People come from around the world to visit Muktuk Kennels, and that’s bound to keep Frank Turner’s mind open.
“An Australian cowboy told me about this stuff, it’s called colloidal silver,” said Turner, as he applied the clear liquid to a wound on Flint, one of his 108 sled dogs.
“He used it on his horses, and it works like a charm.”
The Yukon mushing legend has picked up a few new ideas about racing as well.
To put them to the test, however, he’d have to come out of retirement.
So that’s what he did — putting his name in the hat for the 23rd Yukon Quest.
“It’s kind of awkward, to tell you the truth, because I thought it was over for me,” he said, “People say, ‘Can’t you make up your mind?’ Maybe I do have a problem making up my mind.”
“I don’t write things in stone, for me, the only certainty is uncertainty.”
It’s early Thursday, the sun’s coming up over the mountains, and Turner is back to his familiar schedule, harnessing 24 dogs — the athletes — for their morning run.
The dogs pull his four-wheeler over the softly packed trails on his property outside Whitehorse.
A year ago, it was Frank’s son, Saul, doing all the legwork. Frank had announced his retirement after the 2005 Quest, and was enjoying some relaxation.
Saul picked up the challenge of keeping Muktuk dogs in the race, while Frank stepped out of the spotlight.
“It became obvious to me that I wasn’t enjoying it like I was before, particularly in the training,” said Turner, taking a break to hand out treats to the team. “I’d love to run the race if I didn’t have to train… that was really making it tiresome for me.”
He focused instead on his tour business and enjoyed watching his son train and compete in the 2006 Quest.
“At the start of the race, when the teams go down the shoot, I thought I would miss it, but I didn’t,” he said. “I felt great. I was really just a spectator, I had no longing to get in the race.”
It was only at Mile 101, where the trail gets pretty bad, that Turner’s fatherly instincts took over.
“There’s lots of overflow and ice and trees aren’t in very good locations — in a perfect world, I would’ve got behind the sled.”
“Saul hadn’t been on that kind of trail — I knew the trail was going to demand more of him and the dogs than they’d done before, and it did.”
Last year’s race ended early for Saul and a few other mushers, when they were airlifted off Eagle Summit during a blizzard and disqualified from the race. The younger Turner was already looking forward to his next race at the musher’s banquet, and vowed to flip the bird to any storms as he rolled through them in the future.
But Saul has a young family and a carpentry apprenticeship to keep him busy, and won’t race this year. Though he is helping his dad with the training runs leading up to the Quest, three and a half months from now.
“His focus has changed,” said Frank. “I would’ve loved if he came back and raced again, I would’ve been happy with that.”
Frank said that watching last year’s race from the checkpoints gave him a new perspective, and he took the opportunity to study the competition.
“When you’re racing, you never get a chance to look at anybody else,” he said.
Lance Mackey, in Turner’s opinion, has changed the way teams run the race.
His dogs are trained for big, big distance, often running 10-12 hours with six-hour rests near the end of the race.
“Going from Scroggy to Dawson in one run… amazing,” said Turner. “He’s great, he’s just a super person, intelligent, he’s great with his dogs, and he’s funny.
“It’s phenomenal the way he can sustain himself, if he could bottle it and sell it, I’d buy it by the caseload.”
There’s only one thing he doesn’t like about Mackey; “He always calls me Mr. Turner,” he said with a laugh. “I’m the same age as his dad.”
“I’ve been looking at Lance and others for awhile, and even though I’m a bit older, I don’t want to get locked into a box, and I’ve got to look around and see what seems to be working for other teams.”
He’s currently training about 15 kilometres a day, but once the river freezes he’ll bump it up to 50 or 60 kilometres and start camping out overnight.
He’s trying to get his dogs used to the long runs, but when it comes to the Quest, which starts in Whitehorse on February 11th, he said it’s a bad idea to try and play catch-up with anyone.
“The races I’ve been disappointed with are the ones I had too much attention on other people — I need to focus, like a long training run, like there’s nobody else out there,” he said. “In the checkpoints, I don’t even look at the board anymore. I can’t worry about what anyone else is doing, I can only worry about the dogs in front of me.”
After a year off, he’s confident his team will be in the hunt.
“I think we’re always going to be competitive — because of my dogs,” he said. “They need to know that I believe in them and that we’re all in this together – they don’t need me to yell at them or be disappointed in them. That’s one thing I learned on the Quest, you’ve got to believe.”