Carlton Boyce tries dog sledding for the first time, and finds it affects him on a level he wasn’t expecting.
It’s as though God had just discovered the saturation level in Photoshop, and got a bit carried away; here in Fish Lake it’s so bright and clear and vivid that the landscape is hyper-real, and unrealistically bright and colourful. The light’s too brittle to be sustainable, but for now it’s the sort of day that lives with you for a while, makes you glad to be alive and outside and breathing the bitterly cold air deep into your lungs.
It helps that it isn’t too cold: while Whitehorse is shivering in temperatures nudging -40ºC, a cloud inversion here in the mountains at the Sky High Wilderness Ranch has raised that to only -25ºC. Admittedly, it had felt unfeasibly cold until only a couple of days ago; man is an adaptable beast, and I’m now walking around with my parka unzipped and bare hands, glad to be away from the chill of the capital.
I’m here to drive a dog sled. While those teams on the Yukon Quest use up to 14 dogs, I’ll be using just four. The speed freak in me feels cheated, a little sore at having a tourist’s team rather than something I could wrangle into something resembling an old timer’s mail run.
Morgan, our guide and teacher, is a small, scrappy Frenchman. He runs everywhere, and hurls himself into a deep bank of snow at one point to take a photograph of us passing by. He revels in the cold and the snow and the sheer joy of being outdoors, fizzing with excess energy. Instructions are machine-gunned at us, punctuated with frequent checks; “alright?” is his catchphrase and it quickly became my nickname for him. He is an exhausting bundle of energy and impatience in an impossibly trim frame.
He is a sled dog in human form.
“Bend ze knees and lean into the corners,” he says, and it is one of the few instructions I take in. The problem is my four dogs are howling and barking and straining against the lines. Slight and lean, they are a motley bunch. I couldn’t name a breed, but blue and grey eyes are common. All are, in the words of legendary musher Hugh Neff with whom I’d shared a few beers in a bar in Dawson City a few nights previously, “high quality athletes.”
Bred to run and only to run, they can be destructive and high-maintenance when doing anything else. Chained to their kennels they’ll run round and round, polishing fresh snow into hard, slippery ice within minutes. Friendly to a fault, they’ll accept a hug and a pat but explode when they see another dog being readied for a run. Nothing, not even food, means more to them than running.
Although they only move at around ten miles an hour, they’ll do that until they drop. Quite literally; the musher’s chief responsibility is to their dogs, and one of their main concerns is to prevent the dogs from running too hard and for too long.
The only other instruction I remember is to hold on to the sled no matter what. They’ll run without you, I was told, and it’ll be a long walk back.
That won’t be a problem, I think. Four dogs; how hard can that be?
Mine is a team of two halves. The two black and tan dogs are larger than the average, and run with a hunched back using a strange, crablike diagonal motion. It isn’t pretty, but by hell it adds power to the sled.
The other dogs are a small bitch, so light in colour as to be almost white, and an equally small black male dog. She’s on the front right, and he’s harnessed into the opposite diagonal. She’s the lead dog, whip-smart and agile; her job is to lead the team and to set the pace. The black dog seems, at first, a little lazy. He’ll frequently let his line go slack and run with the sort of lope you know he could maintain for hours.
And yet, you forgive him his slack line when he looks back with a goofy smile and pours on the power. If the two black-and-tan dogs are the engine, and the white bitch is the steering wheel, he is the turbocharger. He doesn’t deploy his considerable power very often, but when he does the sled surges ahead with the raw energy he transmits through it.
His heart and spirit made me fall in love with him from the very beginning. His willingness to put his shoulders into the harness and pull like a demon gives the others dogs a boost of morale boost and we fly along, screaming across the frozen lake. I’m not ashamed to say I am overcome with the sheer joy of it all; the heart and spirit of the dogs, the super-saturated colours, the lung-crippling wind-chill, the sheer weight of centuries of struggle in these very same conditions, in this very same place, using much the same equipment brings such a surge of emotion that tears stream down my cheeks.
I feel fucking alive!
Until I fall off.
I get cocky, you see. I thought we’d bonded, the dogs and me, and I take my eyes off them for a moment. I look around to soak in the landscape and don’t see the corner coming. The first I know of it is when the dogs take a racing line that is at least 18 inches further in than the one I would chose. Better mushers than me steer their dogs by shifting their weight and spoken commands, but us rookies just hang on for dear life and put their faith in the team. Even experienced outdoorsmen and women trust their dogs’ instincts, and all can tell of times when the dogs veered off course to avoid river overflow hidden beneath a thin veneer of snow.
So, we clip a non-existent apex and plough into deep snow. The sled bucks me off and I manage to grab a runner with one gloved hand. The extra resistance of my 200lbs tilling its way through fresh powder is enough to slow them, just a little, and that allows me to climb back on.
We continue to race across the frozen landscape. The sled flies over even the smallest of humps before it lands with a loud, flat slap. It is more like standing in the stern of a powerboat than any sledging I have ever done before. Morgan’s exhortation to “bend ze knees and lean into the corners” starts to make sense. Amidst the noise and the cold and the violence I start to be able to dissect what is happening, to understand the immediacy of cause and effect when you have four bundles of sinew and muscle pulling you with no regard to your amateur status.
