- The Washington Times - Friday, February 9, 2007

MUKTUK, Yukon — Bundled in his bright red coat, icicles dripping from his beard, his cheeks like roses, his nose like a cherry, champion musher Frank Turner is a dead ringer for Santa Claus as his sled, pulled by 14 spirited dogs, flies past me on the frozen Takhini River, leaving a cloud of snow crystals in its wake.

As in the Christmas tale, it will take the entire night for the renowned musher and his flying coursers to finish their appointed rounds.

“If you have an aversion to cold, this is not what you want to do,” Mr. Turner says over a breakfast of cranberry pancakes and caribou sausage before he and his pack of run-thirsty dogs set off at sunrise (10:34 a.m.) for overnight team training — “40 or 50 miles, lots of hills; we’ll camp, then come back.”

Working as a team of musher and dogs is key in preparing for the 1,023-mile Yukon Quest, the “toughest sled-dog race in the world.” It’s run every February (it begins today), the coldest month, from nearby Whitehorse to Fairbanks, Alaska, with the starting point rotated each year.

This year, 28 teams from around the world — one-third more than sprinted away from the starter’s chute last year — will attempt the international quest. Mushers will drive their dogs down dark, obscure trails (teams sleep during the brief daylight, when it’s warmest); along frozen (or so they hope) rivers and streams; and up and over four treacherous mountaintops: King Solomon’s Dome, American Summit, Eagle Summit and Rosebud Summit.

During last year’s Quest, a blizzard blew into one of the summits, and six teams had to be rescued: 84 dogs, one-by-one, plucked to safety by U.S. soldiers flying in Apache helicopters. One of the teams was driven by Mr. Turner’s 25-year-old son, Saul.

Mr. Turner, 59, has been sled-dog racing for almost 30 years and won the Yukon Quest in 1995. In doing so, his team set a new Quest record of “10 days, 16 hours, and some change.”

“Bozo and Streaker are still alive,” the musher says with a smile, referring to his lead dogs from a dozen years ago. “Bozo has since pulled me over 30,000 miles.”

Counting a recent litter of six snow-white puppies, 108 dogs are enjoying life at Mr. Turner’s 100-acre Yukon ranch, Muktuk Kennels. Not the taste, but the sound of Muk-tuk — “whale fat” in Inuit — has always appealed to Mr. Turner. “Muktuk is a place for people who love dogs” is the kennel’s slogan.

Mr. Turner doesn’t buy or sell his dogs; all are born and raised here. Each is an Alaskan husky, mixed here and there with Labrador, collie, greyhound, St. Bernard, even poodle.

Each breed, Mr. Turner explains, has its own strengths when it comes to racing. As a result, the dogs sport every style and color of coat — and no two pairs of eyes are alike.

Each dog also lives in its own green house; their carefully chosen names — Beethoven, Belle, Decaf, Ichabod, Latte, Marley, Mischief, Shilo, Sonar and Terror — are painted above the doors.

Author Robert Norton, in his 2005 book “Treat People Like Dogs,” writes that there is so much intrigue surrounding Mr. Turner’s unique dogs that the Canadian Broadcasting Co. sponsored a nationwide contest to name a litter of Beethoven’s puppies.

“All the dogs here are friendly. Go up to any one of them, and it will lick your face,” Mr. Turner assures my daughter, Kerry. “It’s all about relationships. When a puppy is born, I hold it in my hands, a little bit each day, until their eyes start to open and they can see me. I call it trust-building.”

Muktuk dogs live to be as old as 17, and several retirees are going strong at 15. A handful of the dogs are lounging indoors on this frigid day.

“We keep them all after they retire. We have 10 dogs right now that are arthritic,” says Mr. Turner, who, after a long pause, adds: “And we have a cemetery for when they go on. There’s a great team buried in there.”

Mr. Turner and his wife, Anne Tayler, reside in a roomy bed-and-breakfast-style spruce-log lodge surrounded by five cozy cabins for staff and the hundreds of visitors who arrive each year from all over the world. Guests promptly become members of the Muktuk family, sharing in the chores and hearty meals of meat and vegetables with the staff. There’s even a computer in the main lodge for guests to check e-mails after supper, but chances are the aurora borealis is waiting to dance outside the door.

Thankfully, no computer is set up in Kerry’s and my rustic cabin — come to think of it, there’s no electricity — but by candlelight we take turns reading the new issue of Up Here magazine, popular throughout Canada’s far north from ice-choked Baffin Bay to the Beaufort Sea.

To our delight, the cover story, “It’s a Dog’s World,” introduces “a new breed of mushers” in Canada, one of them being Mr. Turner, who has helped transform the sport of mushing beyond the “bad old days of dog-whips, kicks and curses.”

“If you saw what these people did, what their attitudes were 30 years ago, you wouldn’t believe it,” Mr. Turner tells me. “There was this macho, Klondike mentality.” In other words, sled dogs of yesteryear ran on fear.

Mr. Turner strives to make his dogs happy, tending to their “psychological and emotional needs.” Instead of whipping and kicking, he applies physiotherapy and acupuncture. Some of his dogs get house calls from canine chiropractors. Instead of cursing, Mr. Turner talks to the dogs face to face, knowing each animal’s personality like the back of his weathered hands.

Kerry has cared for dogs — large ones — as pets, and she immediately takes to one face-licking husky appropriately named Panda for its black-and-white markings. The resulting bond is familiar to Mr. Turner.

“The best mushers right now in the Yukon and Alaska are young women — the Kerrys, the Katies, the Caitlans,” he says. “They have their own style with dogs, and the results are warranted, worth paying attention to as far as the men should be concerned. Women see to it that these dogs are healthy and loved. It’s the nature of women; they’re relationship-oriented.”

