/Highlands shine for the world championships

Highlands shine for the world championships

By Darren Lum

Published Feb. 7 2017

After she crossed the line of the pulka one-dog elite race withher dog Oodle Karen Koehler was overcome with emotion embracing herdog and then her husband crying on his shoulder crouched in thefreshly fallen snow with the backdrop of the IFSS World Championshipsstart/finish area behind them.

Koehler a Carnarvon resident representing Canada said everythingcame out that Sunday Jan. 29.

It was her last day of individual racing (she would race laterthat day in the national relay for Canada) in virtually her backyardat the Haliburton Forest and Wild Life Reserve. The tears came fromthe realization there wouldn’t be a more enriched championshiphaving it in the Highlands so her family and friends could cheer herstarts and finishes; being integral to bringing the event here; andthe strong performances in five races which resulted in her beingthe best North American in two of them. She said the Highlands is a place where dreams really do cometrue.

The former part time teacher at Archie Stouffer Elementary Schoolsaid it started as a crazy idea.

Despite the perceived farfetched notion of it all she went forwardwith the idea anyways laying the initial ground work and askedHaliburton Forest and Wild Life Reserve to take it on. Therealization that everyone was here because of her dawned on her theweek of competition.

“I was in shock. They’re all here. Everybody. It’s crazy Idid this. Obviously not alone” she said recognizing the effort ofthe host venue Haliburton Forest and in particular its staff thevolunteers and project co-ordinator Tegan Legge for making her dreama reality.

“The commitment they put into it was absolutely awesome. Tegannever dropped the ball. She was like we’re going to make thiswork” she said.

Legge said there was a lot she will remember from the event whichincluded compliments from racers such as the Swedish team captainswho asked when the forest will apply for another championship racemarshall Nils Finsrud calling it a “well organized event” theefforts of her staff volunteers and volunteer co-ordinator CameronFerguson.

She will also never forget the applause from the packed crowd thatTaina Teras of Sweden received at the screening of the Dog PowerMovie (www.dogpowermovie.com) on Wednesday night at the Wolf Centre.Teras who is a paraplegic that breeds trains and races sled dogsshowcased a prototype of a race sled that will enable her to competewith more than four dogs in future championships.

“The sled dog world truly brings folks from all walks of lifetogether to help each other cheer each other on and have fun” shesaid.

Koehler’s appreciation extends to race official and eventconsultant Jim Cunningham who came to the forest several times forplanning. There was also all IFSS officials Sarah Warford MurielleGouriou Ovenden Russ Gregory and CAHDS.

Held from Jan. 23 to Feb.1 the event included an openingceremonies and 135 people and more than 890 dogs that competed inskijoring and dogsled races in variety of classes which includedsingle-dog races in seven kilometre sprints up to 20 dogs in the 81kilometre distance. They came from 11 countries such as FinlandSweden Norway Czech Republic the US and even Spain. It concludedwith a closing ceremony.

Being instrumental in getting the championship here wasn’tKoehler’s only victory.

She finished seventh overall and the top North American in theone-dog pulka event on Sunday Jan. 29. It was a goal she set out toachieve entering the event.

Her seventh place finishes in the one-dog pulka and the two-dogskijoring events will go down as her highlights. It put her as thebest North American finisher.

Even a 13th placing in the combined (pulka start then finish withskijoring) event still had her smiling upon recollection. Sheremembers the enjoyable battle with American Jessica Pulliam whichhad them trading positions throughout until she built up aninsurmountable lead down the finishing stretch when the American’sdog had to relieve itself. She finished as the second fastest NorthAmerican. She also finished 19th in the skijoring women one dog eliteclass. Also Koehler competed with Canada in the national relay andfinished seventh despite an understanding she was racing for funwhile on the course. She allowed competitors to pass her because ofthis and knows should could have placed higher.

Koehler’s friend and fellow competitor from Norway Lena BoysenHillestad comes from a family of mushers that have won many trophiesand medals. Her husband and daughter did not make the trip but sheflew with her son André and their four race dogs from Oslo toNewark US where they rented a car and drove to Haliburton.

Both will return home as title holders.

She won her 24th World Championship title in dramatic fashiontaking the sled sprint limited four dog elite race with the fastesttime of two heats after placing fourth on the first day in the sledsprint limited four dog elite.

Her many victories since she has been competing from 1979 havemade her the one to beat. She welcomes this challenge and takes pridein her consistent excellence.

“I’m proud of winning over a long time period. People expectme to win and everyone want’s to beat me all the time. It is quitecool to be able to stay in front” she wrote in an email.

Coincidentally her first world championship was won in 1991 whenshe competed in Winnipeg.

Her son Andre who was born in 2002 joined her on this trip. Hewon the junior four-dogsled race with the best accumulative time ofthree heats.

Although she has never been to the Highlands before she is veryfamiliar with Canada.

She competed in the winter championship in 1991 the drylandequivalent in Quebec in 2009 has family in Vancouver and evenhoneymooned here in 1997.

She will always remember the victory the friendships she forgedand friends she reunited with the good WiFi the bad winter tiressnow scooters and the “great maple syrup.”

Unless it’s close by Koehler is not sure how many more worldchampionships she will be going to in the future. The luxury ofhaving the event in your own backyard where you can sleep in our ownbed will be difficult to duplicate.

“It’s one of the best experiences I’ve had because my familyand friends were here to greet me everyday to see me off and comeback from my races. That was so special” she said.

It’s bitter sweet for the former part time  teacher becauseshe knows she won’t see many of the competitors outside of a worldchampionship.

Koehler plans to race in regional races every week until Marchthis year.

See Koehler compete locally when she plans to race at the upcomingHaliburton HIghlandsDogsled Derby the first weekend of March.

Unlike the bibs in other world championships Koehler appreciatedhow these were localized by including the social media hashtag#myhaliburtonhighlands.

“This is kind of cool for helping … it’s sort of sayingwe’re about tourism and promoting people coming and enjoying thewinter” she said.

Koehler started skijoring in 2004 when she adopted two retiredsleddogs. Later that year she raced in her first competition afterlocal resident Thom Lambert mentioned the opportunity to competewithout experience at the Haliburton Highlands Dogsled Derby. It wasthe start of a passion and a relationship with a community sheconsiders like family.

“That’s the cool thing about our sport. Lots of people come tothe races and haven’t done too much and we give them tips. Theyjust get better from there and get hooked into the circuit and bringthe worlds to their home town” she said.