A Musher's Motivations

Thursday, February 4, 2016

With only days before the start of the 33rd Yukon Quest I find myself thinking back on a common question I was asked last year around this time: “What is it about mushing that you find so engrossing?” I thought this a fair question since Prince Edward Island, where I grew up, is not exactly a mushing mecca. My relationship with mushing has been a fluid one, and it has grown much like any relationship: an introduction of two people that grows stronger by sharing wonderful experiences.

Growing up, the north was the setting of many an adventure. As a teenage boy, the tales of the fortune seekers during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1896 to 1899 and Jack London’s romantic portrayals of northern life captivated me. More recently I have also found inspiration in the art of the late Ted Harrison: a Canadian artist known for his landscapes of Yukon. In all of these portrayals of northern life, dogsledding figures prominently, so it is not surprising that my interests lead me to the sport.

For those who live in or have visited the north, you are well acquainted with the stunning landscapes and wild beauty of the land. This backdrop alone is enough to draw spectators and athletes to the sport. If you have not beheld the glorious colours of the northern skyline, take a moment to examine one of Ted Harrison’s paintings. I am particularly fond of his Trans-Canada Trail, and I believe it will give you insight into what you have been missing.

Running dogs on the remote sections of trail in training and racing were some of my most memorable moments; it was during these occasions that I felt most connected with nature. Wearing every article of clothing in my possession, I recall the cold, crisp, and cloudless nights on the Denali Highway. I watched, enchanted, as the breath of my dogs rose momentarily from their mouths only to rest in a scintillating frost upon their coats. There were nights of gazing at the northern lights and watching them dance across the sky: their radiant reds and greens competing only with the cool blue glow of the moon. Then there are the sunsets and sunrises. How the sun does take her time to rise in late winter, greeting us first with a hesitant sliver of gold before she bursts forth, exuberant in her full glory. On those long runs into early morning, I wondered if the sun was not rising merely for my pleasure. These and countless other moments of serenity beyond description keep one coming back to the sled.

Perhaps you are wondering how one endures despite the hardships of sleep deprivation and the frigid temperatures, but I would share with you that working through these discomforts are remarkably rejuvenating. To illustrate this point, allow me to recount a brief story from my camping days as a child. On weekends, a close friend and I would often flee to the woods to fish, camp and enjoy the wilderness. Fancying myself a bit of a woodsman in those days, I decided on one particular trip to bring nothing but my Peterson’s field guide to edible plants. I planned to live off only what the land would provide, and since it was mid-summer, I was certain her bounty would be plentiful. That evening, with the help of Mr. Peterson, I had amassed a score of plantains, wild oats, crab apples, and dandelions, and began making a soup over our fire. To say that what I made was the worst and least satisfying nutriment I have ever sampled would be an understatement. Given the choice of repeating that meal or eating low-end cat food, I would gladly choose the latter. Later in the evening, and to get to the point of the story, I accepted a fire-charred hotdog from my bemused camping partner. To this day I remember that hotdog as one of my most satisfying meals. These self-inflicted hardships of mushing renew my gratitude of the everyday aspects of life that would have otherwise gone unappreciated.

Finally, and most importantly, a word on the bond between a musher and her dogs. Anyone who has a dog in their family knows that they have an incredible impact on us. A greeting at the door following a tough day at work, a walk on a rainy Tuesday, or just hanging out together on the couch, they wonderfully complement and fulfill our lives. Imagine now that you work with your dog. Everyday the two of you set out to accomplish a task. Together you work through daily problems: grunting at your shortfalls and rejoicing in your achievements. With time and practice, the two of you become so proficient you believe it possible to read each other’s thoughts. You rely on one another and willingly make personal sacrifices for the benefit of your companion. For me this special connection was felt most intensely with my lead dogs, Chile and Woody, and it was only possible after months of training and living together. There were countless times last year when my dogs and I negotiated a complex series of obstacles by gracefully snaking between them with gee and haw commands. These were proud moments for me, and they reminded me how far we had grown together. This special bond keeps a musher in the game year after year.

Mushers do what they do for a multitude of reasons. Many will tell you jokingly not to get too close or you will get addicted too. From my experience and from what I have gleaned from the biographies of mushing greats like Jeff King, Joe Redington, and Lance Mackey, the love of dogs is a motivation shared by all mushers. As race day approaches, I look forward to hearing the stories and motivations of this year’s crew of twenty-three mushers. It is going to be another great race! 

Damon Tedford