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News
Dogs at sunrise
Magic hour before sunrise

Travel log
Journal date: Dec. 2
Route: Lake Leberge, Yukon Territory
Miles today: 44
Total miles: 2,866
Weather: clear and cold
 
Leslie with dogs




  MESSAGE BOARD
Share your observations and questions about the trip. Jack and Leslie periodically will post their responses.
 
 

Hamann journal: Real mushers don't say 'mush'

December 9, 1999
Web posted at: 4:02 p.m. EST (2102 GMT)

EDITOR'S NOTE: Seattle-based correspondent Jack Hamann is nearing the end of another adventure, this one to just to the south of the Arctic Circle. He's driven through the Canadian Rockies, across the windswept northern plains, up the Inside Passage and along the northernmost section of the Alaska Highway. Follow here through Friday for his final dispatches.

By Jack Hamann and Leslie Hamann

Journal date: December 2
Installment #14

(CNN) -- A taste for moose meat and a talent for whistling.

Most mushers have both. Leslie has neither. Against all odds, she was determined to mush.

Winter solstice is now less than three weeks away. Yukon mornings are bitter cold, particularly when the day dawns cloudless. The sled dogs begin howling at quarter to 8. The first rays of the sun don't hit the trees until a quarter to 10.

The thermometer starts its recovery from the overnight shock of 10 below. Hoarfrost on bare branches above the dogs' houses looks like freeze-dried fireworks. As Frank slices moose meat on a bandsaw in the shed, Tim checks the dogs for signs of injury or illness. After three months of rehearsal, today is the day. The Yukon River has finally frozen solid.

Long before autos or airplanes, the Yukon was a highway for men, their mail, their provisions and their possessions. In summer, it was barges; in winter, it was dogs. The Livingston Trail, winding north from Whitehorse, turns just before Lake Leberge and right outside our cabin.

Frank whistles sharply. In his arms is a tangle of rope and webbing. The sound of a whistle and the sight of harnesses send the dogs into a frenzy of anticipation. This is the first day that the trail will be open, the first time in six months they'll pull a real sled through snow.

And two pikers from Seattle will be at the helm.

Somehow, we have passed Frank Turner's initial test. Frank is no ordinary musher. Many folks say he knows the treacherous 1,000-mile trail between Whitehorse and Fairbanks better than anyone alive. We'll only travel 15 miles of that trail, but we'll be mushing Frank's best dogs. So far, he thinks we can handle it.

Frank owns 83 dogs, most of them a gorgeous mix of husky, collie, German shepherd, Labrador, and here and there, a little wolf. They are wiry and well-fed, crazed for Frank's attention, and apparently ecstatic when Frank chooses them as one of 18 dogs for this morning's special run. Each animal weighs around 50-60 pounds, but as we help attach them to the main rope, we are shocked by the power in their shoulders and legs. Ten dogs will pull the "B" Team: Frank, Jack and a chainsaw. The "A" Team needs only eight dogs, pulling Leslie and Tim -- a strong, good-looking roustabout who is this season's resident dog handler. Frank whistles, and the dogs explode up the trail.

Frank is not tall, but as a high school athlete in Ontario, he played with attitude and sass. When he moved to the Yukon and bought his first dogs, he was determined to subdue his competitive fire. In 1984, he entered the inaugural Yukon Quest, a February endurance race -- less famous than the Iditarod -- but reserved for only the toughest men and smartest dogs. Frank viewed the grueling event as a way to test his wits and have some fun. But after entering the Quest year after year, he came to accept the inevitable: his dogs had talent, he had savvy, and the old competitive urge wouldn't die.

Crossing the frozen Yukon River for the first time each season is an act of faith. One of Frank's best friends died of exposure a few years back after he and his dog team fell through a thin layer of ice. The snow is like sand, gritty and dry, and the trail on the other side of the river is littered with fallen trees and hidden stumps. In a few weeks, the snow will be packed and the route easy to run. But we are the pioneers, and it is time for Jack to drive Team B, and Leslie to mush the A Team.

It's cold. The frost on the trees beams as if caught in bright headlights. Jack's frozen fingers ache as he grabs the back of the sled. His giant winter boots plunk on each trailing ski, on either side of a skid pad in the middle and a brake bar above his toes. Before he is quite ready, Frank barks, "OK!"

Real mushers don't say "mush." The commands are simple and firm, and convey attitude as much as control. As the sled careens through the bright white woods, Jack's attitude is humbled and his control is quickly evaporating. For brief minutes, it seems the sled guides itself, even as it fishtails through the powder and the lead dogs accelerate to a sprint. Suddenly, the trail dives downward and makes a quick, wicked turn. The laws of physics seize the sled, dumping Jack and Frank and the chainsaw unglamorously into a snowbank.

"Don't apologize," lectures Frank, "just pick yourself up and learn from it."

Most world-class mushers grew up with the sport, but Frank spent his childhood in the urban East. He has a master's degree in social work, and talks at length about the plight of emotionally undernourished children. Frank brings that empathy to his relationship with dogs: he views them as partners and treats them with obvious affection. Although he consistently places in the top five of the Yukon Quest -- and won it in 1995 -- Frank is most pleased by an award bestowed by Far North veterinarians; It honors his humane treatment of his dogs.

Frank's patience is tested again as Jack dumps the sled two more times. "If you think you might lose control, you will," instructs Frank. "Just believe you can keep it steady and straight."

Jack learns to use the brake pad before he enters turns, and accepts the importance of keeping the centerline taut. The unexpected barrage of dog poop that seems to pour nonstop throughout the run becomes less of a distraction. Soon, there is a chance to absorb the scenery, to see the raven gliding ahead of us on the trail. We talk about the moose meat (a gift from Frank's neighbor, a First Nations elder) and how good it taste after being grilled for that evening's dinner. In time, the chill goes away from Jack's fingers and he is sledding in the zone.

Leslie and Tim are keeping a safe distance behind. Leslie never dumps her sled and never feels her fingers tingle. She entered the "zone" several miles back, and is soon negotiating with Tim to get more time driving the sled. The non-driver has to sit in the sled itself, in closer range behind the dog poop parade. We occasionally stop to use the chainsaw on downed trees, but by the time we turn for home along the shore of Lake Leberge, Leslie is driving in style. She can't even whistle. She doesn't eat moose meat.

Frank has never missed a Yukon Quest. Now 52, he works out at the gym, maintaining the rock-hard arms and torso of a much younger man. He always assumed he'd know when to stop racing: he'd quit the moment mushing ceases to be fun. But as we race silently through the forest, Frank wonders aloud if the real secret to inner peace is to quit before the fun goes away. The dilemma torments him, even as he brags that his current team of dogs may be the best he's ever had.

Like horses headed to the barn, the dogs race harder as we re-cross the Yukon River on the way back to the kennels. We arrive at our cabin and stumble off of the sleds, windburn and sore, with glassy eyes and wild hair. Our first instinct is to hug each of the dogs we have now come to know by name. Ernie and Molly and Decaff and Latte and Birch and Brandy each reciprocate with a lick and a knowing grin. We had a blast, but they have plenty more work to do. This was only the first real practice with the sled -- and Yukon Quest 2000 is less than 12 weeks away.

Jack Hamann is a correspondent with CNN's Environmental Unit and CNN NewsStand.


Day 13 Previous story:
Day 13: Linguine, margaritas and hemp cookies
Day 15 Next:
Day 15: End of the road...



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