Why do you suppose so many of my messages to you are about canines? Could it be that they are as ubiquitous to life in the Yukon as is the raven?
Today I met Frank Turner, dog musher extraordinaire. He is shorter than I expected this hero of the northern trails to be, but he is marvelously eloquent on the subject of huskies and dog racing.
It was a timely sort of meeting: I was sitting in the Alpine Bakery in Whitehorse, noshing on their truly excellent food with a friend of mine who was talking about Katherine Sandiford’s article on the Yukon Quest in a northern magazine called Up Here. Sandiford had apparently written a very good piece on the race.
I had not read the magazine and was in a lather of impatience as I listened to my friend Karyn extolling the virtues of the publication and particularly of this article. I was waiting till I could hit her with my information about the hideous abuses associated with dog racing.
When I first moved north I had been prepared to get excited about the dog races; they seemed to be the absolute in courage and romance. Then Lari sent me an article about how the animals were treated and mistreated, culled mercilessly, and died in the hundreds, generally regarded as a means to an end with the end being money.
My incipient interest in the Iditarod and the Quest shrivelled and died and when CBC North would broadcast the news of the Quest, I would turn it off. When the Yukon News featured articles and photos of the event, I would turn the page with a shudder of distaste.
At last it was my turn to speak. I shared all of my grim information about dog racing with Karyn. After listening politely, she asked me if I was certain it was about husky dog racing. Well, no, I confessed; it was about greyhound racing in Florida, but a dog race is a dog race is a dog race, no?
Before Karyn could answer me, Turner stopped at our table to greet her and she introduced me to him, with the quotes about the greyhound racing.
He was aghast; there was simply no comparison, he assured me. Firstly, the sled dog races were not about money, as the winnings were not very substantial. Karyn chimed in to say they were a whole lot less than not very substantial, being barely enough to feed a team for a year.
But most importantly to Frank, and most mushers, he told me, was the creation of the relationship between the dogs and the musher. It was that relationship that made it all possible. As he pointed out, my first clue to the dissimilarities should have been that in greyhound races the owners weren’t running around the track with their dogs trying to catch the mechanical rabbit. Now, there would be a race to watch!
“Dog racing is all about trust,” he said “and not 99 per cent trust; it’s that missing one per cent that will be what breaks you on the trail.”
Sled dogs, he told us, are not stupid, or even particularly obedient; they will not run till they are injured or dead. What they will do is simply quit. It they feel the musher is not looking after them, is not committed to their safety and well-being, they just stop.
Of course there are the occasional deaths on the trail, he said, but they are rare and as self-explanatory as a human death of a heart attack. For dogs, like humans, time is up when it’s up.
By the time he was finished speaking, I was in a state of high emotion, tears standing in my eyes as my whole being responded to his description of the amazing teamwork of mushers and their dogs in what is described as one of the more grueling races in the world.
When Frank had left, Karyn and I talked dogs till our coffee grew cold. She has three big dogs; every time we get together there are stories to tell about them and their goings on. She also has three children but when I make polite inquiries as to their state of being she brushes aside the subject with “Oh, they’re fine” and carries on with dog talk – very like you with your horses, Uma.
On this occasion the biggest story was about the youngest dog, a puppy. Karyn had to go out of town for a couple of days on business. It was the first time she had left the puppy since he had come to live with her and her family and he had demonstrated his sorrow at her absence by changing his diet.
He didn’t quit eating; he didn’t overeat. What he did was eat a DVD, a section of her son’s toy railroad track, a book jacket cover, a set of three wooden ducks, two cloth trivets and all four feet from a stuffed Tigger. We both agreed the pup had only proved his adorability.
I really must have a dog of my own; one cannot live in the Yukon and be dogless. I think it may even be illegal. Since arriving here, I have had a strong sense that I am meant to have an animal companion; it is meant to be. The puppies were not meant to be, obviously, but there is a dog out there somewhere that is meant for me. I just have to wait for her to appear. I can see her now, big and strong, with the classic top-of-the-Yukon-crest posture…
Ah, if only Homo sapiens could pay more attention to developing such relationships as the ones Frank described between mushers and their mushees!
Imagine having even 99 per cent degree of trust in a political leader, for instance, let alone 100 per cent. Imagine having even that one per cent, a shred of trust, a speck of belief that our leaders were making our well-being their top priority.
Like those sled dogs, we would be happy to work, to extend ourselves to keep the machine going, secure in the knowledge that no avoidable harm will come to us, that we are being looked after by a leader who is every bit invested in our continuing health and well-being as we are ourselves.
A good and trusted boss takes the heat off; we can enjoy our lives, doing our share happily, grateful there is someone to take the responsibility and the hard work of leadership. It is a difficult role, with few rewards; when we have a good leader we are all better off.
The shenanigans of our leaders here these days is wholly reminiscent of a Monty Python episode: supreme silliness dominates. It is nigh impossible to respect our leaders, let alone trust them. They are a tasteless joke, though there is no laughter.
Maybe we ought to do as Turner says the sled dogs do when trust is broken; lie down in the snow and refuse to go any further.
More hopefully, we could begin to entertain the idea of a dog musher for a leader. I would be willing to learn a new language, one with words such as ‘gee’ and ‘haw’, if it meant I could relax into my life and let a competent, committed person take care of the big business of the human community. Most of us would rather be the dog than the musher.
Instead we are stuck in a relationship that renders us apathetic and helpless. We avoid politics, having come to the conclusion that, if we attempt to engage, the results are those promised in the old adage: Never wrestle with a pig; you both get dirty but the pig likes it.
PS I read the article by Sandiford and it is tremendous! I am going to mail you a copy.
Heather Bennett is a writer who
lives in Watson Lake.