Yukon

On the Trail of the Yukon’s Sled Huskies

Some are setting standards for better treatment of mushing dogs

by Alexandra Marvar

To exercise your authority at the handlebars of a dog sled, our guide showed us, slowly press your foot to the brake bar, making its metal teeth bite down into the ice until the tension cues your dogs to stop.

Bringing a charging team of Huskies to a halt with a foot-break is no great challenge for a 200-pound musher, but my friend Dar and I hardly weigh that amount combined. To five strong dogs who want nothing more than to run and keep running, 230 pounds of cargo on a 60-pound sled feels weightless. I have to stomp the brake to get any attention at all, stand on it with both feet, leverage my body weight against the handlebars, and push downward with both of my legs, pleading with the team to take heed.

The frozen Takhini River is a bright white ice road today, wider than a football field and lined with snowy pines, and the sound of the metal teeth on the river’s surface is barely a whisper to the sound of the sled flying down its course.

Once they finally notice the brake, they obey. Dar is nestled into the sled bag in the cargo basket, and I’m standing on the runners, holding on with my giant mittens. They could overthrow us in a second, but they don’t; they just stand at attention and wait and bark and bark an unholy, primal cacophony, leaping against the ropes, jerking us forward on the ice an inch at a time until we give them what they want: permission to take off again.

Luckily, we don’t need to stop often.

It’s a February morning at Muktuk Adventures in Canada’s Yukon Territory, which spans the Alaskan border. We’re here for a film festival called Available Light, just down the highway in the 25,000-resident capital of Whitehorse, where the Takhini feeds into the Yukon River.

It’s been in the negative 30s this week. Today it’s a sunny, warm 10 degrees Fahrenheit. But we’ve been pawed and nuzzled and kissed by dogs—yes, these dogs, wild as they seem to us—all morning. So while our loaner military surplus “extreme cold” boots and McMurdo Antarctic research station-caliber snowsuits can only help, we are warm from our hearts outward.  This dog sledding kennel is not at all what I feared it would be.

They stand at attention and wait and bark and bark an unholy, primal cacophony, leaping against the ropes.

I hadn’t thought of Kaima in years, but at Muktuk, she was everywhere.

One of the dogs of my Ohio childhood, Kaima was a rescue—a large, ambling, silent creature with bright-gray fur and two different colored eyes. Full Siberian Husky. In my memory, she and our lupine mutt mix Ziggy towered over me. For years, I mistook them for benevolent wolves.

One winter night in the late 1970s, my parents let the dogs out like they always did. On this night, the sidewalks had just been cleared, and snow was piled chest-high on either side, forming a chute straight down Anderson Road.

Kaima took off running at top speed, my dad remembers. “Tunnel vision. Like a racehorse with blinders on. It was weeks before we found her,” he told me. “She ran miles away.” When they did reunite, on a tip from a “lost dog” notice in the paper, she yelped and howled and spoke and bounded into their arms. She didn’t mean to run away. She just meant to run.

Watching the huskies longing to run at Muktuk, I remembered that story, and it felt clear to me that Kaima’s event was a manifestation of her instinct, of an innate and long-subverted sense of purpose—some proof of a soul.

Photo by Alexandra Marvar

I think of Togo, the Siberian Husky who, in the early 1900s, lead Norwegian musher Leonhard Seppala’s team back and forth along the 938-mile Iditarod trail—the trail for which they named the world-famous dog race. In the gold-rush era, the Iditarod was the only traversable link between Alaska’s early settlements in the long season of winter. The network of people and dogs who ran supplies, messages, and medication along it were a lifeline to those communities. Seppala and Togo were among them.

When Togo was a pup, Seppala didn’t have much faith in his abilities as a sled dog, much less a lead dog. He was small for his breed, unruly, and better suited, Seppala figured, to life as a house pet. He gave Togo away to live out a happy domestic life.

Within a couple weeks, Togo leapt through a plate-glass window and ran miles to rejoin his team at Seppala’s kennel. He would lead the team for more than a decade after that.

 It felt clear to me that Kaima’s event was a manifestation of her instinct, of an innate and long-subverted sense of purpose—some proof of a soul.

