Mad Dogs and an Englishwoman: Travels with Sled Dogs in Canada's Frozen Northby Polly Evans
In the dead of winter, Polly Evans ventured to Canada’s far northwest, where temperatures plunge to minus forty and the sun rises for just/i>
Polly Evans had a mission: to learn everything possible about the howling, tail-wagging world of sled dogs. Fool’s errand? Or the adventure of a lifetime? The intrepid world traveler was about to find out.
In the dead of winter, Polly Evans ventured to Canada’s far northwest, where temperatures plunge to minus forty and the sun rises for just a few hours each day. But though she was prepared for the cold, she never anticipated how profoundly she’d be affected by that blissful and austere place. In a pristine landscape patrolled by wolves and caribou, the wannabe musher was soon learning the ropes of arctic dogsledding, careening across the silent tundra with her own team of yapping, leaping canines.
Shivering but undaunted, Polly follows the tracks of the legendary Yukon Quest, a dogsledding race more arduous than the Iditarod, witnessing a life-and-death spectacle she’ll never forget. Along the way she makes a stop at the Santa Clause house in North Pole, Alaska (where the post office delivers unstamped mail), and witnesses the astonishing northern lights weaving green and red across the sky. And before the snows melt in spring, Polly will have discovered a deep affection for the loving, mischievous huskies whose courage and enthusiasm escort her through the delights and dangers of living life at the extreme—in one of the most forbidding places on earth.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
“Evans excels at ‘stranger in a strange land’ travel writing ... armchair explorers will find much of interest.” —Booklist
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I flew out on Friday, January 13, and returned home on April 1. The dates had almost selected themselves, but they seemed curiously appropriate, for I feared I was embarking on a fool's errand. I was going to spend eleven weeks, in the heart of winter, in one of the most inhospitable climates on earth.
The Yukon is a triangular-shaped territory in the far northwest of Canada. It borders Alaska to the west; at its northern tip lie the icy waters of the Beaufort Sea. Other people travel to the Yukon in the summer, when they can enjoy the long, balmy days that blend one into another with little darkness between. In September, though, the tourists pack their bags and leave. The attractions close. The museums' doors are bolted and the buses are laid up until May. Even most Canadian people, who so proudly extol their pitiless winters when basking comfortably in the sun elsewhere, shiver at the thought of coming this far north during the frozen months. The average temperature in the Yukon in January is minus 15 degrees Fahrenheit, but the mercury can plunge much lower. Temperatures dip regularly into the minus forties; once, they dived to minus 81.
But there's another side to winter in this harsh land. As the nights grow longer, the milky jade and blood red of the northern lights weave across the skies. The snowshoe rabbits' coats turn spotless white, and the Arctic foxes wear plush, dramatic furs. Winter has late blue dawns and the warm buttery light of the low midday sun. It has the jagged gems of hoarfrost and soft, feathery snow. Winter is the season of solitude and pure, glorious silence. And in winter, the sled dogs run.
It was the dogs that drew me. During my time in the north I'd be based at Muktuk Kennels, the operation of one of Canada's most famous mushers, Frank Turner, and his wife, Anne. I'd scoop poop, help with feeding, and learn to drive a sled. From Muktuk, I'd make further trips around the region. I'd follow the Yukon Quest—a thousand-mile dogsled race that runs between Fairbanks, Alaska, and Whitehorse, the capital of the Yukon Territory. I'd visit Dawson City, the town that sprang up in response to the frenzied Klondike gold rush. I'd fly to the very far north, to the Arctic Ocean itself. And through it all, I'd learn all I could about the howling, capering, tail-wagging world of sled dogs.
A short, stocky man with a salt-and-pepper beard and a well-worn red parka pushed through the swing doors of Whitehorse's airport, a tiny one-gate place where arrivals and departures were not just in the same building; they were in the same room. I recognized his face from his website photographs.
"Frank?" I asked.
At this time, in January 2006, Frank Turner was the only person to have competed in each of the twenty-two Yukon Quest dogsledding races since the event's inception in 1984. Frank won the race in 1995 and still held the record for the fastest time. This year, Frank—who, in his late fifties, was wondering if he might be getting a little old for that kind of adventure—would not be entering the race, but his twenty-five-year-old son, Saul, would be running a team.
There was no call for feats of cold-weather endurance on that first night, though: Frank had parked his truck conveniently close to the airport's door, and we ventured just a few steps through the cold night air. In any case, the evening was warm by the Yukon's standards, a mere nine degrees, according to the pilot on the plane. I'd been concerned about what I should wear on the journey: Would I need my long woolen underwear to walk from the airport door to the car? But might I then overheat on the plane? In the end I'd put on ordinary jeans and sneakers, the car was near, and I was fine.
We drove out of town and onto the Alaska Highway toward Muktuk.
"Saul's baby was born on Wednesday," Frank announced as we sped through the darkness. "She's called Myla. She's beautiful."
Conversation moved on to the construction of the road.
