Learning to read, race and dream big

In Jamaica, Newton Marshal couldn’t afford the $40 it cost to attend school. Now, he’s running the Yukon Quest. “I never knew I could reach this far — I was just a gardener,” said the 25-year-old.

DAWSON CITY

In Jamaica, Newton Marshal couldn’t afford the $40 it cost to attend school.

Now, he’s running the Yukon Quest.

“I never knew I could reach this far — I was just a gardener,” said the 25-year-old.

Marshal, who arrived in Dawson on Thursday morning with 12 dogs, grew up on a sugar plantation.

“My parents split up and I spent most of my time with my grandmother, helping her chop sugar cane,” he said.

“It was hard work.”

The little boy and his grandma walked into the fields everyday around 5 a.m., and after an hour or two of rest at lunch, they’d head back out to the rows of sugar cane again, putting in 12 to 15 hour days.

Marshal was seven years old.

“We got paid by how many loads we got,” he said.

When he was 13, the sugar plantation closed down because of soil problems.

“My grandmother tried to get me into school,” said Marshal. It was for older kids who’d missed out on education.

“But I only went for one term,” he said.

“We couldn’t find the money for the next term.” It was the equivalent of $40.

Marshal ended up moving back in with his mom. He’d take the goats out to graze in the mornings and search for ackee to sell in market — a yellow fruit with black seeds that has to open naturally or it’s poisonous.

For the next seven years, Marshal drifted.

He filled in for his father as a gardener on wealthy estates. He worked with horses for a while on a ranch and he even spent some time on an estate doing household chores like dusting, waxing the railings and washing the porch.

“It was too much for me,” he said.

Marshal returned to the gardening.

During those years, he became friends with a schoolteacher who volunteered her time in Jamaica giving free lessons to locals.

She invited Marshal to join her class and helped him fill out a job application form for a horseback guiding position at Chukka Caribbean Adventures.

“I couldn’t read, but she told me the letter and I would write it,” said Marshal.

Almost a year later he got a call from Chukka.

“I was very happy,” he said.

He wanted to guide tours, but when his employer gave him a book to read, his heart sank.

“I couldn’t read much of it,” he said.

He was told the position wouldn’t work out.

Instead, Marshal was offered a job cleaning Jeeps.

Four months later, a job opened up at Chukka’s stable.

“I told my manager I wanted to work with the horses,” said Marshal.

“He said he’d think about it.”

The next day when Marshal showed up at work, his boss asked what he was doing there.

“You’re supposed to take care of the horse,” he said to Marshal with a grin.

It wasn’t long until Marshal was guiding the big horse tours. Then he moved onto whitewater guiding.

“I did that for six months and then I got a call one day to stop working,” he said.

“I thought they were firing me.”

But it turned out they wanted Marshal to look after the dogs.

Chukka had three stray mutts it picked up from the pound, with the idea it would start a tour.

“I was thinking, ‘How will this work?’” said Marshal.

“Will tourists walk them, or play with them? I was trying to figure it out, and I couldn’t.”

Chukka brought some mushers in from Minnesota and Scotland to teach Marshal how to train the dogs, and get them used to being in harness.

“They would pull around sticks or tires,” he said. “They would chase me around and it was not long until they got faster and faster.”

Then a cart arrived. The dogs were hooked up and Marshal was told to take them for a spin.

“I thought, this is not going to work,” He said. “But then they started going really fast, and I started rockin’ my head and feelin’ good, thinking, this is going to work.”

By then Chukka had acquired a whole slew of stray mongrels from the streets and from the pound.

In Jamaica people are scared of dogs, said Marshal. “They believe dogs’ teeth are poisonous.”

Bouncing down local roads on the cart, with his team of rescued dogs, Marshal sometimes sends the locals flying.

People jump fences, he said.

“And one guy saw the dogs and ran to a tree and climbed it so fast.”

Unfortunately there was a wasp nest in the tree.

“He got five stings on his head and came back down so fast,” said Marshal with a laugh.

Dog carting in Jamaica caught on fast with the tourists.

“But it’s not about making money,” said Marshal.

“We’re saving dogs from the pound and the SPCA.

“We hope to change people’s mind about dogs.”

One day, Chukka owner Danny Melville asked Marshal if he wanted to go to Canada to race dogs.

“I said, ‘Yah mon,’” said Marshal.

Melville warned Marshal it was going to be tough.

“I said, ‘Yah mon,’” said Marshal. “I didn’t really know how tough it was going to be — I just wanted to go.”

Melville warned him it was going to be cold.

“I said, ‘Yah mon,’ even though I didn’t know.”

Two days later Marshal was on a plane to Whitehorse.

“I didn’t really know what was up,” he said.

“I thought it was just a small race — I didn’t know about the 1,000 miles.

“I didn’t know such a race existed.”

The goodbyes at his grandmother’s house were hard.

“I don’t want to go into it, because I’m going to cry,” he said, his eyes welling with tears.

“My grandmother wouldn’t understand the cold,” he said.

“She has no clue what I’m doing. She knows there’s dogs and snow.”

This is Marshal’s second year in the Yukon, running dogs with three-time Quest champ Hans Gatt.

“Sometimes, when there are really bad times, I wish I was home guiding tours again,” he said.

“But we all have bad times and when those blow over, I’m glad I’m here.”

Marshal, in his spare time, is making his way through The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and plans to return to school when he gets home.

“There are lots of young people like me in Jamaica,” he said. “And older people too. But the poverty is not as bad as South Africa.”

Putting Marshal in the Quest was not an advertising ploy for the Jamaican Dog Sled Team.

Melville’s “motivation is to help young people,” said Marshal.

“He wants to give us an opportunity to help ourselves.

“That man could never make me feel bad, even if he fired me tomorrow,” he added.

“Because that man gave me the biggest opportunity.”

Marshal plans to finish the Quest.

“And it’s not just (Melville) wanting me to finish — I want to finish,” he said.

“I hope to do what’s best for myself and the dogs.”

Contact Genesee Keevil at

gkeevil@yukon-news.com