Every year, people from all over the world convene in a small snowy town in northern Russia for the friendliest and fluffiest of sports events – started by an Orthodox nun in a wheelchair who had an idea... and a dog.
Chances are, you have never heard of Neya. This town in Kostroma Oblast isn't on any tourist routes and was built as a timber outpost. Its population of 9,000 is on the decline, and many of the villages around it are completely abandoned. And yet, every winter the town comes alive for the oldest dog sledding race in European Russia, North Hope, attracting the sport's professionals from across the ocean and racers – known as mushers – from thousands of kilometers away, with their top dogs, of course.
How did this come to pass? We asked Anna Odintsova, one of the North Hope race organizers, to tell us this fascinating story.
It began when Matushka Paraskeva and Father Bartholomew created an Orthodox orphanage, taking in 16 boys from a local municipal orphanage. They had to give the kids something to do, so an Australian benefactor sent them a Siberian husky. Then they took in a malamute from the Moscow region that the owners didn’t want anymore. Paraskeva trained as a dog breeder and launched a kennel. In 2005, the orphanage was visited by an American, Terry Hinesly, an experienced racer, a veteran of Alaska's Iditarod race, who started working with the kids. One day over tea, Terry, Paraskeva and Russian musher Mikhail Bragin came up with the idea of a local race for the kids, so that they could be real dog drivers, flying through the snowy Russian landscapes. In 2007, six people participated for the first time, with the “start” and “finish” signs drawn by children on bedsheets. Since then we've had over 500 participants.
It was not easy, back then there were no middle-distance races in Russia, so we had to work from scratch. Now our team includes people from Russia, US, Canada, Spain, Norway, Italy, and other countries – there is nothing like it, probably in the world.
Participants like the race’s format, it is good for beginners and for veterans. Its status is quite high. Secondly, we bring top professionals into the team of organizers, they are legends in the sport. The event includes seminars and master-classes that racers normally have to chase around the world. Then there is the charity context of the event which makes it bigger than just a race, and the cozy atmosphere, which all participants remark on.
Participants invest a lot of effort into getting to Neya, and only the most passionate people make it. One person comes from the Yamalo-Nenets Okrug, traveling a distance of 3,000 kilometers. It’s only 600 kilometers from Moscow, but it’s a completely different universe, in terms of the faces, the landscape outside, how people speak, and so forth.
North Hope cannot happen anywhere else. This is where winters are still fairly reliable, which is becoming rare. The scenery is spectacular, the silence is musical, and this makes a sports event something bigger than it is. It’s a very kind place, where people go to recharge. But, logistically, it is very difficult both for racers and organizers. The trip is expensive for the racers, when dog-sledding is already an expensive hobby. For us, housing people is becoming more critical every year. If we find funding, we plan to build a house just for this event.
Despite the difficulties, the race has been around for 12 years, which is longer than any other race in the European part of Russia.
There aren’t a lot of mushers in Russia, mostly they survive on their enthusiasm. Mushing requires a huge investment of time and money. In central Russia, it’s hard to find places to train. Many people are in tourism, they organize dogsledding rides, but it’s very difficult. I personally would be happy if it continued as a niche activity, that way we can avoid all the dark sides of big sport. To me it’s not fully a sport, because it’s not really about sport. There is no equivalent in the Russian language for mushing.
When the boys from the orphanage grew up and left to live their separate lives, the kennel continued, but changed into center for dog sledding, which still had a focus on children, but in a more professional way. It has programs in socio-psychological rehabilitation for orphans, for kids born with various conditions. The race now has the status of a race to benefit children, and the participation and housing fees go toward the local orphanage and needs of local disabled kids.
In terms of the route, some of the villages along the way are inhabited, and some are ghost villages. For Neya itself, where nothing ever happens, this is the main event of the year. Locals know the racers by name, they ask in the streets whether “the foreigners have arrived.” They bring various pickled and sweet foods to the start of the race, and show photos from past years. It’s very touching.
But we’ve never had any financial support from the authorities or sponsors, so that also limits the scale. And we have goals other than growth. We love that a mother of a disabled child can come to our event after being ashamed of the child her entire life, and she can stand there and smile. We love that people see how mushers take loving care of their dogs, and then they go home and they give their own pet a rub behind the ear or an extra snack. We show the magic that happens between a musher and his dog, as a metaphor of the link between humans and nature.
The main lesson of mushing is one of love. It’s not about sport. It’s about trust and care about each member of the team.
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