Before me, there was a sea of small wooden huts. Eighty-five of them, to be precise, each housing a single-engined dynamo with four furry legs. At the moment, they were silent, but in a minute, one began to bark at a swooping raven. Then two. Then, suddenly, 85.
Frank Turner, a diminutive, rosy-cheeked man with a Biblical beard and twinkling eyes, leaned out the door and whistled sharply. The cacophony of woofs abruptly stopped, and the 85 heads turned, eyes longing, ears up and ready.
It was day one of Rookie Ranch at Muktuk Kennels, a six-day program designed to turn stockbrokers into seasoned mushers. It also instills the sense of adventure felt by the thousands who have spilled into the Yukon since gold was discovered at Bonanza Creek more than a century ago.
Above all, it leaves participants with a love of the smallish mix of Siberian husky, Labrador retriever, German shepherd and God knows what else that makes up the so-called Alaskan husky, the premier long-distance racing dog in the world.
Turner came to the Yukon 27 years ago from Toronto after losing a coin toss that, had he won, would have sent him to Mexico. He is the guru of Canadian long-distance mushing and is currently a contender in the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, which got underway last Sunday and is expected to continue through next week.
Turner has logged some 30,000 kilometres over the years in the annual 1,600-kilometre race between Whitehorse and Fairbanks, Alaska. He is the only person to compete in each of its 18 runnings of the event. The Yukon Quest was started in 1984 by a group of mushers annoyed with the emphasis on speed and sponsor-driven commercialism prevalent in the Iditarod, the only other 1,600-kilometre race in the world, which is run each March from Anchorage to Nome in Alaska.
The more difficult Quest follows the route of the goldseekers and crosses more challenging terrain -- including four mountain passes. Emphasizing survival skills and the spirit of adventure, it is called the "toughest race in the world." Few would dispute it.
Turner, or, rather, his dogs, hold the course record, winning the 1995 race in 10 days, 16 hours and 20 minutes. Anne Tayler, his wife and the logistical brains behind an operation that consumes more than 32 kilograms of premium dog food a day, recites the number off the top of her head like it's her social insurance number.
Turner still races -- he is currently on the trail in this year's race -- but now also takes time to teach the art of driving a real racing dog team to newbies at his kennel near Whitehorse. Here, among the dogs, he teaches surgeons from New York City and lawn-implements-dealers from Florida how to stand on a sled, how to tell the lead dogs to turn right ("Gee!"), left ("Haw!") and to stop ("Whoa!"), admitting with a sly grin that the latter command is not well absorbed into the canine lexicon.
The sled, an ash-and-fibreglass toboggan about 1.8 metres long, is strung together with gut to make it flexible and easy to torque around a sharp corner. There is much more, I learned, to riding a sled than merely standing on the runners and reciting The Cremation of Sam McGee. It can also be a contact sport if, rather than watching out for trees, one gets too immersed in the beauty of the landscape.
After my brief lesson, the dogs, which, if you get near their houses, will stand up on their hind legs and hug you endearingly, were put into harnesses. They were then clipped to metre-long ropes called tuglines that vee off a central gang line in pairs so the dogs run in tandem along the trail. They were also attached by shorter necklines that ensure they run in what is more or less a straight line. The sled was held fast in the yard by a secure knot wrapped three times around a stout post. When all eight dogs were in harness, the team stretched out almost as long as a semi-truck and trailer.
By the time all were hooked up, enthusiastic pandemonium reigned in the dog yard. All the dogs were barking, and the rope was jerking against the thrust of 32 eager legs. Turner slipped his knot, and his team vanished through the trees in a cloud of snow. I pulled the end of the rope to undo mine. Slowly, the loops unravelled from the post, and the dogs, gaining purchase, shot forward with a shocking velocity. Before I caught my breath we had cleared the dog yard and were plummeting down a short hill. I stomped on the piece of snowmobile track attached to the back of the sled, which added resistance to slow the team down. There was also a metal bracket that digs into the snow as a brake to stop the team, which I leaned on as well to little impact.
A minute later, we shot out from a poplar grove and dropped down onto the Takhini River, a wide, meandering highway that flows into the Yukon River. Around a bend, Turner was waiting. I pushed down as hard as I could on the brake to stop my team behind his. Not much happened but a scraping sound on the snow and ice. Eventually the team, recognizing the resistance, slowed to a stop. Rocky and Devil, the lead dogs, looked back at me impatiently. Anna and Shilo jumped against their harnesses, anxious to go, as did Chinook and Fox. Tango rolled in the snow, taking mouthfuls.
Rascal barked. Behind us were the mournful howls of the dogs left behind in the yard.
After a thumbs-up signal, we were off again. The dogs were silent, except for the pat of their paws on the snow and the in-unison huff, huff, huff of their breathing. The sun, low on the horizon (as high as it ever gets during the brief Arctic day) cast a warm, yellow light on the hoodoos that line the river and the mountains beyond. It was quiet and breathtaking.
After 40 kilometres, which took about two-and-a-half hours, we were back at the ranch, the dogs' panting faces covered in frost. They eagerly consumed a warm, meaty broth before retiring to their houses for a nap.
Dinner, followed by a sauna, was in a beautiful, if not quite finished log home (it was built last fall), about 35 kilometres north of Whitehorse off the Alaska Highway. Off the telephone and electrical grid, the Turners' power comes from solar panels and a generator, and communication to the rest of the world is by fixed cell phone. There are volumes by Ezra Pound and Robert Browning lining the walls, a testament to Anne's passion for literature (among the negotiations with sponsors, ordering medical supplies and booking canine acupuncture sessions, she also teaches English literature at Yukon College). The tomes are punctuated, not surprisingly, by books such as The Dynamics of Canine Gait and The Merck Veterinary Manual.
Guests can stay in rooms at the house, or in one of several comfortable cabins dotting the perimeter of the dog yard. The level of participation in the kennel is voluntary, and guests are encouraged to help feed the dogs and even, if the urge strikes, to grab a shovel and scoop. (Needless to say, with 85 dogs, there is a lot of scooping to be done.) As part of the package, one night is spent sleeping in a tent in the middle of a two-day guided excursion by dog team. Outerwear and boots are provided.
"Generally we can do enough to keep people warm," Turner quips.
"It really embodies what we feel is the spirit of adventure," Mark Falconer, a futures broker from London, says of the program. He and his friend Jonathon Glassock, who also works in the city's financial district, have returned to Muktuk for the second year in a row. "A lot of people think about it, but it's great to actually do it," he adds.
"What we like is for people to experience what a dog team really feels like, but always so the person feels that they have a sense of control," Turner says. All potential rookies need is a love of the outdoors, and, more important, the willingness to return the affection of the dogs, he says. "The common starting point is a love of dogs. We basically treat them like kids."
For details of the Rookie Ranch dogsledding introduction package (four to six days) and a number of other dog-team tours, contact Muktuk Kennels at P.O. Box 5471, Whitehorse, Yukon, phone (867) 633-4060 or (867) 393-1799, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; Web http://www.muktuk.com. A six-day Rookie Ranch & Takhini Trail tour will be offered Feb. 24 and March 3, 10 and 17. The price for each of two or three people is $2,200. The single supplement is $600. For Yukon Tourism information, go to http://www.touryukon.com.