Veteran Yukon musher Frank Turner's team takes off from the chute.

A dog's day in the Yukon

Story and photos by Andrew Cremata

BRAEBURN, YUKON – Its 8 p.m. at Braeburn Lodge on the first day of the world-famous Yukon Quest. I say “world-famous,” but when I lived in Florida I have to admit, I never heard of the thing. In the wide-world of dog sled racing (or is it sled dog racing) the Yukon Quest is second only to the Iditarod in popularity and grandeur.
Everyone has heard of the Iditarod, but I’d bargain few people have ever heard of Braeburn. When I asked the young girl behind the counter what the population of Braeburn was, she said with a chuckle, “three?”
The hub of action in this lonely place is here at the Braeburn Lodge, and they are proud of their cinnamon buns. Indeed, the 2007 Quest Media Guide says of this place, “Famous for its giant cinnamon buns.” There is even a framed photo of an attractive girl proudly displaying one of the confections, as if their mere presence wasn’t tempting enough. One can only imagine the amount of money spent to ship sugar here for the construction of these mighty buns, which are the size of a small dog.

The famous sin bun girl.

But dogs are what this whole event is about. So say the mushers, handlers, race officials and anyone and everyone associated with it. It seems strange then, that the circus of media and spectators who enjoyed the start of the race in Whitehorse some nine hours ago were so focused on the mushers.
“What is it like on the trail? Do you think you have a chance of winning? What composite is the sled made out of?” These were just some of the myriad of questions posed.
The questions didn’t end there. A tourist just walked past me, and I overheard him ask his associate, “When do the northern lights come out, and what color will they be?”
Braeburn Lodge is abuzz with the fact that soon the first musher will arrive. Who will it be? Will he seek shelter in the warmth of the lodge and risk a second barrage of queries all in the same day? Will any of them make sense to someone who has spent the last ten hours in sub-zero temperatures, whipping along at 10 to 14 miles per hour?
I left Skagway this morning at 6:20 a.m. to cover this story for The Skagway News. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder, “What IS the story?” The winner will most likely be determined by the time it goes to print, so detailing the logistics of who’s in first and the speed of their time to the Braeburn checkpoint seems a bit absurd.
So I figured my story would focus on one simple question, “WHY do the mushers race?”
If you ask them point-blank, and I have, they will tell you it is because of their love of the dogs. There are many dog lovers in the world but most do not strap 14 canines to the end of harness to pull them across the frozen wasteland of the north. There has to be something more, something elusive.

Media interview a musher about the straw he's packing, and a dog takes advantage of the shelter of his master's truck before lining up for the 1,000-mile run to Fairbanks.

So I set out with an open mind to see if, through old-school observation, I could figure out why the mushers would brave the elements, bear the outrageous expense and dedication to house and feed a small army of dogs, and spend two weeks in cold that makes the surface of Mars seem balmy.
I stopped for gas at the card-lock just north of Skagway before heading up the pass. A sustained 30 mile-per-hour wind with gusts to 45 made putting 15 gallons of fuel into the truck an extreme outdoor experience. One particularly strong gust lifted particles of gravel and ice from the highway and sent it directly into my face with the sensation of pressing one’s head against a belt sander equipped with 80-grit paper. I was out in it for only a minute and was already freezing. It was 20-degrees Fahrenheit.
At the top of the pass a fat crescent moon floated over Skagway as the first light of day defined and framed the snow-covered peaks. A narrow palette of deep winter blues painted the scene, ethereal, like a dream remembered from the onset of sleep. I turned off the headlights and took a few minutes to take in the view; from the inside of the truck, of course.
I arrived in Whitehorse about 40 minutes before the start of the race. Reporters with expensive cameras touting bazooka-like lenses and fur covered boom microphones were interviewing the mushers while they balanced loads on their sleds and put booties on the paws of the dogs.
One race official was barking at the assembled throng of race enthusiasts, “Clear the area, head to the starting line!” Most ignored her pleas, which made her shout even louder. The more she pointed left, the more people chose to go right. You could see the anger swelling in her eyes.
A hefty man in a white jumpsuit covered with irregular black patches shoved a small woman out of his way en route to a viewing spot near the starting line, practically knocking her over. She shouted a nasty rebuke in his direction and when he turned back to meet her eye he resembled a grazing cow, gazing at a car full of teenagers shouting “MOO” from their open windows.
Richie Beattie, who trains his dogs during the summer in Skagway, was the first to start. As the racers cleared the gate in three minute intervals a pneumatic lift hauled four reporters at a time directly over the chute for a “unique” photograph of the spectacle. Thousands of onlookers cheered in waves as the mushers hurried past. Mushers will maintain an average speed of around 10 miles per hour on the trail, but when they launch from the chute they pour on the speed, like a shell from the barrel of a cannon.
For no apparent reason, one male spectator jumped out into the middle of the trail as Tagish musher Michelle Phillips’s team approached at full velocity. Phillips’s team did not slow down, and with less than a second to spare the man hopped to safety. A woman standing next to me said, “What is he doing?! What an idiot.”
By the time Hugh Neff, who lists Skagway as home, began the race, I had worked my way about a quarter mile away from the starting line in an area more devoid of observers. Neff was the 19th musher in the field of 28 and I yelled out a friendly note of encouragement as he passed. He yelled back, “Hey buddy!” I was glad I knew someone in the crowd of thousands, even if it was for only a second.
After all 28 teams crossed the starting line I decided to check into the hotel. After a prolonged rest it was off to Braeburn traveling along the darkest of snow-packed roads, the North Klondike Highway. Road conditions were good, and I was able to maintain a speed of at least 55 miles per hour.

