Héléna learns about the amazing Huskies of Canada’ North — and tries out a bit of dogsledding. Mush anyone?
Panda got fresh with me before we’d even been introduced. The black and white husky had just finished wolfing down supper at Muktuk Kennels just outside Whitehorse. I was trying to hang his food dish on the post in front of his doghouse when the exuberant Alaskan husky jumped up, threw his front paws around my neck and tried to slip me the tongue.
He’s one of more than 100 Alaskan huskies that former Yukon Quest champion Frank Turner and his wife own. The annual 1,600-kilometre race between Whitehorse and Fairbanks each February is dubbed the “toughest sled dog race in the world.” It travels along frozen rivers, through isolated villages and over four mountain ranges.
Turner and his team of 14 four-legged athletes participated 24 times. They won the race in 1995 with a record-setting time of 10 days, 16 hours and 20 minutes.
Now, wannabe mushers at Turner’s Rookie Ranch can learn to care for and run dog teams during a multi-day stay. Participants help feed the dogs, learn how to harness them, put on little booties to protect their paws, drive a dog team and bond with their canine teammates.
You can tell Turner is a former social worker. “It’s not just about taking care of the dogs’ physical needs,” he says. “You have to have a bunch of happy campers emotionally.” Panda is one really happy guy.
Inside the garage each morning and night, we mixed chicken fat, horsemeat, zinc and kibble in a bucket for the dogs. The horsemeat’s protein helps their muscles, the chicken fat is good insulation against the cold, and zinc helps their fur and paws. Like the pizza guy for the canine set, we then headed outside to make doghouse-to-doghouse deliveries. Clutching a bowl, I danced around Katrina who, like the hurricane she is named after, nearly knocked me over as I tried to put her dinner down on the snowy ground.
As I learned during my driving lessons, this mode of transportation is more whimsical than a car. Mushers stand on wooden runners on the back of the sled and grip a horizontal bar. They shift their weight to control the sled’s direction as it rounds corners and bends in the trail. A rubber plate between the runners serves as a brake. The dogs are hooked up to the gangline, which is the physical thread that keeps the team together.
The sled was tied to a post inside the yard as we harnessed up our team of six dogs. Ella and Duchess stood in the lead, with Allie and Anna behind them, and Rudy and Vanek immediately in front of the sled. Around us, the yard was enveloped in a cacophony of dogs barking: “Pick me! Pick me!” These working dogs are genetically programmed to run.
Once the team was ready, we untied the sled and yanked the snow hook out of the snow. Forget about calling out “mush, mush” to get going. A cheerful “Let’s go!” is enough to hit the gas pedal on these canines. “Stand on the brake as you leave the yard because those dogs can fly,” my guide explained. He wasn’t kidding.
The dogs took off down the trail toward the Takhini River. As I stood on the back of the sled, I sucked in my breath and hoped that I could stay upright as I manoeuvred down a hill and around corners. Within seconds, the canine concerto of barking dogs stopped. There was nothing but the sounds of the sled on the snow as we flew down the trail. I exhaled with relief after navigating a hill, a couple of curves and zipped down the riverbank.
Posts along the river marked the trail. Like a student driver, I tried to shift my weight back and forth while standing on the runners to make sure we stayed on the trail and slid between the posts. “Gee” (like the letter “G”) sends a team going to the right, “haw” takes us left.
I gained confidence in my skills as the week progressed, and bonded with my all-girl team of Ella, Duchess, Allie, Anna and I. Before leaving the kennel my last day, I made the rounds to visit my teammates a final time. Duchess stretched out for a belly rub and then emerged from her doghouse to give me a goodbye kiss. I won’t be running the Yukon Quest anytime soon, but I want to test my newfound skills; it has nothing to do with being kissed by a dog. I swear.