hands on deck, with everyone flat out getting the dogs and equipment out and ready to run. I helped a little where I could yet mostly observed and played around with camera settings to figure out how to get some decent shutter speeds to catch some action.

Harnessing huskies

Training is a relaxed affair with mushers heading out on the trails in their own time, running the dogs at their current fitness levels. The dogs are super excited (quite the understatement) and need to be held in check so the musher can get balanced and prepared for ‘take off’!

Check out the video below to see the innate desire these dogs have to run.

Next up was the CTSHC Autumn Burn/Sled Dog Derby race weekend held at the same forest. An event sanctioned by the NZ Federation of Sled Dog Sports (NZFSS)

For this event I was able to be involved from set up on Friday night to packing up the event on Sunday to give me a thorough insight into my photography challenges ahead as well as the physical and mental fortitude needed to pull the project off over the long term.

I loved it!!! Yes the early, early starts were draining, so I learnt power naps will be a necessary tool in my kit. The cold temps taught me I need to sort out a decent winter wardrobe, including extra warm socks, gloves and beanie. Yet none of this curbed my thrill and excitement to be back with the dogs, to see and feel their genuine love for running, friendliness, energy and zest for life.

Friday night had clear skies and a near full moon in the sky, good signs for a cold morning tomorrow as the dogs need the temp to be below 13°C for racing.

With only the use of car lights and a torch the chutes for the start, finish and sharp left turn on the rig course are set up and all flags are positioned round the courses. Job completed by 7.30pm and we are out of there.

Start line for forest dryland racing

Saturday morning we arrive early at the gates, the moon is again bright and clear above us, driving in convoy to the start/finish area where the dogs begin their morning chorus.  It is the most amazing and awesome sound when you hear 40+ dogs howling to each other in the depths of the forest, the moon above and the sun starting to rise.

Click below to hear and get a feel for the early morning chorus.

My Saturday race morning was spent getting to grips with the environment and the many photography challenges in the dawn forest, testing different settings, angles and lenses.  The purpose of this weekend was not to necessarily  go for the best shots (nice if that happened), it was about testing my skills and experimenting with my camera kit. This would show me what I needed to work on for the 2017 season.

race bibs
Forest scooter race finish
Dryland dog rig race finish
Sled dog race prizegiving

After a break in the middle of the day teams are back at the forest gates by 3.30pm to head in for evening races. This was where I started to test out shooting from a low angle.

Now remember I said there would be some downs, frustrations and tears??

Well . . . I diligently set my camera up with wide angle lens, on the ground at the side of the trail by the start line. Connected my remote release allowing me to be behind a tree and not distract the dogs as they started. Test shots were taken and checked out fine. While doing this check I noticed heavy pollen falling and covering my camera. Honestly it was so thick the whole kit was covered in yellow dust. So I cleaned this off, put the lens cap on to keep the lens clear until photo time, covered the camera body with a cloth and reset for the race start.

Teams were led to the start and off they went at set intervals. I’m there hitting the shutter release on all the starting dogs, feeling real happy with the results I’ll get until someone across the trail calls out, “hey your lens cap is on!”  Doh!!!!

Mad scramble by me to remove the lens cap and get at least a few test shots of this great angle I envisioned. Here are a couple shots that are a little like what I was trying to achieve.  Something to work on for sure :-/

Husky and scooter race start
Husky with booties forest race start

Sunday morning was the coldest with a starting temp of 5°C. Today was a Siberian Husky only race event, and there were a few less teams on hand. Much fun was had!! It was great seeing the young children getting to have turns on the rigs and get a feel and love for the sport.

Siberian husky race excitement

There are now many different dog breeds involved in the sled dog racing scene, which I will cover in more detail as we get further into the project.


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