On one hand, mushing harnesses the immutable drive of these breeds—Huskies, Malamutes, Chinooks and Aluskies (a hybrid of the Siberian Husky and Alaskan Malamute) —who are born to run. Circumpolar and subarctic settlers began tapping into this dogged instinct over a thousand years ago in order to navigate and survive in these harsh climates, and in some places, indigenous communities still rely on it.

On the other hand, mushing—in most places today, more sport than critical means of transport—is tied up in controversy. Animal rights groups categorically oppose it. Dogs are mistreated, doped, worked too hard, sometimes worked to death. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has crusaded against the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race for years. They think it should be permanently canceled.

Frank Turner feels differently.

Turner is the 70-year-old veteran musher who started Muktuk Adventures, now living with his wife next door to the kennel and lodge outside of Whitehorse. He came to the sport in the 1970s, and since then he’s run the annual 1,000-mile Yukon Quest dog sled race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse — “the most difficult race in the world”— twenty five times. There are single dogs on his team who ran with him for all of 30,000 miles.

Photo by Alexandra Marvar

Turner’s name often comes up in discussions about the controversy of mushing and animal cruelty. But, not because he’s implicated—he’s usually the one leading the charge to set standards for better animal treatment. Rather than doing away with the Iditarod, he suggested that perhaps the winning title should go not to the first finisher, but to the finisher whose dogs were cared for best.

Turner’s Muktuk, which houses over 100 working sled dogs, has been certified by veterinarians for exceptional care many times over. But when he first set out as a musher, intending to follow the examples of his idols and mentors, his early observations were that treatment of dogs was often brutish and authoritarian. He tried to take this instruction to heart, but it didn’t suit him, he found, and it definitely didn’t suit the dogs.

Instead, Turner ultimately gravitated toward the women in the mushing community. “I shifted my focus from those who see sledding as some sort of macho activity,” he said in an interview with Sled Dog Central, “to those who truly seemed to enjoy themselves and were successful in terms of team management. And those people were mainly women.” Subsequently, he’s practiced a dog-and-master dynamic of collaboration, praise and motivation for decades. Leonhard Seppala practiced this too; a humanitarian award for sled dog care bears his name.

When I arrived at Muktuk I realized that, over the course of years, smoldering in my subconscious had been this unquestioned association between mushing and animal abuse scandals. I’d been prepared for a pay-to-play dog sledding kennel to be a very depressing place. Bleak and bitter cold. Dogs chained to boxes, lined up in rows like shelved goods. Some kennels may well be this way. But we found that the reality of Muktuk is a different world.  

Turner’s dogs are chained to boxes, but colorful boxes, that make the yard look like an unsolved Rubik’s Cube. Some dogs stand on the roofs of their boxes, nobly surveilling their dog town. Others roll around in a nearby play area, or run on a Husky-sized metal hamster wheel. Some nestle in their boxes, and might come out to paw your knee or nuzzle your face. Those who’ve retired have gone off leash; they roam arthritically but amiably about the lodge with the guests, stepping around the puppies.

Of the working dogs at Muktuk, there is one thing that calls them all to attention: When a sled is being fitted to go out, everyone tunes in. The freezing air is thick with the decibels of their vocalizations. They’re pulling against their chains, pawing toward the gangline, asking to tie on. They have a calling and they know it: They just want to run.

CONTRIBUTOR

Alexandra Marvar

Alexandra Marvar is a journalist and photographer based in Savannah, Georgia.

See more Features from around the world

RELATED CONTENT

DID YOU KNOW?

Global

Rainforest Disappearance

The destruction of rainforests—which cover just six percent of the Earth’s surface—is not only eradicating vital habitat for half the earth’s species, some of which will go extinct, but it’s also threatening the forests’ botanical treasures, too. Some of the drugs derived from rainforest plants include Quinine from the cinchona tree, used to treat malaria; Novocaine and its successor Lidocaine, local anesthetics from the coca plant; Cortisone, derived from wild yams, and Diosgenin, an active ingredient in birth control pills; and Turbocuarine, a muscle relaxant used in surgery and to treat disorders like Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis, taken from a variety of plants as an extract known as curare, which also was used for arrow poisons. These drugs largely have been replaced by synthetic drugs, but all were inspired by rainforest plants.

SUBSCRIBE »