Following the paw prints of Palfrey’s ancestors

Warren Palfrey has been racing with ghosts. When the Yellowknife rookie signed up for the Quest, he didn't know he'd be chasing his ancestors down the trail. It wasn't until his Metis family began talking about


Warren Palfrey has been racing with ghosts.

When the Yellowknife rookie signed up for the Quest, he didn’t know he’d be chasing his ancestors down the trail.

It wasn’t until his Metis family began talking about the race that the stories were unearthed.

“My dad started remembering that his dad used to run the mail out of Dawson by dog team,” said Palfrey’s mom Elizabeth.

“There’s a strong Dawson connection.”

And some of the stops the mushers make along the Quest trail are the old mail stops, she said.

This year marks the hundredth anniversary of Warren’s great grandfather’s death, said Elizabeth, waiting for her son at the finish line on Wednesday morning.

“So 100 years later, he’s mushing the same trail.

“I wonder how many other Quest mushers have a connection that goes back so far.”

Warren, who arrived in ninth place on Wednesday morning, had been riding a “busted” sled for the last 1,207 kilometres.

It doesn’t track very well, said Warren.

“But then I thought of all the hardships (my ancestors) had to endure.” And in that context, a broken sled runner isn’t too serious, he said.

“I didn’t worry about it after that, I just tied it on and kept going.”

Warren’s great-grandfather and his great-uncle hiked over the Chilkoot Trail together in 1897.

Big, burley guys, they ended up packing gear over the pass for a winter before heading to the Klondike for gold.

“His great uncle’s buried in Dawson,” said Elizabeth.

Warren’s great-grandfather Sam Hourie struck it rich and a few years later. And in 1905, he headed to Europe with his wife.

“He invested in the Austrian oil fields and lost everything,” said Elizabeth.

“And he spent the rest of his life looking for more gold.”

His great-uncle died in Dawson, probably from complications with his arthritis, she said.

Involved in the Louis Riel rebellion in Saskatchewan, Warren’s great uncle was one of the three scouts who were there when Riel surrendered.

And the great-uncle ended up swimming across the Saskatchewan River in March to deliver a message to one of the generals.

That’s probably how he got the arthritis, said Elizabeth.

“Warren’s connections run pretty deep in this country,” she said.

When he pulled into the finish line, Warren had the Métis flag stretched across his sled.

“We have a pretty strong history,” said Warren.

The voyageur stock has served the Métis musher well.

As a little boy, he grew up in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut.

His family, originally from the Prairies, didn’t have a dog team, but there were still some families in the community who travelled by dog team, said Elizabeth.

And Warren and his brothers used to hook up the family mongrels and run 16 kilometres back to their cabin.

“The dogs would pull them out there, and I guess that’s how it developed,” she said.

The family was in Nunavut for 30 years.

But trying to be a competitive musher from a fly-in community is costly, said Elizabeth.

When Warren raced, he had to ship all his dogs out on Boeing 737s.

“And it’s the barren lands,” she said. “So the weather can be bad for weeks.”

In 2001, Warren moved to Yellowknife with his dogs and his three young sons.

He was a single dad.

“I help my dad train the dogs,” said Sam, waiting at the finish line.

The 15-year-old won gold in sprint mushing at the Arctic Winter Games in Kenai a couple of years ago.

“I used to do sprint mushing, but it went to quick,” he said. “I like staying out with the dogs more.”

Sam’s 11-year-old brother Peter also takes out teams.

“It’s fun,” he said. “Sometimes you fall off.”

Four years ago, Warren met Kate at a dog race in the Lower 48.

“We share the same passion for dogs,” she said.

“And there’s not a lot of people that want to put up with someone who has 100 dogs and three kids.”

Kate had been helping mushers out and working at kennels in California.

But she only had two dogs of her own.

“I knew I didn’t want to own a kennel until I owned land,” she said.

The move to Yellowknife from California was a bit of a shock.

It wasn’t so much the change in temperature, said Kate.

“It’s the different perspectives on what’s acceptable dog care.

“The old-time mushers have a different approach.”

But things are slowly getting better, she added.

“They are starting to wake up to fact we’re in the 21st century, and it’s not 18th-century dog care anymore.”

The Palfreys, who run a dog boarding business, as well as Warren’s summer plumbing and contracting, make sure they find good homes for their retired dogs.

“And if it’s not a good place, they stay with us until we find a good place,” said Kate.

Warren, who has two Iditarods under his belt, his heading over to Anchorage to run the race again in just over a week.

This was like a training run, he said, feeding his dogs frozen steak at the finish line.

Warren was vying with Martin Buser for rookie of the year for the first half of the race.

But after Dawson, he backed off.

“I made the decision not to race anymore, because it’s not worth getting the dogs in a depressed state before the Iditarod,” he said.

The most interesting thing about mushing is getting the dogs to work as a team, said Warren.

“And it really is an ancient method of travel.

“You don’t rely on anything except yourself and your dogs.”

Contact Genesee Keevil at