Rob Cooke puts a harness on one of his sled dogs as he prepares to head out on a training run from his kennel near Annie Lake on Jan. 20. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

VIDEO: Rob Cooke prepares to run an experienced team in his sixth Yukon Quest

“It can be tough, it can be lonely, but there is also some beautiful wilderness out there”

This is the second in a series of features about Yukon mushers participating in the 2019 Yukon Quest

For veteran musher Rob Cooke, this year’s Yukon Quest will be special.

“It’s a bittersweet race for me,” said Cooke during an interview at his Mount Lorne home. “My five main dogs — Maddie, Skits, Loonie, Nutter and Psycho — they’ve been racing with me since 2011 and they’ve done pretty much every race with me since 2011. … This is going to be their final race.”

The only time Cooke didn’t have that core group of Siberian huskies in front of his sled was in 2016, when Maddie had a litter of puppies.

“That makes me really sad — that I’m never going to be racing with them again after this — but it is also really exciting that I’m going to have this one final race with them and share the Quest trail with them one final time. I’m really looking forward to that.”

As to how Cooke got to this point — preparing to make the 1,600-kilometre trek from Whitehorse to Fairbanks, Alaska, for the sixth time — it’s a story that spans continents and decades.

Born in the United Kingdom, Cooke first got the dog mushing bug while he was serving in the Royal Navy in 1997. He was spending a lot of time at sea, so he and his wife were searching for a dog to keep her company while he was away.

“We used to do a lot of mountaineering,” explained Cooke. “Somebody sent us a photograph of a couple who were mountaineering and they had a husky with a backpack on it, so we thought a husky would be perfect.”

Once they had one Siberian, a second quickly followed to keep the first dog company, and soon Cooke was racing.

“We started racing in the U.K. and it just took over our lives,” said Cooke. “We ended up with nine huskies when we lived in the UK.”

The same time Cooke was discovering dog mushing, the world was discovering the internet, and soon Cooke found the Yukon Quest.

“We started following the Yukon Quest online as the internet was taking off and live tracking was taking off,” said Cooke. “I just started to wonder if we could train our own dogs to do the Yukon Quest.”

With the idea taking root in his head, he secured an exchange posting with the Royal Canadian Air Force in southern Alberta and it snowballed from there.

“We came across in 2005,” he said with a laugh. “And now we live in the Yukon with 65 dogs.”

Cooke said it seemed like a “really special race” in the days he was following along online.

“It just seemed like a really great race — a really great atmosphere, really great people around it,” said Cooke, noting that the mushers at that time seemed like special people. “It just appealed to me a lot more than most other racing. I think since we’ve come in, we’ve raced it (and) we’ve found that to be true. … It can be tough, it can be lonely, but there is also some beautiful wilderness out there and some beautiful experiences as well.”

The top finishers in the Quest are usually Alaskan huskies, but Cooke seems to enjoy the underdog status his Siberians afford the team.

“There has always been this reputation that they’re slower than other dogs, slower than other teams,” said Cooke. “And I guess to a certain extent they don’t perform quite as well in terms of finishing positions, but we do pretty well with them. We finish a lot of races.”

When a race is 1,600 km long, sometimes slow and steady really does win the race.

“In some races we finish pretty high up,” said Cooke. “It’s always a challenge when somebody tells you your dogs are slower than their dogs. It’s always nice to get to the finish line before them.”

Almost all the dogs Cooke races are bred at his kennel, Shaytaan Siberians.

“All the dogs are part of our family and I wouldn’t be with any other sort of dogs,” he said. “I just love Siberian huskies — their personalities and being on the trail with them — and it’s always great, as I said, to do well with them.”

This year, the race leaves Whitehorse for Alaska, and Cooke said this is his preferred direction of travel.

“There has been something for me that when you start in Fairbanks and you get to Circle on the Yukon River and you’ve then got about 300 miles (480 km) from Circle to Dawson with just one checkpoint in the middle,” said Cooke. “It’s just something psychological that just screws with me every time. For some reason I don’t get that feeling when I come from Dawson.”

He said it’s probably the 36-hour mandatory layover in Dawson, allowing him to spend time with his handlers and resting, that makes it easier.

“You’re going out with a fresh dog team onto that 300-mile run in a positive frame of mind,” he said.

If that wasn’t enough of a reason to prefer Whitehorse to Fairbanks, he said the hometown send-off puts it over the top.

“It’s great starting in Whitehorse, starting in your hometown, and seeing all the crowds,” said Cooke, adding that it’s great to actually know a huge amount of the people that come out to wish the mushers well on the start morning.

The best part of the Quest though, he said, is seeing the trail with just the dogs for company.

“You see some amazing sights,” said Cooke. “You’re on your own with your dogs — dogs that you’ve spent the whole year with — and you’re out there seeing some amazing things and you’re seeing them with your 14 best companions in the world.”

Cooke said the sleep deprivation is the toughest part of the race, in part because of the emotional rollercoaster it puts him on.

“One minute you’re on a high, things are fantastic, and the next moment — for whatever reason — your mood just dives,” he said. “Something may not have changed at all, just your attitude has changed, and you get really down and depressed and it’s hard to go on.”

Still, the views and experiences help make the whole thing worth it.

“I remember going up Rosebud (Summit) one year at 7 a.m. as the sun came up and Alaska just opened up in front me,” said Cooke. “Just seeing those things is amazing.”

Cooke doesn’t listen to music on the trail, but he does sometimes sing to his dogs.

“My main focus is keeping the dogs going and keeping the dogs happy and motivated,” he said. “I’ll sing to the dogs sometimes, I’ll whistle a lot to the dogs, just to try to keep them focused – keep them happy.”

Training has been tough this year, both in the Yukon and Alaska, due to low snowfall. He said his mileage is down from where he’d like it to be and that almost all of the 1,800 miles (2,900 km) of training the team has done is in front of a four-wheeler.

“That’s meant that we’ve been running almost every night,” said Cooke. “Running on a four-wheeler has been a challenge; we’ll see how it translates when we actually get to the Quest.”

Cooke does have one advantage — 13 of his 14 dogs have completed at least two Quests.

“It’s really nice having a very experienced team and the dogs know the trail as well,” said Cooke. “Two years ago when we were leaving … the last checkpoint in Two Rivers, (Alaska,) I thought the dogs were super tired and they just got up and were wagging their tails — they knew exactly where they were and they just ran their hearts out to the finish line.”

So Cooke may not have had the ideal training period, but he can count on the team knowing what to do in what will be the final Yukon Quest for a third of his dogs.

Contact John Hopkins-Hill at john.hopksinhill@yukon-news.com

 

Rob Cooke attaches one of his sled dogs to the tug line before a run near Annie Lake on Jan. 20. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

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