"The Alaska Highway was originally built during the Second World War," Frank explained. Alaska was considered by the U.S. military to be vulnerable to Japanese invasion: The Japanese wanted to control the shipping lanes in the northern Pacific, and the attack on Pearl Harbor had crippled the Navy's Pacific fleet. In response to this threat, the Americans set up a defensive line of airfields along the Alaskan coast, and this road, running 1,550 miles from British Columbia to Fairbanks, Alaska, was built to supply them.
"The Japanese wanted to bomb the highway as it was a major supply route, so they built it like this." Frank took one hand from the steering wheel and snaked it into violent meanderings. "That way they couldn't take out whole sections of the road at once. And then the war ended, and they spent the next sixty years and goodness knows how many millions of dollars straightening it out."
About twenty minutes later, we turned off the main road and wound down a steep, snowy back road that had known little attention beyond the ministry of Frank's snowplow.
"This is all First Nations land." Frank gestured toward the woods that surrounded us. Frank and Anne's hundred-acre ranch lay just below where we were now, on the banks of the Takhini River. They had bought the plot just six years previously.
"We were really lucky to get this place so close to town," Frank remarked as we rounded one last bend in the road. And then, seeing a light in an upstairs window of the large log house that stood on the far side of the clearing, "Oh, dear, Anne's still up." He paused before adding, "She never sleeps."
In front of the house a wide, flat yard was dotted with neat rows of small wooden boxes. These were the dogs' houses; it was now past midnight and most of them were asleep in their straw. One sole incumbent stood to attention outside his hut, a dark silhouette in the night. Then, as the headlights picked up his form, we could see him more clearly: a large, dark-coated, tufty-haired husky. He gave three sharp barks in recognition.
"That's Tank," said Frank. "All our dogs are friendly."
We unloaded my bags and carried them up the steps to the main door. A narrow hall opened on to the main room, where Anne greeted us. She was a short, pale-skinned woman in her mid-fifties, wearing a baggy sweatshirt and wide-rimmed glasses. Her long, straight, graying hair was tied back into a ponytail. A smallish black and white dog with vivid blue eyes and a slightly waddling gait trotted up alongside her.
"This is Angel," said Frank. "She's deaf." Angel was now an elderly lady, but her ears had been useless since birth. Frank had given her years ago to Anne as a present.
"Talk about bringing coals to Newcastle!" Anne roared with laughter as she told the story. "Frank's only ever given me two presents. One was the bone from a whale's penis, and the other was a deaf dog!"
(I later discovered this wasn't entirely true. There was also a rather beautiful painting by a First Nations artist, depicting a spirit grandmother watching over the subsequent generations of her family, that hung on the living-room wall.)
Frank's tale about the acquisition of Angel was slightly different: He had gone to a breeder and paid a lot of money for two sled dogs. Worried about how he was going to explain this expenditure to his wife, he found his thoughts settling upon a small deaf puppy with pretty blue eyes that the breeder was giving away. "Maybe that will calm her down," he thought.
It later transpired that in her younger days Angel had been a useful lead dog when harnessed next to a reliable partner. The lead dogs are the front pair, and the rest of the team—usually harnessed two by two…follows their example.
"If her partner followed the commands, she was great," Frank said.
Of course, if the partner ignored the musher's orders, poor Angel was no help at all.
On the floor of the living room lay a thick-coated gray and white female. She thumped her tail with arthritic enthusiasm and struggled to rise to her feet.
"This is Louise," Frank went on. "She's fifteen." He walked into the hall and opened the door so that this benign geriatric could go outside one last time before bed.
"Come on, Louise! Come on, Louise!" he called emphatically.
Louise tried her best, but her back legs were weak and her feet slipped on the painted wooden floor. Anne tried to haul her upward.
"No, she can do it. Let her get up on her own," Frank insisted, until Louise finally dragged herself to her feet and creaked out of the door.
"We keep this closed at night," said Frank, shutting a child gate between the main room and the hall once Louise had returned indoors. "Sometimes Louise has accidents."
He showed me upstairs to my room.
"We've put you in the house for now," he explained. The majority of Frank and Anne's tourism operation guests, and their staff, lived in a handful of cabins that lay among the trees to the side of the driveway. I'd move to one a few weeks later, when I'd returned from following the Yukon Quest.
"The washroom's next door," said Frank. On its door was pinned a sheet of paper instructing users in bold black capitals to keep the door CLOSED. "We always keep the door shut because the cats might get in," Frank said, then hesitated a little before adding, "I'm just afraid they might fall in the toilet and not be able to get out."
Wisely avoiding the perils of the sewerage system, a cat had taken up residence on my bed. She was an elderly, skinny tortoiseshell—I later learned she had thyroid problems, for which medication was administered twice a day. Her name was Kato. She had come to the Turner family many years ago from an animal-rescue shelter, and she still bore frostbite scars on her nose and ears as testament to her difficult youth. In her more boisterous days she used to ambush Scrapper, Frank and Anne's male Siamese, and so she was named after Inspector Clouseau's martial-arts-crazy manservant. She looked far from violent now.
