THE announcement, in both English and French, is made above the yelps and howls of maybe a thousand dogs: ``Ginger Dunlap to the starting line.'' The petite, dark-haired woman, who looks half the age you'd expect for a mother of adult children, moves the sled forward and brakes it in place. The countdown begins. It's a mere 10-second wait, but for the eight dogs up front, barking, whining, and straining furiously against the harness, it must seem like an eternity. Finally the signal is given, the brakes are released, and the team is off. In an instant the dogs, noisy for so long, are silent, totally committed to only one thing: pulling a sled and its rider across a winding, snow-covered course as fast as possible.
Mrs. Dunlap's husband, Harris, sums up the moment with a simple comment: ``Born to run,'' he says of these remarkable canine athletes.
The scene is the annual Alpo International Sled-Dog Championships here at the resort town of Saranac Lake, N.Y., but it's repeated at a dozen or more major events and in hundreds of minor meets all across North America each year. Increasingly, too, sled-dog racing is becoming organized on a worldwide basis. Even European countries with no tradition of working sled dogs are entering the racing scene. The Swiss are major competitors, and the British have a fledgling association.
Between them, the Dunlaps have racked up most of the honors in their sport. Both are fiercely competitive. But first and foremost they are breeders and trainers of some of the fastest sled dogs in the world. On this occasion, in fact, winning is of secondary importance. Ginger's time for the 10-mile course is a few seconds over 35 minutes, which the former North American seven-dog champion dismisses almost with contempt, though it has placed her exactly midway among the 36 entries.
What the Dunlaps most wanted from this run, they've gotten: a good test of the potential of their dogs. ``We have a wonderful lead dog in the making,'' Ginger tells Harris as they water the panting team.
This run has been made with as many ``pups'' as experienced dogs. A pup is full grown and almost at full strength - but inexperienced. While the owner has done all the basic training, the final polishing is done when the young dog runs alongside an experienced ``pro.'' He or she learns by mimicking the older dog.
In sled-dog racing no distinction is made between sexes of either the dogs or the drivers. The female dog is as fast, strong, and athletic as the male running beside her, and while a man's greater strength in controlling the dogs may be an advantage, a woman's lighter weight is a help.
Home for the Dunlaps, and anywhere between 100 and 170 sled dogs, is 80 acres of Adirondack Mountain country near Bakers Field, N.Y. The couple moved here in 1969 and founded Zero Kennels. At the time, they both had top-flight credentials as artists and art teachers, but minimal to nonexistent dog-raising skills. The name of their kennels was prompted by the often prevailing winter temperatures of the region and by the fact that they ``started from nowhere,'' as Mr. Dunlap puts it.
It has been suggested since then that at the very least they should now call their place Zero Plus, considering how far they have come in the past 18 years. Zero Kennel dogs have a wide-ranging reputation for speed and stamina. Dunlap dogs race in every country in Europe, as well as all across North America. The most recent export, a lead dog, went to Gerdi Stern of Geneva, currently the leading points scorer on the European circuit.
Harris Dunlap had never seen a husky in the flesh when the idea of owning one occurred to him. In 1961, he watched a parade in his hometown of St. Johnsville, N.Y., that featured a team of huskies, and the idea was sealed. He and his wife bought two females. A year later, he came across a World War II sled of the type used to ferry munitions across the French Alps, and he bought it for $50, ``which was more than I could easily afford at the time,'' he recalls. It was midsummer, but ``I was so eager to use it,'' he says, ``that I fitted some wheels, hooked up my dogs, and wove down the road pumping the sled like a scooter. I looked like an idiot, but I was elated.''
Dunlap knew he was getting somewhere a few years later when he placed second with a two-dog team in an event for 10-dog teams. Since then he has been a consistent performer, winning all of the top honors at one time or another, including both the Anchorage and Fairbanks championships. But the triumph he prizes most came in 1982, when he flew his team to within 50 miles of the Arctic Circle to the Athabascan Indian village of Tanana, Alaska.
``It wasn't the first time an outsider had brought in a team,'' Dunlap recalls, ``but it was the first time anyone did so and won!''
In those regions that fringe the Arctic Circle, man's close bond with dogs goes back 4,000 years. Eskimos, Indians, and Arctic nomads built their family structures around the sled dog. The dogs were used in hunting, trapping, and for hauling wood and other supplies. They were, in effect, family members, guardians, rescuers, workers - key factors in man's ability to survive the harsh conditions.
The Athabascan way of life still demands an intimate relationship with dogs. As Dunlap says, snowmobiles break down the way dogs never do, and there are no convenient gas stations in the far north.
The Dunlaps' breeding stock began with their first two females, bought in New York State, and Silver, a male from an Alaskan village which Dunlap describes as a ``metabolic wonder.'' He knew he had bought well, but had no idea how well.
To this foundation the Dunlaps have added Siberian huskies - dogs originally bred so that the Tehuktchi Indians could outrun the czar's men whenever the need arose - and various strains of northern working dogs, along with a little Saluki blood and a touch of greyhound. The latter two had to be bred back, ``polarized,'' Dunlap calls it, to withstand the cold. Today, the curved back of those gazehound breeds is a barely discernible characteristic of all Dunlap dogs.
What Zero Kennel dogs are not are the furry, fluffy creatures often associated with cold-tolerant breeds. Like human marathon runners, they are lean, and light but well muscled, and their ribs show. Dunlap likens them to human long-distance runners, but with far more endurance. They are, in his words, ``tough, tough athletes. My dogs have run [in competition] 10 times between 10 and 15 miles in the last five weeks, and this weekend they're going to [race] three 15s in a row, and there are some 30-milers later in the season. Humans can never do that. Nor can racehorses.''
To get this sort of performance from a dog, training must begin early. As tiny puppies they are played with, fondled, and loved. They are taught that human beings ``are the best.'' It's a bond that lasts, a friendship that responds positively in later years to every call of encouragement from the driver.
The Dunlaps know every one of their more than 100 dogs by name, and never resort to a whip in training. A sharp command and a pointed finger is generally all that is needed to tell a dog its behavior is unacceptable. But an isolated face-to-face tongue lashing in ``less-than-couth'' terms, as Dunlap puts it, may be needed. On these occasions, the dog reared on the encouraging shouts of ``good boy'' or ``good girl'' knows the feeling of shame.
Conditioning involves running the dogs almost daily on the exercise wheel and pulling a sled (a wheeled rig in summer) several times a week. On these runs, the Zero Kennel dogs will routinely average 17 to 18 miles an hour, occasionally reaching 25 m.p.h., times they readily equal and often surpass in competition.
Before each race the driver worth his salt walks down his team, encouraging, patting, and ruffling the fur of each dog. It's an important part of race preparation. Dunlap describes it as ``a sort of pep talk by the coach,'' and the pleasurable response of each dog is obvious. When the race is over the interplay of affection is repeated.
That's what a good sled dog lives for: the praise of his owner ... and the sheer love of running.