LACONIA — The 91st Laconia World Championship Sled Dog Derby will kick off on Friday and, with snow in the forecast, trail conditions are expected to offer good racing, according to organizers.
The course lives up to its world championship name, according to mushers who say the steep hills, road crossings, and sections of trail where teams pass each other head-on make it especially challenging.
Jim Lyman, whose company Lyman Construction has donated the manpower and heavy equipment needed to create and groom the trails for the derby since 1987, was busy Wednesday carrying out his duties as trail boss.
Lyman, whose grandfather helped start the derby in 1929, says Laconia’s sled dog event is one of the oldest in the country with ties going back to the modern origin of the sport.
The 20th century history of sled dog racing began with the “Great Race of Mercy” in 1925. It was sparked after the village of Nome, Alaska, experienced an epidemic of diphtheria. The lone doctor in the community put out a call for the serum that could cure the killing illness, but the nearest train depot was more than 500 miles away and the isolated community was situated on a peninsula surrounded by ice.
A typical dog team could make the trip in 25 days, but that would be too late to save Nome’s residents.
Responding to an emergency call from the government, 20 mushers assembled 150 dogs to create enough teams to rush across 674 miles of frozen tundra in five and a half days to bring aid to the community.
The heroic dash was front-page news nationwide and widely covered by the new media of radio. Many of the “Nome Run” mushers and their canine athletes became national celebrities.
Among the most notable was musher Leonhard Seppala, a Norwegian who conquered the longest and most challenging leg. While touring the country with his team and competing in local sled dog races, Seppala developed a relationship with some Lakes Region mushers and established long-term ties with Laconia.
The first sled dog races to be held in Laconia took place in 1929 and 1930 as part of a series of weekend events sponsored by the New England Sled Dog Club. The first race featured a 40-mile course, and Seppala competed and won. Today, the Lakes Region Sled Dog Club awards a trophy in Seppala’s memory, awarded each year, as voted by the mushers, to the best sportsmen in the open class for the three-day event.
Today the derby offers four classes.
The open division allows mushers to compete with an unlimited team of dogs, typically 14 to 16. Mushers in the top division will compete over a 15-mile course for $16,630 in prize money.
The derby is not a race between competitors but against time, with each team racing against the clock. The aggregate time over the three-day event determines a team’s place among the finishers.
The six-dog Classic Class will vie for $4,160 in prizes over a 6-mile course.
The club also offers two races designed to attract young people to the sport, a three-dog class over a 3-mile course and a one-dog class in which children as young as 2 ride a sled a quarter of a mile and are not timed.
While the dogs that helped save the population of Nome were huskies bred to withstand frigid temperatures while pulling freight, today’s racing dogs are bred for speed and warmer weather and are typically a crossbreed of hound and pointer with a little husky in the mix.
Teams will start and finish at the Laconia Country Club at 607 Elm St. Parking for spectators is available across the street.
On Saturday and Sunday, parking will be available at the elementary school at 478 Elm St. Racing will start at 9:30 a.m. and conclude at 3:30 p.m. each day.