Emily Mawson heads to the Lake District National Park and discovers how being pulled by huskies on the beach is as exhilarating as it is in the snow
Picture huskies pulling a sled and you are likely to imagine the scene in the frozen plains of northern Canada or Siberia, where ‘mushing’ (driving huskies) has been practised for thousands of years. Certainly one of the last places that would come to mind is the Lake District’s sandy coastline, a little-known realm between the shores of the Irish Sea and the Cumbrian fells.
But for the last two years, Sonia Gager-Tomkinson of Horse & Husky has been working to change people’s preconceptions. From her base near Ravenglass, the only coastal town in the Lake District National Park, Sonia is one of the few people who runs mushing lessons in the UK. OK, it is not on a sled, but it comes close.
Sonia’s interest in dog-mushing dates back to her childhood. Having read everything she could about the sport, and mushed a couple of times on snow, she has since trained eight rescue huskies and two retired racing hounds, and invested in several rigs (a substitute for a sled that looks like a tricycle). She now gives lessons, runs passenger safaris and trains customers’ dogs to pull a rig from her home in the Cumbrian hamlet of Bootle Station. ‘Our huskies are treated as individuals, each running only a few times a week,’ says Sonia, whose handsome dogs are treated as pets. ‘They are regularly groomed, and sleep in snug kennels lined with hay, taking turns to come into the house.’
I adore dogs, too, but I have never mushed before, and I’m a bit apprehensive about exactly how fast we’ll be going…
10AM HUSKY BRIEFING
It is tipping it down when I arrive in Bootle Station, with the kind of rain that soaks you right through. Even the car looks sorry for itself, says photographer Tim, after the wet drive from our base in Ravenglass. It is certainly not ideal for mushing, but my spirits lift when Sonia opens the front door to her home, presenting two steaming cups of tea – mine reads ‘KEEP CALM AND HUG A HUSKY’. She introduces us to her friend and fellow dog-lover Gill, who will be assisting, and runs through an outline of my two-hour beginners’ lesson and subsequent beach safari.
10.15AM THE SPEED LIMIT
I am nervous when I hear that Sonia has been clocked at a top speed of 30mph on a four-dog rig. So it is a relief to be told that I will be learning with one dog at a leisurely pace of 7-10mph. ‘I use a single dog to give people the confidence that they can always stop,’ says Sonia, adding that, depending on the dog’s strength and driver’s size, a single husky can pull the rig without even being aware of the passenger.
10.20AM POLAR BEAR AND WALRUS
Today I will be driving Star, a German shepherd/Siberian husky cross. At five, she is one of the oldest of Sonia’s 10-dog team, which includes two Eurohounds (both Alaskan husky crossed with German shorthaired pointer) that won the World Racing Championships in Poland in their youth. Storm, an Alaskan Malamute, will be coming with us, too, for exercise. ‘My son christened Star and Storm the polar bear and the walrus,’ says Sonia. ‘Star, for her pale colouring and long fluffy coat, and Storm for the fact that he makes an odd noise like a walrus – and was a little overweight when he came to us!’
10.30AM ALL ABOARD
Outside in the wet, on a long hedgerow-lined lane topped by big coastal skies, the dogs look bedraggled but eager. Sonia asks me to stand on the rig without Star, to get a feel for it and to demonstrate I can brake – just as you would on a bike – which is the most important thing to master. The experience is like being on an adult-sized tricycle, but with platforms to stand on instead of a seat.
I am relieved that this rugged lane, used only by scarce local traffic, is relatively straight. But there is a hidden hazard, Sonia explains: the sheep behind the hedgerows, which can sometimes distract the dogs. ‘You must keep both hands on the handlebars to steer, and be ready to brake,’ she says, clipping the muscular dog on to the rig. ‘This is not a glamorous sport – if your nose runs, you just have to let it!’
10.45AM EASY, STEADY
I call the husky-racing world command to set off: ‘Hike!’, following with a push of my foot on the ground to encourage Star forward. She trots on, effortlessly breaking into canter. As Sonia warned, I feel weightless. I brake and say, ‘Easy, steady!’ in a long, low voice – the command to slow down – and Star obeys diligently. She likes to be close to Sonia, who is following by bike, and keeps checking for her mistress. The damp hedgerows whizz past as the rig bounces over stones; I concentrate on staying in the centre of the lane, as Sonia has taught me.
