Urban Mushing: Dog Sled Sport Finds Warm Weather Fans

The classic musher, a person who races sleds pulled by dogs, trains in a winter wonderland – think Alaska, Norway or Canada.

But when Mexican Raul Esquivel needed to tame his new Siberian Husky, he devised his own form of the sport, sans snow. Playing catch just didn’t cut it.

“After three times, she got bored,’” says Esquivel, 30, of his dog.

A few years back, Esquivel, then living in Querétaro in central Mexico, started harnessing up his dogs to a bike or had his dog pull him on skates. He watched mushing videos online, purchased educational materials and trained his dogs to race over pavement. Two years ago, he established a club, Urban Mushing Querétaro.  Very quickly, the sport consumed his life.

For a person, it’s a recreational activity, you sweat. It’s a family activity that you can share with your loved ones. For the dogs, it resolves 99 percent of problems at home: barking, the destruction of things, hyperactivity.

— Raul Esquivel

Warm weather mushing – though a relatively new sport – has grown in popularity and prominence the past few years, particularly for people who love dog sledding but live in a warm weather place.

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From his home in Mexico, Esquivel wants to establish a continuous presence in the mushing world.  One day, he’d like to see Mexico compete on an international level in a race like the Iditarod, the sport’s most prestigious competition, which covers more than 1,150 miles of Alaskan terrain and can last beyond two weeks.

Mushing has plenty of draws for humans and canines alike, says Esquivel.

“For a person, it’s a recreational activity, you sweat. It’s a family activity that you can share with your loved ones,” he says. For the dogs, “it resolves 99 percent of problems at home: barking, the destruction of things, hyperactivity.”

While still a small, niche activity in Mexico, mushing has fans in other areas of the country, according to Gabriel García Herrera, the other co-founder of Urban Mushing Querétaro. There are enthusiasts in Guadalajara, Monterrey and Mexico City, among other urban areas, he says. He’s been in touch with people internationally through the club’s Facebook page.

Of course, given the climate constraints, mushing is a tough sport to break into outside northern, below freezing environments. The top mushers make their names competing in maybe five or six races annually, according to one musher.  And those that don’t learn with family members might begin by working as “handlers” or dog kennel volunteers, watching experienced mushers train.

Mushers in warm weather climates also have trouble finding adequate gear.  When he first began mushing, García Herrera used various heavy-duty straps and equipment, mountain climbing items, to harness his dogs.

“We invented various things,” he says.

Since then, he has established a small business called “Workan Hiking and Mushing” selling mushing harnesses and other products.

Esquivel and García Herrera are now working to formally found a Mexican mushing federation, so they can become affiliated with the sport’s international group, the International Federation of Sleddog Sports. If a person wants to compete in an international tournament, he or she should be affiliated with a national club, they said.

He and his partner plan to organize Mexican urban mushing races, drawing competitors from all over the country. They’d also like to hold a national mushing conference, ideally with the assistance of a star musher like Jeff King, a four-time winner of the Iditarod.

Esquivel and King first spoke more than a year ago about the possibility of King coming down to Mexico to help train. Due to lack of funds, Esquivel couldn’t coordinate a trip at the time.

But Esquivel did pursue his own dream of competing in the Iditarod.

In January 2011, Esquivel traveled to Canada, where he hoped to start learning mushing in snow. He stayed with relatives in Edmonton.

“Obviously, the first thought is: how crazy,” says Armando de la Torre, one of the current leaders of Urban Mushing Querétaro.

However, they welcomed Esquivel’s international tales and the knowhow he has acquired. “The truth is we’re really excited by the fact that we’ve had our first pioneer abroad.”

Esquivel said he had a great time in Canada. He looked for a job, so he could get a work permit and hopefully remain in the country for several years – five, six, ten years even, if that’s how long it took to finally compete in races.

But four months later, he came back. He realized the best way to get a work permit, both in the U.S. or Canada, was applying for positions from Mexico.

“Would I do it again? Yes, and I will do it again,” he says, laughing about his trip.

Nevertheless, he experienced one crucial aspect of mushing.

“I went in winter: winter, winter, winter. I never saw the sun,” he says.

Since Esquivel returned home, he has moved to the Mexico City area, where he grew up. He got a job working as a web applications developer. Esquivel says his main objective is to regain financial stability, so he can re-focus on mushing training. He spent between $7,000-8,000 in Canada.

If Esquivel eventually races in the Iditarod, he won’t be the first participant from a warm climate. Jamaican Newton Marshall competed in 2010, passing by cheers of “Yeah, Mon!”

And there have been others. The conditions are brutal even for people used to frigid weather; Jeff King, an Alaskan who is considered the Winniest Musher in the World, finished two races with pneumonia.

Of course, that doesn’t dissuade Esquivel. But for now, he seems both interested in returning north and helping to foment Mexican urban mushing.  Even if he makes it to the Iditarod, it’s unlikely he’ll abandon his homegrown style of the sport. Winter in Canada didn’t just reinforce his dream, it strengthened his roots.

“Curiously, you learn to love your own country more when you’re outside,” he says.

Ruth Samuelson is a freelance reporter based in Mexico City.

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