A Beringia contestant and his dogs. Photo: Oleg Belov / NaDV.ru
A Beringia contestant and his dogs. Photo: Oleg Belov / NaDV.ru

On March 11, the world’s longest dog sled race (as judged by the Guinness Book of Records) began in Russia’s Far East. Covering more than 2,000 kilometers of grueling terrain, the ‘Beringia’ trek puts its contestants through some of the most extreme conditions on earth.

To complete the Beringia, sled drivers need to grapple with intense cold as they venture across the taiga and tundra of the Far East region’s Kamchatka and Chukotka territories. Minus 40 degree Celsius temperatures are not unheard of.

Dog sleds are a traditional form of transport for the indigenous peoples of Kamchatka: they have long been used to convey materials, mail, food and people to remote settlements. By the 1990s, however, dog breeding traditions remained alive only in the most far-flung parts of the territory. 

The Beringia was established in 1990 to support those traditions. It started with eight teams competing over a 250-kilometer trek. The following year, race organizers decided to expand it into something that would gain global recognition: they set out a 1,980-kilometer route that put the race into the record books.

Today, the race is one of the most recognized dog sled events in the world and a major attraction in the Far East region, attracting thousands of spectators.

Alisa Ishchenko (and puppy). Photo: Oleg Belov / NaDV.ru

Contestants operate open sleds pulled by as many as 16 dogs. Most of the way, the driver remains standing, shouting orders to the harnessed dogs. Occasionally, he or she runs alongside to ease the load and encourage the animals.

The route for the race is specially prepared. Snowmobiles pave the way and mark the trek with flags. However, weather conditions are often so bad that the dogs lose their way and get off-track.

Despite the extreme conditions, however, not a single casualty (canine or human) has been recorded over the nearly three decades in which the race has been operating.

“Throughout the race we have an accompanying staff of about 30 people,” said deputy head of the ‘Beringia-2018’ race, Artyom Chernov. “They include three people on the judging panel, one medical and two veterinarian staff, plus volunteers. There is also a team for laying and preparing the trail.”

Kayurs (plus dogs) on the Beringia. Photo: Oleg Belov / NaDV.ru

Dogs are closely monitored by both specialists and sled drivers, who are known as kayur in the local parlance (the word in English is “musher”). Any dog deemed to be experiencing health issues is removed from the race.

“Experienced kayur know that it is vital to take good care of the dogs’ paws, to put special slippers on them, that dogs need to be loved, not pushed too hard and cherished. If a dog is tired, the kayur is the first to understand that it should be removed from the race,” said one of the Beringia veterinarians, Tatyana Konovalova.

For the 2018 edition, 15 thrill-seekers came forward to participate. The youngest of the contestants recently turned 18. The oldest is over 60.

“I’m in this race to fulfill my dream. I want to discover myself, to be alone with nature and with my team. I’m not in this for victory, I just wanted to take part,” said 18-year-old Alisa Ishchenko.

The route is divided into 25 stages. Every day the drivers travel an average of about 100 km along mixed terrain, through rivers and streams, valleys and woods. Part of the route will pass along the eastern coast of Kamchatka, with a view of the Bering Sea.

Photo: Oleg Belov / NaDV.ru

Contestants start preparations several months in advance. This year there is even a contestant from as far away as Moscow. Vyacheslav Demchenko has been driving sleds for more than 10 years.

“I participated in many competitions, won a fair few prizes too,” Demchenko told Asia Times. “But, in the Far East everything is different. Nature here is very beautiful, but the conditions are harsh. That’s why it’s more interesting.”

The race will last about a month. Exact dates are not set because bad weather can affect schedules. There are times when storms prevent travel on sleds for several days.

Photo: Oleg Belov / NaDV.ru

After the race ends, the winners collect their prizes. Last year’s edition had a prize fund of 8.5 million rubles (US$149,000), according to the TASS news agency.

One of the prizes is an award for the contestant who is seen as the ‘Most Loyal to Traditions of the North.’ To qualify, the driver has to have spent the entire race in a traditional sled and attired in national dress.

This year, the route will span about 2,100 kilometers – which will break the Beringia’s previous record.

“To get into [our] Book, it is necessary that at least one dog team from the beginning to the end fulfills all the race conditions,” said Alexei Svistunov, editor-in-chief of a Russia record-keeping agency that publishes its own ‘Book of Records.’