I pushed Kato out on to the landing and soon fell into an exhausted sleep. It was eight a.m. now in England, and I'd left home more than twenty hours before. During the night, I woke to the sound of dogs howling. It was a strangely beautiful noise, like a plaintive singing. Some voices performed in a clear treble tone, while others took the lower ranges. I was almost certain that, if I listened carefully, I could detect the lusty meows of Kato trying to join in. Then, suddenly, as though led by a conductor wielding a concert baton, in unison they stopped.
Muktuk means "whale blubber" in Inuit; apparently it tastes like hazelnuts. Fortunately for the jet-lagged urban tourist, however, the kennel's name has no influence on the breakfast menu. "I just liked the sound of it," Frank explained.
The time difference had woken me early the following morning, and when I'd heard clattering sounds in the kitchen downstairs, I emerged from my room. Frank was preparing coffee.
"We run a help-yourself system here," he told me. "There's fruit and cheese and salami and so on in the fridge." He yanked open the door of the hulking white refrigerator to display its copious contents crammed precariously into every cranny. "There are apples and bananas there," he went on, pointing to a chrome-and-mesh container that hung above the counter upon which outsized thermoses dispensed coffee and hot water. In a nearby box, teas of all creeds were bundled: Alongside the everyday Earl Grey and chamomile were green tea with peppermint infusion, ginger peach, and various takes on the theme of chai.
I'd been so tired the night before that I hadn't taken in much about the house, so now I was looking at it as if for the first time. This floor, raised from ground level, was open plan and had a relaxed, lived-in feel. In front of the kitchen counter, the dining and sitting area was dominated by a long table covered by a blue cloth. Behind the table, a pine staircase led to the second floor and a door gave on to the ground-level garage. The opposite wall of the living room was taken by a long, comfy gray sofa; to one side sat a pink-upholstered rocking chair. Central heating kept the building warm. A bathroom with a shower lay off the living room; outside its door, a large pantry cupboard contained boxes of granola bars and oatmeal, enormous tubs of powdered stock, and all manner of other dry ingredients.
The walls were covered with photographs, paintings, drawings, and sketches of dogs past and present. Some were portraits in pencil or pastel. Others were huge framed photographs: Frank and his Quest team silhouetted against a spectacular tangerine sunset; the dogs of a Japanese friend who undertook an arduous mushing journey through the Arctic; a smaller photograph of a much younger Frank with a dog and Saul as a very small child. Some paintings were large and painstakingly executed. Others were simple posters in frames, recalling Yukon Quests of years gone by. There were wobbly children's drawings of mushers and sled dogs executed in pencil and felt-tip pen. On the fridge door was stuck a cartoon that had been sent via e-mail. A man was holding up a dog, its underside to his face. The caption, in a balloon from his wife's mouth, read, "Frank! Let him lick his own balls! I swear you spoil that dog rotten!"
Strangely, for a place so governed by the comfort of its canine inhabitants, the house didn't smell strongly of dogs. Neither did the furnishings appear to be excessively coated in their hair. It was curious: At home in London, I tended to sneeze in houses where dogs resided, but here at Muktuk, my nose didn't so much as tickle. Maybe it was because here both dogs and humans spent so much time in the healthy outdoor air.
The kitchen window looked out over the dog yard. It was still dark outside; I asked what time it would turn light.
At nine o'clock or so, Frank said, then darkness would fall again at four-thirty or five. The hours of daylight, then, weren't very different from those in England at that time of year.
We were silent for a few moments. The morning news murmured from a radio on the kitchen counter. From the garage below emanated light thumping noises, followed by the sound of spraying water.
"There's Sebastian," said Frank. "If you really want to get involved in what we do around here, he's the person you need to talk to."
He opened the door that led from the living room down a short staircase to the ground-level garage. Sebastian looked up from his task hosing down white cylindrical buckets. The noise had been their gentle clattering. He was tall and lean. He was wearing bright-red dungarees emblazoned with the logo of an Austrian beer company he had worked for the previous summer and a red-and-gray patterned woolen hat with earflaps.
Frank introduced us. I explained my earnest desire to shovel frozen dog poop at every opportunity; Sebastian didn't think there would be a problem.
Meet the Author
Polly Evans is very cowardly and not at all fond of danger. She does, however, have an unfortunate tendency to seek out discomfort and sometimes even downright pain, the result of which are the travel adventures It’s Not About the Tapas, a Boston Globe bestseller and People “Great Reads: Travel” pick; Fried Eggs with Chopsticks, about Polly’s journey through China; Kiwis Might Fly; and On a Hoof and a Prayer, all available from Delta. As an award-winning journalist, Polly’s work has been featured in Real Simple, Food & Wine, and on the National Geographic Travel website. When she’s not on the road, Polly lives in London.
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