Bringing the Yukon Quest to the small screen

When Normand Casavant was young, his father wouldn't let him have a dog. He asked, but his dad just wasn't interested. "When you're older," his father told him, "you can have as many dogs as you want.

When Normand Casavant was young, his father wouldn’t let him have a dog. He asked, but his dad just wasn’t interested.

“When you’re older,” his father told him, “you can have as many dogs as you want.”

Those words were prescient. As it turns out, Casavant now keeps about 35 dogs, give or take.

The veteran Yukon Quest musher tells his childhood story in the opening minutes of Mushers: Conquering the Yukon Quest, a new documentary series from Vancouver-based Red Letter Films. Filmmaker Greg Nosaty will be screening the eight-episode series next week at the Old Fire Hall in Whitehorse.

The series follows the 2015 Yukon Quest from Whitehorse to Fairbanks, Alaska, and features Casavant and several other top mushers, including Allen Moore, Hugh Neff, Matt Hall and Brent Sass.

But it’s not just a story about the race. Nosaty spent weeks beforehand with Casavant and several other mushers, filming the training and preparation they put into the 1,600-kilometre Quest each year.

Nosaty said he wants to raise the profile of dogsledding, which he believes is misunderstood.

“If you look online, there’s sort of a lot of negativity around the sport,” he said, referring to accusations that mushers whip and starve their dogs.

Nosaty aims to change that. He said the biggest surprise for him in filming the documentary was the strength of the bond between mushers and their dogs.

“Those animals will go 24 hours a day. They are such well-treated, well-respected creatures,” he said. “That’s what I hope the audience gets to see a glimpse of and help shatter the myth that these creatures are mistreated.”

Last year, the Red Letter film crews followed the Yukon Quest racers over the entire route, travelling in a converted school bus equipped with bunkbeds and cooking facilities.

Despite his enthusiasm for the story, Nosaty said the documentary was a “nightmare” to film. Initially, he said, the board of directors was reluctant to let him film at all.

“They were skeptical about me coming up and doing a sensationalized kind of show,” he explained.

Even after receiving permission, he was still heavily restricted in what he could film.

He wasn’t allowed to be on a snowmobile behind the dogs, because then he’d be chasing them. He wasn’t allowed to be in front, because then he’d be leading. And he couldn’t easily travel alongside them, because there’s only the one trail.

Though he has a drone mounted with a camera, he couldn’t fly it above the dogs for fear of frightening them.

He even tried attaching GoPro cameras to the sleds, but they would often fall off, and their batteries would die within minutes in the intense cold.

Instead, he had to set up his cameras at strategic points along the route, where he could film the mushers passing by. He also filmed them arriving at and leaving from the checkpoints, and interviewed them at various stops along the way.

But the biggest challenge was putting together a compelling narrative about a race that doesn’t look much like a race at all. Nosaty said many people who’ve never seen the Quest don’t have any idea what it’s actually like.

“They imagine two sled dog teams sort of neck and neck, giving her and crossing the finish line. This is a race in slow motion, almost. It’s a race against time, it’s a race to survive.”

But it’s also a race where a musher might not see anyone else for hundreds of kilometres. That’s not always the kind of thing that makes for good TV.

Still, Nosaty said there were dramatic moments from last year’s Quest. The final stretch, for instance, was a thrilling race between Sass and Moore, with Sass starting two minutes behind Moore and passing him just before a road crossing in Two Rivers, Alaska.

Footage of the race is also interspersed with the mushers’ stories from previous Quests, and information about the history of the sport.

Casavant, who finished sixth in last year’s Quest, told the News he participated in the documentary to generate more interest in dogsledding.

“It’s a little-known sport. We don’t have a lot of money invested in this world. We’re professional athletes, and it’s very difficult to find money and sponsors, for example,” he said. “I’d like to see more businesses help the Yukon Quest and also the mushers by sponsoring them. That would be great, because most mushers are not rich.”

Casavant has raced in five years of the Yukon Quest, though he’s taking this year off to set up a dogsledding school, CasAventures, in Quebec. He hopes to return to the Quest next year, and maybe to bring some other Quebec mushers with him. He said racing is his passion.

“Doing the Yukon Quest, doing long-distance races, it gives you the chance to learn a huge amount. You rub shoulders with the best mushers in the world,” he said. “It gives you the possibility to surpass yourself. It gives you the possibility to visit the Yukon and Alaska in isolated areas that are incredibly beautiful.”

A French version of the documentary series is set to air on Canal D, starting in late March. But the English premiere of the series will take place right here in Whitehorse next week.

“Even for people who have been avidly watching 32 years of the Yukon Quest, they will see things in this that they’ve never seen before,” Nosaty said. “They’ll get insight from listening to (the mushers) talking about what it’s like to live that life, live that dream.”

The series will be screened in two parts at the Old Fire Hall on Feb. 16 and 17, from 7 to 8:30 p.m., followed by a Q&A session with Nosaty and any of the mushers who’ve crossed the finish line of this year’s Yukon Quest. Admission is free.

Contact Maura Forrest at

maura.forrest@yukon-news.com

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