A man gets out of the chute just in time before being run over by Michelle Phillips’s team.

This is not an acceptable speed for many drivers. Blind curves and rolling hills are no obstacle for the traveler in a hurry. With only 25 minutes left to Braeburn I passed a sign in the shape of a caribou that read, “Caution, Braeburn Caribou Herd.”
A week before Christmas I was traveling home from Whitehorse. Five miles south of Carcross, an entire herd of caribou suddenly appeared from the steep shoulder of the road running at full speed in single file across the highway. I have always had a contingency plan for dealing with an animal in my path while driving, but how to deal with an entire herd of four to seven hundred-pound animals had never crossed my mind. With no time to stop I managed to slow and maneuver the truck in between two of the robust animals, whereupon the one to my left ran directly into the driver’s side of the vehicle with a mighty thump and more than a little damage.
The caribou was dazed, but not seriously hurt. It is well known that a caribou is a wild reindeer, and killing a reindeer right before Christmas would have undoubtedly carried some pretty heavy implications.
I was reliving this story in my mind when I began to notice cars stacking up behind me in my rear view mirror. With only 10 miles left to Braeburn, I counted nine sets of headlights, and they were definitely following too close. I imagined another encounter with a herd of caribou, but this time it would be a lot nastier. The pileup of fur, blood and metal would no doubt lead to an investigation, and the blame would fall squarely on the driver from Skagway who dared travel the speed limit on this wide-open, Canadian highway.
With less than a mile to the lodge, one driver four cars back had had enough, and decided to gun it past me going at least 100. He zipped back into my lane with little room to spare between bumpers. I pulled in the driveway to the lodge not 15 seconds after he did. Those cinnamon buns are just too good to wait for.
Neff pulled into Braeburn about fifteen minutes ago at 9:18 p.m., and the second he came into the lodge three reporters were at his side asking questions. Neff is in first place, so far. After a couple minutes with the reporters he hurried out of the lodge and into this black night sprinkled with fine, glitter-like snow.
After 13 hours here in “Canada’s True North” I think I’m beginning to understand why the mushers choose to race. Sure they love the dogs, that’s a given.

Hugh Neff smiles as he lines up at the starting gate.

But looking back on this weird day full of the thrill of competition and the oddities it attracts, it’s easy to imagine packing up a sled and heading out into that wilderness of wonder.
Imagine taking a couple of weeks away from the noise and chaos of your world, away from the people you meet who can’t see the world, or their human counterparts, beyond the limits of their senses. Imagine that fat moon hovering over a star-filled sky ablaze with northern lights, your team of friends by your side and the sound of sled runners gliding across the snow.
I certainly can’t speak for the mushers, but I imagine the hardest part of the race might be crossing the finish line.

UPDATE – Neff led the pack into Braeburn, but eventually, like 27 others in the race, fell way behind race winner Lance Mackey, who crossed the finish line in Fairbanks early Tuesday afternoon. Despite the cold weather, trail conditions were fast and Mackey shattered the old Quest record by 16 hours. After Dawson, Neff decided to take his time, jockeying spots in the top 10 with Sebastian Schnuelle, who also has mushed summer dogs in Dyea. Schnuelle was the first in, finishing early Wednesday afternoon in seventh place. Neff finished Wednesday night in ninth place. Beattie was about a day behind him. For complete results, see www.yukonquest.com.

Lance Mackey pulled off the unbelievable feat of winning both the Quest and the Iditarod in the same year. Neff took 20th in the Iditarod and Schnuelle was 23rd. For more, see www.iditarod.com.