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The Team – One man and his dog

A pair of sled dogs readying for the off . One has already decided to take the easy option. Carbon Hill race, January 2014. (Photo credit - Mie Hayashida).

By: Peter Ion

As a teenager growing up within an hour’s drive of the fells of England’s Lake District, Tuesday evenings always meant ‘one man and his dog’ on BBC2. Thirty years on, the program, in which a sheepdog, in response to its offscreen owners’ assorted whistles, would coral a flock of Swaledales or Herdwicks into their distant pen, finally left the airwaves. The British may have temporarily lost their fascination for canine-centric programming, but there is little to suggest that Yukoners’ passion for anything on four legs is in any way dimmed. Substitute the sheep for a sled, and when January’s darkness comes to town, mushing fever can be heard ramping up across the Territory. Yukoners love their dogs.

I got a glimpse of this on my first July afternoon here in the Yukon, back in the summer of 1984, when the absence of snow was but a trifling detail to the mushers of our capital city, their teams equipped with wheels for a rapid transit of Second Avenue as part of the annual Canada Day celebrations. That very same year the Yukon Quest had completed its inaugural run over a distance equivalent to a route linking England with Africa. Negotiating French hills and vales however would be walk in the park compared to what the dogs must endure of some the harshest conditions north of sixty.

The Sourdough Rendezvous would lose the majority of its authenticity were the event to bypass its own equivalent of Best in Show in the main tent, or the chance for spectators to motivate their canine participants in hauling flour-laden sleds those crucial ten metres. There’s only one thing a Yukoner respects more than a dog, and that’s a competitive dog. Turn- of-the-Century Sourdoughs were required to equip themselves with a ton of provisions before being allowed to trek the hazardous Chilkoot Pass with the lure of gold ahead of them. Well-trained dog teams in the north have been known to manage double that load with the promise of nothing more than a meal of Redpaw supplemented with some local salmon.

Dog-sledding was traditionally-absent from the Sochi Games this year and is still in part burdened with the image of the horrific and inhumane cull of 56 animals in the immediate aftermath of the Vancouver-Whistler Games four years ago. Sledding’s competitive origins probably predate its one and only appearance as a demonstration event at Lake Placid in 1932 with the Olympic Games having introduced demonstration skijoring four years earlier.

The 1925 Serum Run to Nome was a trail-breaking event that brought sledding to prominence (replicated in part now with the annual Alaskan Iditarod race). Visitors to New York’s Central Park may have seen the statue of local lead dog Balto, controversially credited with anchoring the longest leg of the relay of twenty dog teams that delivered the precious diphtheria antidote to the coastal Alaskan town, mostly along the Yukon River.

Both the city of Nome and the river that bears our Territory’s name (and by extension the Yukon Quest dogsled event) are now demonstrating susceptibility to a different threat. Unseasonably warm weather is triggering coastal erosion in the Yukon River delta, and the rearrangement of the Quest’s finish line this year, away from the River.

The team preparing for the off at the Carbon Hill Race, January 2014 (Photo credit - Miyuki Kato).
The team preparing for the off at the Carbon Hill Race, January 2014 (Photo credit
– Miyuki Kato).

The success of the historic serum run introduced animals to the pages of history. Where else would you learn about the contribution of Fut-bucker (an Inuit name), Honkertonker, Gandalf (twelve years before the fictional wizard was written of by Tolkein), John Wayne (five years before The Duke was cast in his first starring role ), Elvis ( ten years before The King’s birth ) and Putin (about 85 years before any Russian leader was ever aware of the photo-opportunities of wrestling a Samoyed bare-chested) ?  No-one could ever accuse the mushing community of lacking foresight.

I recently cabin-sat for the support crew of local man Norman Cassavant who was first out of the gate at this year’s Yukon Quest from Fairbanks. The Whitehorse-based forester sadly had to scratch from this year’s event due to a viral infection within his team of mixed breed Alaskans. His prudence reminded me of the adage of the professional alpinist – when asked why they even want to climb, its simply ‘because it is there’. When asked why participate in dog-mushing, one recent Quest competitor allegedly replied ‘I have no car’. Rarely can sheer practicality rub shoulders with adventurous opportunism so comfortably.

Anyone interested in getting an introduction to the sport could do worse than make their way out to events such as the Carbon Hill race held annually in mid-January out in the Mount Lorne Subdivision. Celebrating its twentieth year this year, and including ten-mile and thirty-mile options, the event was won by Cassavant in 2012. That year another Mount Lorne resident became to date the first and only Japanese woman to complete the Quest, at her fourth attempt. Yuka Honda, also a lead guide with a Whitehorse adventure tourism outfit has gone on record admitting that the dogs are like her children, as she has been training with them for so long. Her Company President, Arctic Range’s Felix Geithner, also started out as a musher before handing in the reins, literally and figuratively, to experienced handlers such as Honda.

Yukon mushing may never command an audience of eight million adherents like the televised sheepdog triallists from England’s Lakeland, but the Southern Lakes region of this Territory is prime ground for breeding an interest in the sport, its human and canine characters and its in-bred idiosynchracies. For me, a week out near one of the Annie Lake kennels was enough to pique the interest, especially when night falls, the symphonic howling ramps up and you begin to piece together the images of a fourteen- strong team of unpunishable Siberian huskies pulling an ice-encrusted musher into a remote cabin checkpoint under a fading headlamp at minus forty in the dead of winter.

Its not for nothing that the Yukon Quest frequently outvies the Alaskan Iditarod for the title of the most grueling sporting event on earth. Yukoners and their dogs in perfect synchrony, especially when viewed on a forty inch flatscreen with a measure of something malty in front of a crackling woodburner – the ultimate Yukon experience for this transplanted sheep-dog trial enthusiast.

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