Sébastien Barrault spent 10 days mushing his dogs from Ny-Ålesund to the starting line of the Trappers Trail race he initiated six years ago. But he and others from the settlement suffered a huge setback during their short stay in Longyearbyen as 11 of their 16 dogs were scratched from the race after being infected with the kennel cough virus that’s become an epidemic in town during the past couple of weeks.
Barrault said he didn’t know about the outbreak until he arrived in Longyearbyen, but tried to protect his dogs by camping well away from others participating in the two-day race that started Saturday. But one of the three teams in his group planning to race added some dogs from a local kennel to their dog team, which likely resulted in the other dogs getting ill.
“We’re merging two of the teams together, so we will split the two stages,” he said, adding the person scheduled to drive the third team will join those helping monitor and care for all of the dogs participating in the race.
The outbreak of the flu-like respiratory infection – the first known occurrence of the disease in Svalbard, according to officials – has taken a drastic toll on the local canine community, with one Longyearbyen’s biggest dogsled tour operators saying trips have been cut by half during what is typically the busiest season for such activities. The strain is highly contagious and officials said virtually all of Longyearbyen’s dogs are likely to be infected – especially since they have no acquired immunization – but the virus is also considered relatively mild and most dogs should recover in a few days.
Veterinarians examined the dogs before the race and eight of the 24 teams that signed up for the race were scratched due to infected animals. But despite the sad news, Barrault and most of the other participants were cheerful as they prepared their dog teams and cheered competitors as they set out from the start line outside of The University Centre in Svalbard.
“We’ll take it as a nice trip,” he said.
And while smaller dog teams were more prevalent this year, even that reference managed to be part of the levity. Karolina Karas, the first racer to depart, assembled a three-dog “LePoop” team that included a Shiba Inu, a tiny Japanese breed that is remarkably suitable to Svalbard’s harsh environment despite its dimensions (“copes very well with mountainous terrain…originally bred for hunting…one of the few ancient dog breeds still in existence in the world today,” according to Wikipedia).
“He always a part of the team,” she said. “He does great in cold,”
Karas said her dogs have remained healthy during the epidemic, but she isn’t planning to take any special precautions to protect them during the race.
“There’s nothing to prevent it,” she said. “They’re running along the same trail.”
Participants will race from Longyearbyen to an overnight checkpoint at Kapp Laila on Saturday, with another veterinary inspection of the animals before the teams return to Longyearbyen on Sunday. They are expected to reach the finish line at Huset beginning around 1:30 p.m., and food and warm drinks will be available for those wanting to watch the mushers.