Retired racing sled dogs adapt to sunny Nelson

TRACY NEAL
Last updated 12:00 05/07/2011
Huskies
MARION VAN DIJK/Nelson Mail
Off for a spin: Mark Chin with his Alaskan huskies, Helene, left, and Joseph, take a run along Rough Island on Saturday morning.

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Alaskan huskies Joseph and Helene have raced in the world's toughest endurance events through some of the planet's most hostile environments, but are a little freaked out by hedgehogs scuttling around the backyard of their new home in Mapua.

The former world-class sled racing dogs arrived from Norway last year with owner Mark Chin. His partner, Stephanie Lawlor, said while the dogs seemed happy in their new environment – retired and living by the sea – they appeared to be a bit confused by the hedgehogs.

"I don't think they've seen them before, but they pick the hedgehogs up in their mouths and bring them into the house," she said.

For these well-travelled dogs, who have competed in the world's most extreme endurance races for sled dogs, the 30-hour flight to New Zealand via Frankfurt and Hong Kong was a doddle – the marathon was the paperwork for their owner.

Mr Chin, a mechanical engineer who works for Tahunanui firm Applied Research Services, and Ms Lawlor, a planner for Opus International Consultants, moved to Nelson in October last year after working around the world.

The couple chose Mapua for the lifestyle, and from where they would have easy access to good dog exercising areas, such as Rough Island. Mr Chin often takes the dogs out for a spin on his mountainbike, although it is more often that they take him for a spin.

For Mr Chin who hails from Moscow, Idaho, in the United States, living near the sea in Mapua was another first in a long list of life adventures. He and Ms Lawlor first met 10 years ago during post-graduate studies in Antarctica, and formally hooked up two years ago.

Mr Chin's bond with huskies was formed during a summer job with an Alaskan tour company, after working in Zambia, Africa, in the Peace Corps.

"I didn't know about dogs. I was just there to pick up dog poo for the mushers [dog racers]."

In Juneau, Alaska he worked for mushers with 20 to 50 dogs and "lived in a cabin in the middle of nowhere". He then moved to Norway where he worked for legendary dog sledder Ingrid Ekran.

"I would train young dogs and she would run the main team."

Joseph, 11, and Helene, 9, have each run in the world's foremost sled race, the Iditarod Great Sled Race, which covers 1850 kilometres from Anchorage, Alaska, to Nome on the western Bering Sea coast. They have also run the 1000km Finnmark Race in northern Norway.

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The Iditarod is described as the "last great race on earth" and crosses jagged mountain ranges, frozen rivers, dense forest, desolate tundra and kilometres of windswept coast in temperatures way below freezing, winds that can cause complete loss of visibility, and long hours of darkness. Joseph has completed the journey five times.

Mr Chin, who spent more than $8000 getting the dogs to Nelson, said they were "just normal dogs", but perhaps got a bit hotter in Nelson. Their heartbeat, like that of an elite marathon runner, was slower than most.

"In summer they don't move around as much, but they are old and retired so they sleep a lot."

- The Nelson Mail

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