Mr. Turner has one woman, in particular, to thank for introducing him to the Great White North, or so he reveals when I ask, “How did you end up in the Yukon bush?”

Growing weary of social work in Toronto more than 30 years ago, Mr. Turner and his girlfriend, Barb, decided to flip a coin — “two out of three times” — to see where life might take them next. If he won, they were off to sunny Mexico. He lost. They came. She left. He stayed.

Breakfast finished, Mr. Turner steps outside to choose today’s practice team. It’s minus-10 degrees, yet there’s loud complaining in the Yukon about global warming. Upon seeing Mr. Turner, nearly 100 dogs spring to life, vying in some most creative ways for the musher’s attention: Some jump up and down while they bark; others stand stoically atop their houses; some sit politely by their front doors; a few wag their tails; and the smartest dogs raise their paws.

“They all want to run,” Mr. Turner says. “I wish I could take them all.” Still, the Quest meets the horizon, and he has few weeks left to build the finest team possible. Once the race starts, his 14 dogs will be required to run 100 miles per day through temperatures dipping to 40 below.

Equally as difficult as assembling his team is deciding in what order to place each dog in the harness. The mathematical combinations are mind-boggling, or so I’m learning as Mr. Turner and Kerry, both mathematically inclined, delve deep into factorial permutations.

“A team is a special group,” Mr. Turner says. “We must fit together, find our rhythm, synchronize. What I’m doing today with this process is eliminating the loose parts. Each dog has its individual strengths and weaknesses; some might be their fastest on the Yukon River. Others might pull best going uphill. We have to have the right dog in the right place at the right time. It’s a 14-piece puzzle.”

While Mr. Turner concentrates on the various pieces of the puzzle, Kerry and I join sled-dog guide Mario Golkar (“I’m German, but my mother always liked Italy, so she named me Mario”) for a beginner’s mushing expedition along the ice-covered Takhini and Yukon rivers. We rented our cold-weather gear upon arrival in Whitehorse, but Muktuk supplies any extra boots, scarves and mittens for dog-sledding.

After he lays out the harness for Kerry’s and my sled, Mr. Golkar chooses eight dogs, then harnesses each in position: leaders out front; swing dogs, which keep the other dogs in line, behind them; and wheel dogs, the strongest pullers, closest to the sled. I weigh down our sled by standing on its wooden brake platform because sled dogs are always anxious to run, even more so when harnessed. Kerry patiently places protective booties on the dogs’ paws, all 32 of them.

Mr. Golkar similarly equips his team for more comfortable running, and before we know it, we’re mushing across the ranch, through a stand of timber, down an embankment, and onto the frozen Takhini. I’m the first to drive, with Kerry tucked beneath a blanket in the sled. Fortunately, the team knows exactly what to do, which allows us the opportunity to take in the breathtaking Yukon landscape.

We travel at about 15 mph, gliding sharply around one bend and onto the wider Yukon River.

After several hours of exhilarating mushing, we apply the brakes near the riverbank and allow the dogs some rest and nourishment. Mr. Golkar grabs some twigs and lights a fire with bare hands, and within minutes, we are served hot tea and cocoa.

“Thirty-below isn’t cold,” he teases Kerry. “Fifty-below, now that’s getting cold.” Either way, Kerry’s new digital camera is coated in frost and inoperable. My toes are beginning to feel the same way. Even the dogs appear anxious to get mushing again.

Mr. Turner earlier warned, “Cold is a motivator; so as long as we’re moving, we create heat.” On our return, we discover that it wasn’t cold enough for a large elk that tried crossing the Takhini, probably in the night, only to break through the ice and drown. Only its antlers are visible, the impressive rack rising through the hardened ice and snow.

As Mr. Turner says, the cold is a motivator, and the wood stove in our cabin is smelling better all the time. As I drive the sled toward the ranch, the sun has all but set, and I imagine how difficult it must be for the Yukon Quest teams to spend so many nights — and days — outdoors.

“You sleep on the sled,” Mr. Turner tells me. “You don’t use a tent and sleeping bag, because if it’s 40 below and you climb into a warm bag, then you’re not going to want to get out. If my dogs start to shiver and they tell me, ‘Let’s go, Frank,’ then I want to be able to pick up and go.”

On the 2007 Yukon Quest Web site, Mr. Turner says his team beginning today’s race is a “balance between youthful exuberance and steady experience. Stonley, Livingston, Hershel and Shilo will be running their sixth quest, three other dogs [including Beethoven] will be running their fifth, and I expect that we will have four or more rookie starters this year. I run the males for mainly physical strength and the females for mental focus.”

• • •

Muktuk Kennels provides summer, fall and winter adventure and educational tours; the huskies do a Muktuk Matinee — a daily river walk — from May to September. Muktuk’s cabins are quite affordable, as little as $50 per day per couple. Muktuk is located off Alaska Highway north, 15 miles from Whitehorse. After passing through the junction with the Klondike Highway, look for the Muktuk sign. Call 866/968-3647 or visit www.muktuk.com.

Whitehorse, the capital of the Yukon, offers fine lodging, restaurants, shops and museums. This year the city of 23,000 hosts the 2007 Canada Winter Games. We stayed at the High Country Inn; 800/554-4471. Giorgio’s Cuccina serves delicious food and has an inviting atmosphere; visit www.travelyukon.com.

Several airlines fly to Whitehorse from Vancouver, British Columbia, and Edmonton and Calgary in Alberta. We flew nonstop from Washington Dulles International Airport to Vancouver, then Air Canada to Whitehorse, a 21/2-hour flight.

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