The Iditarod sled-dog challenge starts today, leaving 365 days for one local musher and his family to get ready for next year's 1,000-mile race.
The famed Alaskan dog-sled event traverses treacherous terrain filled with mountain ranges, frozen rivers, forests and vast tundras. Many contestants don't even cross the finish line; to say the race is tough is something of an understatement.
For Jason and Jennifer Campeau, dog sledding began as a family hobby. Just over two years ago, the couple and their young twin daughters moved to an 18-acre ranch just outside of Black Diamond. It would soon become the ideal setting to train for an athletic outlet that would change their family's lifestyle in a big way.
"When we moved out here from Ottawa, we really wanted to get into something that our whole family could do together to enjoy the outdoors," said Jennifer. "And this is something that Jason has thought about doing since he was very young."
But for the Campeaus, dog sledding has become so much more than a leisure activity.
Jennifer and Jason have each competed in competitions across Canada and the US. And the beginners are doing well, to boot: In her first year of competition, Jennifer has already placed first in two-of-two races. Last week, she took top spot in a 74-mile, six-dog challenge in Prince Albert, Sask. In January, she placed first in a 62-mile race that took place in Joseph, OR.
In his second year competing, Jason participates in longer trials, like the 333-mile, 12-dog race in Prince Albert, Sask. He also plans to travel to Alaska next year to take part in the 2015 Iditarod.
"I think the preparation is actually the toughest part and the racing is the easy part," explained Jason. "The dogs need hundreds and hundreds of miles, prior to racing, to make sure they're in shape ... you start with ATV training in the fall and then, when the snow starts to fall, you get into training with them on the sleds."
By "easy part," Jason was referring to is the grueling task of riding a sled for hundreds of miles in frigid temperatures.
"With some of these races, when you're up in the mountains, you're climbing for a couple miles—just straight up—and it feels like it's never going to end," she said. "So you're behind the sled running with them. You're not just sitting there."
Jennifer and Jason aren't your average couple: These two are quite used to fierce competition and cold conditions. In fact, the ex-competitive hockey players met while competing at the Canada Games in PEI.
"We're both competitive so we wanted to try racing, and I think we're pretty much hooked," said Jason. "We're pretty dedicated to it now, and it's something that takes a lot of time, money and patience, and it's not something that ever turns itself off. When you ride a bike, you can put it away; the dogs are a full-time commitment."
That's not to say their sense of competition has turned the bonding hobby into an adults-only endeavour. Their 11-year-old girls are just as into it as their parents.
"When we go to a race, it's really a family affair," he said. "The girls are there, helping. My father and sister get involved. There's a lot of stuff that goes into each race."
The girls even have their own sled which they mush with two of the smaller dogs.
The barn behind the Campeau home houses 26 huskies under the moniker Atka Kennel. The "dog" in the "beware of dog" sign on the door should really be pluralized, as the place is a hub of howls and activity. The barn is divided into several pens where dogs are kept in small groups, each one with an accessible outdoor run. On top of that, the dogs have a two-acre fenced area where they're allowed to frolic, pee and play king-of-the-castle on tractor tires, and of course, tussle with one another.
"They're part of the family," said Jennifer of their pack. "They're our extended family."
And with so much doggy love to go around, Jennifer and Jason delight in visiting local youngsters with the dogs in tow. In fact, the couple said that community outreach is one of the main reasons they love being mushers. Jennifer and Jason's aim is to motiviate kids with their presentations on goal setting.
"The presentations aren't really about 'us'; they're about being able to reach out to kids, especially under-privileged kids, and help them," said Jason. "We're really excited about that. It's pretty amazing to see 500-600 students that are from kindergarten to grade six, just sitting there and taking it all in."
And of course, it's also the thrill and experience of the mush that drives the couple's passion.
"You get to experience amazing things," said Jennifer. "You'll be at the top of the mountain, and all of a sudden, there will be an amazing landscape. I had one point during my race where I was going across a frozen lake at night and the Aurora lights were all out. It was just the most amazing show. It was just so quiet and everybody was working together as a team. I was just thanking God for such a great experience."