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by Patrick Cruywagen, 11th July 2016

Twelve Alaskan Huskies first pull a Range Rover Sport and then a special cart around a four-mile off-road track. Which one will get around in the quickest time?

I have seen many a crazy thing while driving Land Rovers around the planet. So when Alan Stewart from the Cairngorm Sleddog Centre in Scotland called to say that he uses his 2007 Range Rover Sport TDV8 to train his racing Alaskan Huskies, I thought that it definitely warranted closer inspection. Alan also suggested that we do a timed race. Twelve Alaskan Huskies would first pull a Range Rover Sport and then a special cart around a four-mile off-road track. Who would win?

The cart or the Range Rover Sport? I had my doubts that a couple of dogs could pull a 2500 kg vehicle half a mile let alone four miles? This seemed like a good enough excuse to get to the mountainous Cairngorms National Park. Alan and his friendly wife Fiona have been running the Cairngorm Sleddog Centre for 16 years now; it’s the only daily working sleddog centre in the UK. The next closest one is in Sweden. I can see why they chose this specific spot, the almost 200-year-old cottage that they inhabit is full of character and set in paradise. I sip a hot cup of coffee on its porch and enjoy the great views of the Cairngorm Mountains. The cold has frozen the wind chimes into silence, which is broken by the sound of 38 Alaskan Huskies. I ask Alan about the choice of location. “We wanted a place where we could run the dogs from our back door. We also needed a property with enough space to train the dogs and prepare them for the big European races.

This place ticks all those boxes and we now have 12 miles of track on which to train the dogs. The thing that you need to remember is that this is not a weekend hobby; we share a way of life here with the dogs.” The dogs are just behind the cottage and sleep in kennels. Caring for them is a 24-hour job and Fiona is like a mother to all of them. She tirelessly cleans the kennels and tends to them in the rain, snow, wind and odd day of sunshine. Though of late the weather has been anything but predictable and this has wreaked havoc with the training of the dogs. “We are experiencing real climate change here. The ground never gets a chance to recover so it is always soaked. We have trees that come down because of this. It is not as cold as it used to be; when the snow comes it does not freeze, it liquidises and turns into mud. These are hardly ideal conditions to train dogs in. We have not had a dry day for months and the clients that visit the centre always get soaked. The lack of snow here and in Europe over the last few years has hit us hard,” complains Alan. Today is another wet day but Alan and Fiona are determined to run the dogs anyway. 

While we start preparing the dogs and the Range Rover, Alan and I talk Land Rovers. The centre has almost always used one. During the early years they drove a Defender 90 with an Ivor Williams top. Alan, Fiona and their son Jonathan would occupy the front three seats while the five sleddogs they had at the time were bundled into the back. The sleds went up onto the roof rack, everything fitted on or in the Land Rover. Pretty remarkable for a little Defender 90. This was followed by an early Discovery that was written off in some rather tricky road conditions. Let’s just leave it at that. I spot a red Toyota Hilux as I take a stroll around the yard. It looks just like the one they trashed in Top Gear. Incredibly it still runs and Fiona uses it for all the dirty work. Alan tells me that it is pretty rubbish at towing which is why he purchased his Range Rover Sport; to tow trailers and train Alaskan Huskies.

Before the Range Rover Sport, Alan used to own a Porsche Cayman. While doing some late night online shopping he stumbled upon this Range Rover Sport for sale at Autocars of Mansfield. He emailed them straight away and a few minutes later the owner replied to say that he was using it as his family car. Friends warned Alan that the Range Rover Sport had a habit of turbo fails. So he did a little research and found that replacing a turbo was not going to break the bank. He asked the seller to send him all the paperwork for the Range Rover Sport for closer inspection before he purchased it. This revealed something very interesting. The original owner had put a new engine in it. Alan traced him and asked why the engine had to be replaced? “Well I blew it up after putting a chip in it. My wife went absolutely crazy and so after running in the new engine I sold it to Autocars of Mansfield.” The cost of replacing the engine was a whopping £10,500. Needless to say Alan traded in the Porsche for the much more practical Range Rover Sport. So far so good for Alan, though on some days when he forgets to turn the small fridge off, it drains the battery, especially if left standing for a long time. Still he only has good things to say about it: “The Range Rover Sport is a great piece of kit. Fuel consumption is good – on long trips I do about 30 mpg.”

As with many modern Land Rovers, they are not really suited for serious off-roading in their standard form. Alan’s Range Rover Sport probably does more off-road miles than all the other Range Rover Sports in the UK though, so the first thing he did was change the wheels and tyres. He is sponsored by 4x4 Tyres UK and they helped him with new 20-inch wheels and a set of 275/45R20 Cooper Tires Zeon LTZ tyres. This all-round tyre is good on both tar and dirt, making it perfect for Alan’s needs. The last thing you want when training the dogs or towing a trailer full of dogs is tyre troubles. What about the poor Alaskan Huskies? During a typical training run they will go over about five different terrain types including ice, mud, stone, water and gravel. Some of it must be like sandpaper on their paws. Alan explains the wonderful world of dog paws to me. “They have to be carefully monitored. Each dog has a sweat gland on their paws, in extreme cold this freezes up and we then put boots on their paws to prevent this happening.” Obviously sleddogs born and living in places of extreme cold don’t need the boots because they don’t ever get to experience the sunny Scottish climate.

