Most people in New Hampshire associate Laconia with the annual summer Motorcycle Week Rally.
But another event, equally important to the city’s history, takes place this weekend.
The 83rd Laconia World Championship Sled Dog Derby has been around almost as long at Bike Week.
Trail Boss Jim Lyman, whose grandfather helped start the local sled dog derby in 1929, says Laconia’s sled dog event is one of the oldest in the country with ties back to the modern origin of the sport.
The 20th Century history of sled dog racing began with the famous “Great Race for Mercy” in 1925. It took place after the village of Nome, Alaska experienced a breakout of diphtheria. The sole local doctor put out call for one million units of the serum that could cure the killing illness but there was a major challenge: the community, situated on a peninsula surrounded by frozen winter waters, was geographically isolated. The nearest train depot was more than 500 miles away and bush planes were not yet reliable.
A typical sled dog team could make the trip in about 25 days, but that would be too late to save Nome’s population. Responding to an urgent call from the government, 20 mushers put together enough dog teams to rush across more than 600 miles of frozen tundra to save the community.
The mad dash was front-page news across America and covered extensively by the new medium of radio. Some of the “Nome Run” mushers – and their dogs – became national celebrities.
The most famous was Balto, the lead dog in the final leg of the journey, but musher Leonhard Seppala, a Norwegian who covered the longest and most challenging leg, was also popular. Seppala and his dog team toured the country, giving presentations and participating in local sled dog races. He eventually developed a strong relationship with some of Laconia's mushers and established long-term ties with the community.
That connection to Seppala, combined with the support of Boston Globe owner Mosley Taylor, a friend of Jim Lyman’s grandfather, helped the local World Championship race rise in prominence.
“So we drew the best mushers the world,” said Lyman. “And some of our local mushers went up to Alaska and did well (in races there), so that drew more attention to Laconia. Laconia became a hot spot.”
Sled dog races remained popular until 1938, when Laconia ended its series because many of the world’s best mushers were joining their country’s militaries to fight in World War II. Some American mushers became part of the U.S. Army’s Search & Rescue units in Greenland, working with dog teams to rescue downed airplane military pilots and their crews.
Laconia’s race was revived in 1956 and it has continued annually, with the exception of some “low snow” cancellations. But the expense of maintaining a dog team has decreased the number of competitors, said Keith Bryer II, a World Champion musher who won the Laconia Derby in 2011.
“In the 1960s, there were 50 dog teams in New England,” Bryer said. “Now there are two or three in New Hampshire, two or three in Vermont.”
Lyman says the Laconia Derby has evolved into one of the toughest races in North America. The derby is not a “race” between competitors as much as one against time, with each team racing against the clock. The aggregate score of their times over the course of the derby determines a team's place among the finishers.
There are two kinds of races at the derby. The most prominent is the Open Class (sometimes called the Unlimited Class), which allows a musher to use a team that as large as desired, usually fourteen to sixteen dogs.
They run a 15-mile course that will start this year at the northern end of Old Main Street, near North Main Street/Rte. 106, across from the Lakes Region Correctional Facility. The derby usually starts downtown but conditions on Lake Opechee this year has moved the start/finish line.
Spectators can easily watch the racing dog teams at various viewing spots along the course. (Click here to see a map.)
This year, Lyman is expecting about 15 teams to take part in the open competition.
“Ours is a tough race course,” he explained. “First of all, it’s a three-day event when most of the teams are used to running two-day events. So, the toughness here is having that third day. And most races are 12 or 14 miles where we’re 15 miles.
“Then there’s the hills. A lot of the other races are on flatlands.”
The second race category is the Six-Dog Classic, which Lyman says will attract as many as 25 competitors this year.
Different dogs are used in the different competitions, because some dogs are bred to excel at running shorter distances. According to Lyman, the most popular dogs for the Classic race are called Eurohounds.
"They’re typically cross-bred so they may be part pointer, part hound, and maybe (one-quarter) husky,” Lyman said. “They look more like short-hair dogs than a husky.”
Two other races will also take place during the derby: the Three-Dog Junior and the One-Dog Junior are aimed at attracting young people to the sport.
Local favorite Bryer, who has a kennel in the Lakes Region, said he’s bringing a team of 16 dogs to this year’s Open. His expectations are modest but he said he’s still looking forward to a good race.
“This is a whole new team,” he explained. “They’re young, two and three-year-olds. When they’re young, they’re excited just being at a race. They haven’t done it that many times before. It’s better when they’re about three-to-five years old. I say the dogs are ‘racier’ then. That’s when they’ve had some good experiences."
“But I’ve never had a bad experience at Laconia,” he added. “It’s always worked out with a good experience.”
Want to see what it's like racing with a team of dogs in the Derby? Check out this video, taken in 2013:
Ray Carbone is a longtime New Hampshire writer who has recently completed work on a new book, “Legendary Locals of New Hampshire’s Lakes Region.” The book, published by Arcadia Publishing of Charleston, SC, will be release in the Spring. He can be reached at email@example.com