"'Mush-on' . . . is the dog-drivers' rendering of the French-Canadian driver's command of "marche on" --to go-- hence, also the Alaskan verb "to mush," meaning to travel, in dog driving.
--James Wickersham, Old Yukon, 1938
Yukon Territory, Canada: latitude 61 degrees north - so far north that only a tiny skullcap of the planet exists above us. It is February and dark. The temperature has not risen above freezing in four months.
Dog mushers and their extended families - spouses, children, dog handlers, and dogs - now converge on the capital of the Yukon Territory. Crammed into wrinkled, coughing pickups, each with an electric cord from an oil-pan heater dangling out of the grille and each carrying a miniature plywood apartment building on the pickup bed, called a dog "box," with spaces for perhaps sixteen to twenty dogs, these teams crunch their way over the ice-covered roadways of Alaska and northern Canada. Destination: Whitehorse.
For observers, things are about to start in the world of long-distance dog mushing. For participants in the Yukon Quest, this is the culmination. All those hours, all that training, all this money. How much? So much there is nothing else.
Even by motor vehicle, travel is eerily lonely this time of year. There are only seven all-year highways in all of this part of North America, and they penetrate only a fraction of the gross topography. In summer, true enough, the Alaska-Canada Highway and its tributaries are the scene of great migrations of steel and pressed aluminum, the vacation herds. In winter you drive these same roadways for ten hours and arrive in the little truck stop village of Tok, Alaska, where the bartender asks, "See any cars out there?" Matter of fact saw four, plus one wolf and twenty-five moose. "Oh? What color wolf?" he asks.
Myself, I'm taking the easy way to the starting line. Already this year, I've covered the distance back and forth six times by car and bush plane, and during summer by canoe. Now I'm riding a charter bus with some Quest officials, a few reporters, and the veterinarians. It's a dark, fourteen-hour road trip, Fairbanks to Whitehorse, with three bottles of champagne, a tin of caviar, and a slab of smoked salmon in my satchel. Windows frost up inside the bus, the road is bouncy, the seats hard, the scene inside raucous. Among those on the bus is Stephane Deruaz, a thirty-eight-year-old veterinarian from the Jura Mountains of France. June Ryan, a specialist in the U.S. Army and a volunteer vet tech, is teaching Stephane to swear like a soldier in English. He looks proud of himself as he blurts out obscenities, the meaning of which he does not comprehend. The worse they get, the more June beams her approval, the harder we laugh, the prouder Stephane appears-like a third- grader spelling words without knowing their meaning. We're all acting like third-graders. The champagne bottle takes another round. And another. Nervous anticipation is one of the glories of any worthwhile journey.
We stop for coffee at a roadhouse just across the Canadian border, and we're yanked back to reality. The instant we step off the bus an icy wind bites any exposed flesh. There is no exhilarating brace to cold like this, just a flash burn. My thoughts go quickly to the realization that we will be without heated shelter soon. The giddy light-headed feeling of expectation collides with sober foreboding about the wilderness we're soon to enter. A sign says the temperature once fell to 83 below at this roadhouse.
In the end, all of us bus riders will be tired, stiff, and hungover on arrival, de rigueur it seems. What fun would it be to begin this thing in tip-top shape, anyway? Bring on the agonies.
The Quest is the toughest race in the world, according to its slogan. Few would dispute this claim, although from time to time nervous organizers worry among themselves whether to tone down their language for fear of scaring people off. But in this era of easy hype, if you can honestly make an unqualified statement like "the toughest in the world," could you possibly resist? Surely, any musher who ever completed the thousand-mile epic wouldn't relinquish the title. Are you kidding? The toughest race in the world! Just getting to the finish line without succumbing to fatigue, frostbite, or self-doubt; completing the trek without getting whipped by your own mistakes or knocked down by bad luck or being kicked in the teeth by nature; advancing around the clock for two weeks against extremes of weather and terrain without fouling that rare bond of trust you have cultivated with your animals - that's the essential goal of most who attempt the Quest. When you sign up for the journey, you flaunt your daring. You proclaim your own physical toughness and mental durability, you assert mastery of bush craft. But mushing is unique: you also must acknowledge reciprocal dependence between yourself and these dogs for survival down the lonely storm-swept trail. Neither of you will make it alone.
Copyright © 2000 John Balzar
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