Jamaica’s dogsled program is in need of a substantial infusion of cash to sustain the country’s annual participation on the international winter circuit.
Short distance musher, Damion Robb and his trainer Ken Davis, who have been coming to Ontario since 2009, are concerned that this might be their last season together.
They were in Cannington two weeks ago for the Brock Township’s eighth annual dogsled races and winter festival.
“I have really enjoyed being on the international circuit and I am still hopeful that sponsors will step to the table and keep us going,” said Robb who began mushing six years ago after graduating from Marcus Garvey Technical High School. “Everywhere I go, people are fascinated about the program and the fact that I am participating in a cold weather sport even though I am from a warm country like Jamaica.
“In addition to competing, I see myself as an ambassador of Jamaica because people are always coming up to me asking about the country. This has been a great opportunity to promote Jamaica.”
Robb saw snow for the first time in 2006 when he went to Minnesota to train with dogs from the Elfstone Kennel owned by Ken and Donna Davis.
“Damion has come a long way and it will be terribly unfortunate if he cannot compete outside of Jamaica because of budgetary constraints,” said Davis. “I have been as generous as I can with money over the past few years, but I can only go so far.”
Singer/songwriter Jimmy Buffet has been the dogsled program’s biggest supporter. The sport is expensive and the annual budget for travel, professional trainers and dog teams is nearly US$200,000.
Buffet and some of the financial backers have cut back their level of sponsorship while WestJet, which provided airfares for the mushers to travel between Canada and Jamaica for the last three years, severed its financial support this year.
“Because of the economic downturn, we have lost almost 50 per cent of our funding this season,” said Jamaica Sleddog Federation (JSF) administrator, Tricia Ruddock.
Oswald “Newton” Marshall, who in 2010 completed the arduous 1,161-mile Iditarod event, is taking a break from racing this season. He finished 44th in the 72-man race that starts on the first Saturday in March in Anchorage and ends in Nome two weeks later.
Three years ago, Marshall was the first Black musher to enter the Yukon Quest, considered the toughest dogsled event in the world. He was 13th in the gruelling race run over 11 days and 1,000 miles of frozen wasteland between Whitehorse in Yukon and Fairbanks in Alaska in extreme frigid temperatures. Thirteen of the 29 starters failed to finish the event.
Marshall’s incredible accomplishments inspired a 45-minute documentary, Underdog, chronicling his rise from humble beginnings in rural Jamaica as a horseback ride ‘n’ swim tour guide at Chukka Caribbean Adventures, and a book – One Mush: Jamaica’s Dogsled Team – was released in Toronto in December 2010.
Chukka Caribbean Adventures founder Danny Melville introduced Jamaicans to dogsledding following a shopping trip to Edmonton for dune buggies seven years ago.
Because of financial restrictions, Robb’s season has been slashed from nine races to just four. In addition to Cannington, he competed in Haliburton last month, finishing second in the four and six-dog sprints, and in last week’s Mamora Snofest in central southern Ontario. The final stop on the Canadian circuit is Kearney in Parry Sound.
Davis said Robb has improved every year to the point where he’s highly competitive in the sport.
“Damion is coachable and he has excellent work habits,” said Davis. “He has also developed a great rapport with his fellow mushers and the dogs and that’s very important…It took me years to become good in a sled and Damion has done so in a very short period. He’s one of the better sledders out there.”
Contemplating joining the Jamaica Defence Force after graduating from high school, Robb was drawn to Chukka after seeing a company advertisement on TV promoting dogsledding. Three days after submitting his application, he was called in for an interview and hired to work with dogs from a Jamaica shelter that are used to pull a wheeled cart with tourists seeking fun in the sun offered by Chukka which is considered the Caribbean’s leading land-based nature adventure tour provider.
“I have always loved animals since I grew up around dogs and cows that my father raised,” said Robb, the father of a four-year-old daughter.
The Ocho Rios resident made a seamless transition to racing dogs overseas after Melville – who owns Chukka – with the support of Buffet established the JSF that is affiliated to the International Federation of Sled Dog Sports and the International Sled Dog Racing Association.
The dogs the sledders use in Jamaica are unable to withstand North America’s cold weather. In addition, Jamaica’s quarantine laws prevent dogs leaving the country to re-enter. This means that the JDA has to lease animals abroad.
Robb said he has enjoyed coming to Canada even though he has been unable to race in Cannington in the past three years because of insufficient snow.
“Canada is definitely one of my favourite stops because the people here are so warm, welcoming and engaging,” he added.
Interested sponsors can contact Ruddock at email@example.com.
By RON FANFAIR