11.45AM GOOD DOG
‘Keep straight,’ Sonia commands Star as we pass some sheep. I am surprised how stable the rig feels as we then turn a corner – I needn’t have worried about overbalancing. We retrace our tracks to Tim and Gill, but even at a standstill I must remain on the rig with the brakes applied until Sonia has hold of Star, whose pricked ears show she is more interested in the treat she is about to get than in running off. ‘How far do you think you went?’ asks Gill. I guess a mile. It was more like three, she reveals.
12.45PM FLYING ACROSS SAND
With the basics learned, we’re off in Sonia’s van to Bootle Beach, a windswept stretch of sand backed by quaint cottages and the fells of the National Park. The rain has now eased off and sunbursts glint on the wet sand. Luna and Ice, who are fitter for running on sand, have replaced Star. But that is not the only change. ‘I defy you not to laugh at this,’ grins Sonia as she demonstrates how to get into the new ‘rig’: it is a kite buggy specially adapted for huskies. I plop into the deep seat and, sure enough, laugh.
1PM GETTING HOOKED
One hand resting on the brake in case of need, I call: ‘Hike!’ and we are off. The dogs canter playfully beside each other, occasionally leaping into the air, excited to be on the beach. I could be flying; I understand why Sonia earlier said she loves the adrenaline rush of the sport. But as soon as I say, ‘Whoa!’ and apply the brake, Luna and Ice come to a standstill beside the crashing waves – well trained by their loving owner, who is awaiting them with a handful of treats. ‘Good dogs,’ I praise them.
Sonia will be staying out here a little longer, ‘to play’, as I head off, glowing with exhilaration. Smiling, I hear her excited calls of ‘Yee-hah!’ as she glides across the sand behind two galloping dogs. I don’t think it will be long before I do this again.
Horse & Husky, Bank House, Bootle Station, Millom, Cumbria LA19 5XB (01229 718488, horseandhusky.com).
WATCH THE PROS
Sonia Gager-Tomkinson has worked with animals all her life. After setting up a riding stables at 22, she founded Horse & Husky in 2012 in order to work more with dogs.
‘Bootle Station is a great spot for mushing because of the beautiful beaches and trails in the area. The weather is ideal, too, because you can’t run huskies in hot weather – and we don’t get a lot of that here. Anyone can mush from around the age of 10, depending on strength and size, but it certainly helps if you know how to ride a bike and if you have some experience with dogs. That said, the dogs I choose for beginners to drive are those that look to me for commands. Younger and less confident visitors can travel in the rig as a passenger with me as driver. Above all, you should be confident, enjoy the buzz of adrenaline and remember to thank your dog when it obeys you.’
NEED TO KNOW
HOW TO GET STARTED
Horse & Husky runs a range of dog-mushing experiences, from learning to drive on a ‘Flying Solo’ session to going out in a passenger rig on a mushing safari. Pesky Husky (peskyhusky.co.uk) offers mushing experiences in Scarborough (but not on the beach). For more on dog-sledding in the UK, visit siberianhuskyclub.org.uk.
Bootle Station is around halfway between Barrow-in-Furness and Whitehaven in Cumbria. Northern Rail (northernrail.org) runs connections to Bootle from Carlisle/Barrow-in-Furness – see nationalrail.co.uk. Sonia’s house is opposite the station.
WHAT IT COSTS
A two-hour beginners’ session with Horse & Husky costs £60. The beach safari is £35 per hour. Bitten by the bug? You can go on to complete your ‘Musher Certificate’ with Sonia, which will entitle you to drive a team of huskies on half-day (from £25 per hour) or two-day safaris (from £350). Or perhaps you want to train your own dog to pull a sled? Sonia can help you (from £90).
WHERE TO STAY
Renovations at the Coachman’s Quarters in the grounds of 13th-century Muncaster Castle, just outside Ravenglass, revealed the floorboards were packed with seashells for insulation. But as well as knowing the seaside is keeping you warm when you stay in one of the 10 tastefully decorated en-suite rooms, you can fall asleep to the hooting of the owls from the estate’s World Owl Centre.
Double B&B from £80 (01229 717614, muncaster.co.uk).