Stopping to smell the icicles

Normand Casavant's dogs speak French. "Bon chien," said the Quebec musher, praising his team. He'd had just rolled into Eagle, Alaska, and his dogs had gone the wrong way around a kids' slide in front of the...


Normand Casavant’s dogs speak French.

“Bon chien,” said the Quebec musher, praising his team.

He’d had just rolled into Eagle, Alaska, and his dogs had gone the wrong way around a kids’ slide in front of the checkpoint.

When the lead dogs figured it out and snaked the team through the deep snow back onto the right trail, Casavant got off his sled.

“I have to praise them when they do something like this,” he said.

“Bon chien means good dog, for those of you who don’t speak French,” he added.

His team looked peppy, yipping and barking while they waited for Casavant to check in.

Mike Ellis arrived just before him with his purebred Siberians.

“They all look like movie stars,” said trail co-ordinator John Schandelmeier as the fluffy huskies trotted by. “They’re like the dogs from Eight Below.”

“They’re smiling,” said Ellis.

“We were having a ball up there on the summit.”

If the dogs weren’t having fun, it’d be another story.

“I can get unhappy, that’s OK,” he said.

“But when they get unhappy, I have to change something.”

Ellis knows his team will never keep up with the frontrunners.

“That’s not my goal,” he said, slurping down chicken alfredo at the Eagle checkpoint.

The New Hampshire musher is in it for the landscape.

A geography major and surveyor, Ellis likes to have “a sense of place.”

“Last year I was overwhelmed around every corner (of the trail),” he said.

This year it’s different.

“The trail is like an old friend,” he said. “You don’t have to go through the niceties of conversation; you can just pick up where you left off.”

That’s why Ellis came back.

“I wanted to give it another shot, and pick up where I left off,” he said.

“Everything is beautiful, the trail is beautiful,” added Casavant.

“I really love it, and maybe that’s why my dogs are happy, because I’m happy too.”

Casavant, who was training in Atlin, BC, for the winter, wanted to be on King Solomon’s Dome for sunset.

“And I was there for that hour,” he said in a thick French accent.

“I don’t want to think about this as only a race – I want to enjoy everything.”

The secret to happy dogs is music, said Casavant.

“I sing them French Canadian folk songs,” he said, chanting out an upbeat, rhythmic ditty at the checkpoint.

Casavant, who’s also a white water guide, finds mushing and rafting comparable.

“On top of American Summit it was rock and roll,” he said. “There was ice and rock, it was like rafting a big wave.

“I really love that, and to see my dogs in that.”

The scenery is very different that Quebec, he said.

“We don’t have that kind of weather and mountains back East. And overflow, we don’t have that in my country.”

Out on the river, the terrain changes, said Ellis.

“It’s big, it’s scary and the dogs are looking around – it’s a little bit intimidating.”

It’s very different from the forested trails on the Canadian side, he said.

Both Ellis and Casavant have given up almost everything for the Quest.

“I sold my house,” said Casavant, who plans to move his mushing adventures business to BC or the Yukon.”

“We had our house paid off,” said Ellis.

“And now we have so many mortgages on it, we have to sell it.

“We’re so broke it’s insane,” he said.

“We’ve been living like dreamers for a couple of years. And now we have to go home, get a handle on things and dig ourselves out of this Quest hole.”

After napping together, Casavant and Ellis decided to leave Eagle as a team.

“I heard it’s rock and roll in this next section and we can help each other,” said Casavant.

“It’s good competition.”

Contact Genesee Keevil at