Cannington is a small town in central, southern Ontario. It's principal claim to fame is the annual dog sled races, held in late January or early February if the snow is good, and part of the Ontario dogsled racing circuit.
The circuit includes most of the larger northern towns and cities, such as Ottawa, Ottawa,
Haliburton, and then
there’s Cannington – a place so small you’ll struggle to find it on a regular map.
If you are looking for it on the map, is about one and a half hours drive (about 110 km or 65 miles) north-east of Toronto ‘in the heart of Ontario’ as the town's slogan says.
The races are a two day affair with heats on the first day and serious racing on the second. If you want to give it a go, Saturday is the day for you. In dog-sled racing it’s okay to have beginners in the heats because the race is a staggered start.
Teams start with a two minute delay between them and passing is simple. The passing ‘Musher’ (as the driver is called) shouts ‘trail’ and the team being passed simply pulls over until the faster sled has gone by.
The races draw in international competitors, mainly from the neighbouring US states but also, in 2011, a team from Jamaica (it’s good to see Commonwealth links still happening). Competitors travel for miles across Ontario, and US states like Michigan and Minnesota, towing their sleds and dogs in purpose built trailers behind their trucks.
Spectators too are mainly northern folk who love dogs and outdoor pursuits, very much ‘old’ Ontario. There are plenty of working vehicles and very few Lexus or BMWs in the parking lot. Cannington races get about ten Mushers and teams taking part and 7-8,000 spectators over the two days, which is pretty good considering the sport’s lack of visibility; it’s never on TV, and the distance from major population centres is formidable in Ontario's winter.
Dog sledding also links nicely with the native and Metis people cultures so the Cannington event has hide huts, tepees and a Metis trading post (selling bisonburgers), as well as concession stands selling furs and hides made into clothes and moccasins.
The Metis have a special place in Canadian history. They’re mixed race descendents of European men and native women (there were few European women on the frontier in those days) and the Metis became the link between the two societies in many ways. In particular, they were a large part of the trappers, traders, and ‘voyageurs’, whose skill with canoes and dog sleds moved goods from source to markets all over Canada before road, rail, and air made them redundant.
Other stalls include those Ontario favourites of maple syrup and maple candies, fudge of many flavors, with maple being a big part of that too, doughnuts, beef jerky, apple cider and other apple products, as well as the usual hamburgers and hot dogs. Farm stalls selling organic produce are also popular. It’s a sort of winter ‘Farmers’ Market’.
It’s not surprising dog-sled racing is a minor sport. The season in Ontario lasts only for the deepest winter months so you have to be quick, and hardy, or you’ve missed it. It’s an expensive sport too because you feed up to a dozen large dogs all year to have a team fully fit to take part in the races and training is difficult too. Then for most of the year, you practice with a four-wheeled buggy on paths and roads (on rollerblades for skijoring) and the resulting scraped knees and knuckles are just a good motivator for getting better quicker.
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