Business prize has gone to the dogs

Famed Yukon musher Frank Turner looks out over his front yard, littered with doghouses a couple of metres apart. Chained to each one is a husky, snoozing lazily in the sun.

Famed Yukon musher Frank Turner looks out over his front yard, littered with doghouses a couple of metres apart. Chained to each one is a husky, snoozing lazily in the sun.

He tells the story of how one of them, Blaize, was once impregnated by a 12-and-a-half year old male who had lost a hind leg to cancer.

“What trouble do you figure he could get into?”

The staff are careful to segregate females in heat, but accidents can happen.

While telling the story, Turner yells “Blaize!” His voice projects over the yard. The dog resting on top of the house with “BLAIZE” painted on the side jumps up, alert, head turned in our direction. No other dog so much as twitches.

“They all know their names.”

Muktuk Adventures was named business of the year at the recent Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce annual awards dinner.

The guest ranch and tour company has been built over the past 18 years by Frank Turner and Anne Tayler.

Turner credits the success, of course, to the dogs.

“We have this business to take care of the dogs. We don’t have dogs to make a business.”

Taking care of 117 dogs, the current count, is no small task.

Food for his team costs $50,000 annually, he said.

And his veterinarian, who specializes in acupuncture and other homeopathic remedies, sends annual bills of $25,000 to $30,000.

Forty of the dogs are retired because of age, illness, disability or simply because “occasionally you get a dog that doesn’t quite understand that if they’re in a team, they’re supposed to pull,” said Turner.

He doesn’t sell dogs, but occasionally adopts them out, if you can prove that you’ll care for the animal up to his standards.

It’s a “lifestyle business,” said Turner. The goal is not to make money but simply bring in enough revenue to support the life that he and his wife have built for themselves.

And so, for that reason, Turner and Tayler invite guests year-round into their Ibex Valley home on the banks of the Takhini River.

Dog tours range from wandering the yard visiting with the huskies to full-blown winter expeditions.

Accommodations include camping, cabins, and a lodge-style B&B.

Recently, Muktuk has started to offer “taste of the Yukon” lunch and dinner experiences, featuring bison, caribou, elk and Arctic charr.

The hope is that more Yukoners will think to come out and bring visiting family and friends, especially in the summer months when dog sledding is not available.

Turner, who has run the Yukon Quest 24 times and won it once, never had a plan to become a musher.

The Toronto native ended up in the Yukon by accident, on a coin flip.

In 1973 he was finishing a master’s degree in social work and planning a vacation with a friend.

She wanted to visit some friends in the Yukon; he wanted to go to Mexico.

“We flipped the coin, it wasn’t two-out-of-three, I lost.”

On the drive back to Ontario, he already knew that he would be back.

“I was going through Sudbury, and those smokestacks and those slag heaps. I don’t think I’d ever used the word epiphany before, but I just had this strong inner sense about going back. It was never about ‘add up the pluses and add up the minuses.’ It was totally an emotional thing.”

It started with two dogs and a cabin on Squatter’s Row. Then he adopted a third, as a favour to a friend. She happened to be pregnant, and three became eight.

“I learned how to sew harnesses, I bought a book. I found an old sled that could, I think, accurately be called an historical artifact.

“I just used to use the dogs for getting my water from McLean Lake and hauling firewood.”

The dogs also proved useful to Turner’s career as a social worker working in Yukon’s communities.

He remembers pulling into Ross River, or Mayo, or Teslin, always with eight dogs in the back of a car with the seats ripped out.

“In the beginning, it would be the old people. They would all want to share their stories about how their life was growing up with dogs. Once I made friends and built a relationship with the older people, then dealing with the chief and councils and other people in the community wasn’t so very difficult.”

To this day, his connection to people in the communities remains a significant part of his identity, said Turner.

“The dogs were the ones that did that. I’ve seen social workers, police, nurses and teachers go to the communities, and they can have a very rough time trying to understand that culture. But for me, my dogs kind of opened up that door and people were extremely patient with me, explaining things, because I didn’t know anything about the Yukon.”

Turner met Anne Tayler when he was the executive director of the Selkirk First Nation in Pelly Crossing.

She was in charge of a travelling artists’ fund that brought performers to the communities.

He almost yelled at her over the phone, imploring her to understand the importance of bringing something “culturally relevant,” he said.

But when she visited with chief and council, elders and others, she found that it was Cowboy Bob they wanted to see.

“People loved it!” said Turner. “So much for cultural relevancy. So much for understanding what people really wanted to experience. That put me in my place.”

Tayler is now the executive director for the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations.

And while Turner has moved away from social work as a profession, he continues to run both his dog team and his business with the sensibility of a social worker.

A team, whether it is a musher and his dogs, or a couple, or a family, is all about relationships, he said.

“What defines us as a team, is not how we look on the bright sunny days with a smooth trail, but it’s how we look going up those mountains into the wind. It’s how we look in the most adverse conditions.”

When people come to Muktuk Adventures for a sled ride, they also learn about the importance of relationships, said Turner.

“The litmus test, to me, is when you leave here, that you don’t feel like you’ve been to another tourist attraction. This is our home. We invite people into the home.

“I don’t do anything with my dogs that’s a dress up. This is not Walt Disney, this is our lifestyle with the dogs.”

When it comes to treating the dogs right, no shipment of specialty kibble from Milwaukee and no canine acupuncture treatment is too extravagant, he said.

“The people that were just here, they’re here for one reason. The dogs. I’m here for one reason. The dogs. And this house is here for one reason. Whatever we put into the dogs, and I sincerely mean this, pales in comparison to what we get back from the dogs.”

Contact Jacqueline Ronson at

jronson@yukon-news.com

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