One month after colliding with a dog team while he was skiing in Italy, Marco Matteo ended up in Alaska mushing down the Yukon Quest trail. But he isn’t racing.
The famous Italian sports anchorman is making a documentary about the Quest with the help of Italian mushing brothers Armen and Ararad Khatchikian.
Curious about the string of dogs he’d tumbled over in the Alps, Matteo started talking with Armen.
And a few days later, he showed up at Armen’s Huskyland to attend mushing school.
And soon after, he came up with a plan.
Matteo, who likes to involve himself in the sports he covers, had already made a documentary where he attempts to scale K2 with some mountain climbers.
“It was a film about my experience with them,” said Matteo in broken English.
“So when Ararad and Armen told me about the Yukon Quest and told me it was a tough race, I want to make a film about it.
“I want to understand the reason the people are stimulated to go on such challenges that normal people don’t understand.
“I want to see the feeling and the emotion. And I want to show the relation between man and his dogs.”
Matteo also wanted to challenge himself.
“I’ve covered the Olympic Games and soccer and learned from the biggest sportsman to challenge myself first — so I want to do this.
“I hope to reach the first checkpoint,” he added with a grin.
Matteo approached his station, RIA, and sold the Quest documentary to its executive producer.
Excited about snow, dogs and the true North, the producer not only OK’d the project, he also decided to come along with a cameraman and a director.
That’s when Ararad called Whitehorse musher Sebastien Schnuelle looking for dogs.
Towing a big trailer, full of gear and snowmachines, behind his beat-up dog truck, Schnuelle was finding it more difficult than he thought to watch the race leave Fairbanks.
But with one team in the Quest, another running the Quest 300 and an Italian entourage that needed two more eight-dog teams, it was logistically impossible for Schnuelle to race this year.
“I have more worries with the truck and the generator, I might as well be in the race,” he said, sitting in the media room at the Central checkpoint on Sunday updating a blog.
“Freezing your ass off at minus 40 is actually a lot easier than this.”
Schnuelle already had frostbite on his fingers, something he’d never had to deal with when he was racing in the Quest.
“With a dog team, you’re more prepared,” he said. “And here I am on day two with a snowmachine and frostbite having a hell of a time typing.”
It’s interesting being on the other side of things, but never again, he said.
Matteo, Ararad and Armen left the Fairbanks start chute a few hours after the mushers, heading to the first checkpoint 160 kilometres away.
It wasn’t Ararad’s first time out of the chute. In 2000, the Italian musher took a stab at the Quest, but ended up scratching.
The brothers accidentally fell into mushing more than 20 years ago.
In ‘83, Armen landed in Whitehorse and started paddling down the Yukon River to the Bering Sea. When he got into the delta, he ran into famous Iditarod champ Joe Runyon in the Indian village of Tanana, training for the Iditarod.
“Armen got hooked listening to his stories,” said Ararad.
Back in Italy, Armen couldn’t stop thinking about that dog race.
And when he heard about a nationwide contest to celebrate Brandy Stock’s centennial, he got a crazy idea.
The company was offering $60,000 in gold coins to whoever had the most bizarre idea of how to spend it.
Armen wrote in — he’d use the money to race the Iditarod.
Brandy Stock bit, and in ‘84 Armen ran the 1,600-kilometres to Nome.
The Italian sled dog schools, mushing adventures, and races snowballed from there.
But Ararad, who ran the Iditarod in 2004, is tired of racing.
“I’m much more interested in adventure trips,” he said.
“And in my opinion, racing is not always fair to the dogs, especially long-distance racing.” Ararad thinks it’s hard on them.
It’s especially hard now that the pace of the big races has been steadily increasing, he said. “I believe dogs need more rest,” said Ararad. “The races should be formulated so proper rest is guaranteed for the dogs.”
Also an avid skier, Ararad has raced in extreme cold, and it took a lot out of him.
“I pushed hard and it was 38 below and in those conditions the body is exposed to stress and you need to rest,” he said.
“And dogs are living beings, you can’t just fuel them up, check the oil and keep going.”
The Italian documentary will be a two part series about Matteo’s adventures following the Quest trail.
“The spirit of the show will be giving a message about the care of the dogs, the environment and the North,” said Ararad.
“We don’t care about who is winning, it’s more about what it looks like — the mushers’ point of view, the people along the trail and the handlers. “But the first actors are really the dogs.”