Friday, February 17, 2017

Canadian Challenge: Earl Stobbe

Living in the Christopher Lake / Paddockwood area on the old Montreal Lake Heritage Trail, and having won the 8 dog race in 2015 makes Earl from Longshadow Mushing kennel a local hero.
As a young boy Earl lived quite north in Uranium City Saskatchewan and remembers the trap line teams that used to come through the city.  Seeing the lines of dogs decked out in their fancy blankets and bells working in unison had a strong pull on the young boy.    What is most common among most mushers, and no different for Earl as I have been discovering, is how 'mushing' a dog all began.   At about 10 years of age he was hooking up his pet Siberian to a toy sliding toboggan in which he attached handle bars.
It wasn't long after, a teacher by the name of Ken Passler showed up in town with 9 dogs that a group of kids got interested, and soon there were mobs of dogs.  By the time Earl was in his mid-teens he was running a larger team heading out into the bush to camp and sprint racing with his friends.
After high school he took some of Fred Riddles dogs combined with his to trap and to just go exploring.  One time after hearing about a camp that Fred had told him about, he left and head out into the barrens for 3 to 4 days.  He learned much about keeping dogs and getting along in the wilderness.
Earl tried his hand at sprint racing, but found his team was much too slow.  It was when mid-distance racing came into Saskatchewan in the early 1990's that he discovered where he would fit in. His first mid-distance race was the PA 180 which ran from Prince Albert to Nipawin and back.  
Someone once told me if something comes easy to you, then you likely wont keep at it.  The experiences and hard work are what bring you back.  I'm guessing that this is the case with Earls first race. 
To get to the PA 180 that first year he needed a new dog box, however while changing it his dogs got into a brawl ending with one dog missing chunks of skin which meant he couldn't be used for the race. 
Dog box finally done and on the truck he discovered a major design flaw. The gas tank was no longer accessible.  This caused him to miss the Mushers meeting. 
That night his handler got him drink on vodka (my best guess is the stress leading up to this had nothing to do with how much vodka was drunk!)  
The next morning when he came over the river bank to the start line, late and hung over,  he discovered that he had a different sled than everyone else  (it was a Lorne Swenson sled).  His basket sled looked very out of place and he was reminded at every road crossing for twenty miles just how crappy it was while someone yelled to tell him so.   
The other mushers appreciated Earl and his big heavy sled as the trail which was down the ditches and across fields had been blown in with fresh snow and they all thanked him with a wave of thanks as they passed leaving him behind when they got to the bush.  
Earl scratched at the next checkpoint and instead learned what he could about what was involved in these races.
He had thought that racing would be like a camping trip, running a few hours, then stopping to have tea and tell lies to each other.  At night he figured they would all be camping together telling more lies.  He quickly learned that racing and recreation mushing is not the same at all.  Some of the knowledge and skills can help you, but it is not as intense as a race.
Earl was lucky enough to have run through a good decade of many mid distance races.  He remembers Jim Tomkins, Ed Jenkins and Lorne Swenson, to name just a few, that got the ball rolling over in the Hudson Bay area.   He says it was amazingly fun with at least 10 local mid-distance teams as well as all the other teams that traveled a distance to come race. 
Many of these races folded around the time the Canadian Challenge started up.  The volunteers that put on a race expend a tremendous amount of time and effort and it is hard to sustain that effort over the years.  Finding new volunteers to replace the ones who cannot do it anymore can be difficult.  Earl noted that the Canadian Challenge has survived because it has been able to cycle volunteers and find fresh blood over the years
During the 2000's Earl just ran recreation teams as he thought that the dogs that replaced his earlier team were not as fast.  That and the fact that his job as a teacher kept him much too busy to put on enough training miles.  Once he retired however he found he had a bit more time, so he bought dogs from various musher who had ran the Challenge and began to get more serious about running dogs again.  Six of his dogs running this year, who all sound amazing,  have run the Challenge, which puts experience on Earls side.  

 I always ask the mushers to share with me which dog stands out the most, I know it's hard to pick one and usually I hear a story about a dog from the past.  Earl told me all about an outstanding leader named Sharp. A dog that could follow a trail even if there was a foot of snow on it and if there was no trail he would make one. Once he had been on a route he could remember where it went even years later.
His goal for the race is to have a good series of runs with lots of fun and with 1200 miles on them already they are ready to go.
Earl does end his note with a great thought.   Getting to the race for him also meant having lots of help from friends and neighbours as he prepared for this years race.     It does take more than great dogs and a musher to make it to a race.    Earl mentions that he is using Lorne Swensons' sled and many booties.  The Frank family provided several cows, and Greg and Flo Nolan have provided fat scraps.  His neighbour Chris will be feeding and keeping watch over the dogs left at home.  He also mentioned those that make the trail work easier for training, such as Stefaan, Bart and Gerry.  Also those like Stewart and Louise Elliot and Nancy Dragan, that shared good ideas to keep him focused on the important stuff.   Not forgetting Delmar Wolkowski that will be coming along for the ride as his handler.

So much more that I could share about Earl.   
For those that get to sit and listen to his stories, find yourself among the lucky ones.    Perhaps you could keep him sharing if vodka is involved, but I think he will now most likely wait until after the race is complete.
With his 2015 winning team
Photo Credit: Jim Williams

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