To demonstrate the pulling power of highly trained sleddogs, Alan has devised a brilliant plan. First up a team of 12 dogs will pull the Range Rover Sport over a timed course of four miles. "Once the dogs have rested, we will do the same again in the late afternoon, this time we will replace the 2500kg Range Rover Sport with a special light cart," he says. Hooking up 12 of the finest racing sleddogs in all of the UK  to a Range Rover Sport is anything but straightforward. Alan and Fiona have invited Roger Blackburn along to help us. He drives a similar Discovery to mine so he has to be a good bloke. In the past Roger has helped Alan at some of his European races; without a backing team racing would be so much tougher. I ask Alan what makes a good sleddog? “Good breeding, feet, coat and attitude. Simple as that.” Fiona is quick to add to the list. “Eats well, drinks well, travels well and has attitude.” Alan pulls the Range Rover Sport into position; this is the cue for the dogs and they all go barking mad. Literally. They know the time has come for them to pull the Range Rover Sport. Only 12 will enjoy the privilege, the other 26 will be left disappointed.

Before we head out the dogs need to be watered. As it is below freezing, their water bowls are frozen solid and they need to drink at least a litre of water before the workout. Alan and Fiona bait the water with food to fool them into getting the liquid into their stomachs. During racing or training the dogs get snacks or water to keep them going. These dogs are trained to pull and race, it is all they will ever know. Everything is about routine and everything they do is done with racing in mind. Race routines and habits are drilled into them. The straps and ropes are put in place and attached to the Range Rover Sport. Before the dogs are attached to the main centre line we have to put harnesses on them. Only at the last minute are they attached to the main centre line. We are good to go, Fiona opens the gate and it is chaos. The dogs pull as if their lives depend on it.

Soon we are bumping along at a fairly decent speed. Alan is not touching the accelerator at all, he only steers the car on the measured track. The first bit is a good gravel road and we are able to go at more than 10mph. Seeing is believing: 12 dogs really can pull a heavy Range Rover Sport. As we head into the forest the track becomes a whole lot rougher with muddy puddles and rocks everywhere. Incredibly this does not slow the dogs down. Alan has put a walkie-talkie on the lead dog and shouts instructions to them, all from the comfort of his Range Rover Sport. They listen and go left and right as per his instruction. It does not take the dogs long to pull us around the course, in fact they do it in 15mins 35secs. Human beings cannot run it in that time without pulling a Range Rover Sport. While the dogs take a break I take a stroll around the sleddog museum. Here I read about Scotty Allan from Dundee, a sleddog pioneer who moved to America. Arriving too late for the Klondike gold rush he instead turned to using horses and dogs to pull sleds and carts around, as everyone needed to move their goods and equipment. Alan has only the utmost respect for Scotty and as a result he rightly has a position of prominence in the museum. It was also here that I read about how Alan went to Jamaica for a few months to train a local sleddog team. While there he got a message that Keith Richards from the Rolling Stones had two dogs to donate to the team. The dogs were named Benson and Hedges. Alan’s training worked as the team would go on to take part in and finish some major races around the world. As I complete my tour of the museum I realise what a great place this is to get an insight into the sport and to understand what it takes to run a successful Alaskan Husky sleddog team. Alan is a tough old bugger and he has successfully raced in some of the biggest sleddog races around the world.

The uniqueness of the Cairngorm Sleddog Centre experience probably explains why Alan and Fiona have had some pretty famous visitors in the past including Bear Grylls, Sir David Attenborough and Griff Rhys Jones. “Some people get it while others don’t. Dog owners and professional dog people come here and are amazed at what these dogs can do,” says Alan. I ask him about the future of sleddog racing and he is not too optimistic. “The sport is finished in the UK. As for Europe they have had to move some of their big races to Scandinavia to find ideal racing conditions. These are not the cheapest places to get to.” All is not lost though as Alan’s son Jonathan is currently one of the top sleddog racers in America. He has based himself in Wyoming and currently has about 30 sleddogs. Thanks to his dad Jonathan has been around sleddogs all of his life and the all-important skills and love for the dogs has been passed on from one generation to the next.

The time had come for us to do the second part of our challenge. Our two-man buggy was specially made in Europe for the centre. This time I put more clothes on as I would be in the front seat with my butt about three centimetres from the ground. As we were in something smaller and more exposed than a Range Rover Sport the pulling power of the dogs was more raw and real. We are literally hurtled forward and if Alan did not use the brakes I’m sure that the land speed record for sleddogs might’ve been under threat. I felt each rock and puddle just like the dogs did. Despite the fact that it felt a whole lot faster than the first run,  when we looked at the stopwatch it was only a minute quicker. The faster time was probably because the Range Rover Sport was so much bigger and more cumbersome through the tight turns in the forest.

Once we get back to centre Alan points out an air suspension leak at the back of his Range Rover and arranges to have it fixed the next week. There is only one way to end a day out in the Cairngorms. Alan whips out a bottle of Stag’s Breath Liqueur and we all have a shot or two. Soon we are all warm inside. Today has easily been one of my craziest days as a Land Rover journalist. If you want to see 12 Alaskan Huskies pull a Range Rover Sport, you now know where to go. Put Aviemore into your GPS and fire up the Land Rover. You won’t be disappointed.  

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