I’m standing on the runners of the sled as my dog team starts climbing a hill. Then, Ginger, one of the huskies, glances over her shoulder and glares at me when she sees how little I’m contributing to the effort. Her expression is clear: get off the dog sled and push, you freeloader. Embarrassed at my faux pas, I climb off the sled and walk behind my team. Dog sledding in the Yukon is an adventure to remember.
There’s more to dog mushing than sitting in a basket admiring the view. Teamwork, trust and mutual respect are at the heart of a relationship between a musher and their dogs.
It’s one of the lessons that champion musher Frank Turner teaches wannabe mushers like me during a multi-day Rookie Ranch at Muktuk Kennels, 25 minutes outside Whitehorse, Yukon.
Turner won the 1995 Yukon Quest in a record-breaking 10 days, 16 hours and 20 minutes. The annual 1,600km (1,000-mile) race between Whitehorse and Fairbanks, Alaska is known as “the toughest sled dog race in the world.”
The route follows historic Gold Rush and mail delivery routes along frozen rivers, through isolated villages and over four mountain ranges.
Now Muktuk has more than 100 racing, touring or retired dogs and puppies. From feeding the dogs to putting protective booties on their paws, Rookie Ranch participants learn to care for and run dog teams during their stay.
My first lesson is to master the art of fending off advances from an amorous dog. As I’m hanging Panda’s empty food dish on the post outside his doghouse after supper my first evening, the black and white Alaskan husky jumps up on his back legs, throws his front paws around my neck and plants a wet one on me. Just like that.
“He’s a bit forward,” Turner’s wife Anne Tayler later says in the understatement of the week. Then there’s Katrina, a hurricane-like whirlwind of energy who nearly knocks me over as I try to put her dinner on the snowy ground.
Thankfully, the team I’m assigned the next day is a little more sedate than Panda and Katrina. Guide Travis Holmes shows me how to harness six dogs and hook them to the gangline in three pairs behind one another.
The gangline is the physical thread that keeps the team together. Ella and Duchess stand in the lead, with swing dogs Allie and Anna behind them. Rudy and Vanek are in the wheel position immediately in front of the sled.
Every dog has a job. Lead dogs set the pace and follow commands well. Swing dogs play a backup role but can also run in the lead. The wheel position is physically demanding and usually requires the biggest and strongest dogs.
“Rudy is my linebacker,” Holmes says. “He’s not that bright, but he really pulls.”
We also put booties on their feet to protect their paws. Around us, the yard is quickly enveloped in a cacophony of canines jumping on their doghouses and barking: “Pick me! Pick me!”
These dogs are working dogs that are genetically programmed to run. A metal hook wedged into the snow keeps my team from taking off while we get organized.
Once we’re ready to go, I step onto wooden runners on the back of the sled and grip a horizontal bar. Holmes reminds me to shift my weight to control the sled’s direction as it rounds corners and bends in the trail.
That, along with the commands “Gee” (like the letter “G”) sends the team turning right, or “haw” to the left. The brake is a rubber plate between the runners, but this type of transportation is more whimsical than a car. “The emergency brake doesn’t work too well,” Travis jokes.
It only happens in Hollywood movies
Then he unties the sled from its post and pulls the hook out of the snow.
Don’t bother to call out “mush, mush” to get going. That only happens in Hollywood movies. A cheerful “Let’s go!” is enough to prompt the canine team to hit the gas pedal.
“Stand on the brake as you leave the yard because those dogs can fly,” Travis cautions.
No kidding. The dogs take off down the trail toward the Takhini River as I take a deep breath and try to keep my balance while manoeuvring down a hill and around corners.
I’m determined to avoid the humiliation of my first dogsledding experience years earlier when I had fallen off my sled, chased my team down the trail and ended up doing a face plant into the snow.
This time, I stay upright as we fly down the riverbank. Within seconds, the canine concerto from the dog yard falls silent behind us.
The blessed silence is broken only by the sound of the sled’s runners scraping the snow. I exhale with relief after navigating a hill and a couple of curves.
Wooden posts along the river mark the trail. Like a student driver, I try to shift my weight back and forth to make sure we slide between the posts.
My driving lesson goes off without a hitch, and my confidence improves.
Whitehorse to Dawson City
I’m standing on the sled’s runners and starting to feel like a real musher when Ginger reminds me that paw-powered transportation is built on teamwork and mutual respect between a musher and their dogs.
Before leaving the kennel, on my last day I make the rounds and visit my four-legged teammates one final time. Duchess stretches out for a belly rub and then emerges from her doghouse to give me a gentle farewell kiss.
I may not be running the Yukon Quest anytime soon but now I’m more confident handling a dog team and the advances of exuberant guys in black and white fur suits.
The Yukon is an all-seasons destination for those who love being outdoors. Here are more ideas on outdoor activities in the Yukon and if you’re a hiking enthusiast read our story on hiking trails in the Yukon.
Plan your trip between September and April for a chance of seeing the Northern Lights (or Aurora Borealis), which the Yukon is famous for. If you’re short of time, a flight to the Arctic Circle is an experience to remember.