The first thing I learn is that a slack line means GO! Sled dogs are binary creatures, and life is either running or it’s not. There’s no subtlety to ‘em as a rule, either. They’ll give you their all and a slack line means they aren’t working as hard as they can so they’ll pour more effort in, which adds even more speed. That means that when you hit something (and as a rookie you will…) the subsequent impact is a product of the mass of the sled multiplied by the square of your speed; if you kill the speed then the impact falls away exponentially.
I also learn to feather the brake with the heel of my right foot. The working brake, the equivalent of the foot brake in your car, is a mat with spikes in it and I am soon modulating my speed as we stream along. Eventually, I even manage to trail brake into the bends, pivoting the rear of the sled about the point of my braking foot.
Too soon, we’re home. Coming to a halt takes a combination of shouted commands and my full weight on the brake. We eventually come to a halt, but only just.
And when we stop, a ground anchor is deployed into the ice-solid ground. I need to keep my foot on it otherwise these four dogs will pull it straight out of the ground no matter how well it is planted. My run has lasted around three-quarters of an hour and while it leaves me exhausted, for the dogs it’s nothing more than a little jaunt that just about takes the edge off. Like a crack addict, too much is never enough. The sled bucks and heaves as they pull and strain and snap at snow to kill their thirst. Like a boat’s rigging in the wind, the lines hum and vibrate with impatience.
I recuperate in the warm, and strong black coffee adds to my adrenaline jitters. Jocelyne LeBlanc, ex-Yukon Quest musher and a partner in the kennels, is in there too, so I take the opportunity to pick her brains.
She tells me of her time mushing, and of the people who helped her. The willingness to help each other seems to be the thread that runs through the sport; while races like the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest are competitive events, the brutal climate and very real risks involved mean that competitors are more than willing to help each other out, to offer encouragement and assistance wherever it is needed.
Lance Mackey, the first person ever to win both the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod in the same year, took the time to wish her good luck in her first event in 2010. Hans Gatz, four-time winner of the Quest and the man many consider to be the best sled-builder in the world, heard that she was struggling in the same race and used some of his precious spare time at the halfway point in Dawson City to write her a letter to tell her that she could do it, that she could finish what is widely accepted as being the toughest dog sled race in the world. That meant a lot, she said, and was a factor in her carrying on. “Everyone helps everyone else out,” she told me. “Even if they are winning.”
The volunteers, who give their time to man the checkpoints, were a source of inspiration to her too. “They make you forget you had a shitty run,” she says, with a smile. Jocelyn didn’t only finish the race, she was given the Challenge of the North Award for her performance.
She believes that being a female doesn’t matter at all, and that the challenge the Yukon Quest provides is as much mental as physical. She tells me of one highly successful musher and multiple Iditarod winner who said he will never enter the Yukon Quest again: “He said he just felt so alone.”
She worries too about the impact social media has had on people’s opinion of the race. She talks about the struggle that she and other mushers have in maintaining the sport’s good reputation, a reputation that takes a battering whenever a dog dies. She reinforces the fact that the musher’s job is to protect the dogs from themselves; as I saw, they just want to run and the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest is even more brutal on them than it is on the musher.
With three summits to climb and a thousand miles to cover in nine or ten days, pacing yourself is essential. The dogs wear booties to protect their feet from the snow and ice and are fed high-protein diets. The mandatory 36-hour rest stop in Dawson City is more for the benefit of the dogs than it is the mushers. Veterinary surgeons examine them at regular intervals, and Jocelyne tells me that it has been 15 years since a vet found a dog that wasn’t in a good condition. Sometimes mushers withdraw of their own accord; they love their dogs, and disqualification for animal abuse is a possibility – and anyone subject to that would find it very hard to race again.
Nonetheless, no matter how careful the mushers are, dogs will die during the race, and that’s as heart-breaking for the mushers as it is for the activists.
My time with a team of dogs lasts less than two hours, yet that brief period gave me just the slimmest insight into the life of the musher, and the bond between them and their dogs.
It’s a life that is in peril, the mushers caught between the twin evils of social media activists and a rapidly changing climate – and while the former can be combated through ever-increasing standards of care and learning to be more media savvy, the latter is out of their control.
Jocelyne tells of summiting Rosebud Ridge in the White Mountains in Alaska back in 2010. She tells of finding pieces of sled that had broken off, and even a GPS tracker shaken loose, both casualties of a mountain bereft of its usual covering of snow. Indeed, while I was there in 2019, one stage was abandoned altogether because the conditions underfoot were just too poor to be able to guarantee the safety of the dogs.
But, for now, the race is still on. The dogs and their mushers left a lasting impression on me. Opportunities to challenge oneself in such a hostile environment are becoming few and far between, and that it is still possible is cause for celebration.
Carlton Boyce @motoringjourno
Cover photo copyright Stefan Wackerhagen