Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 18, 2021
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Yukon gold

Heed the call of the wild on a dogsledding adventure outside Yellowknife

First comes the noise. A hundred dogs, each chained in front of their own boxy house, each barking “Pick me! Pick me!” One by one, the lucky few are selected, untied and harnessed to the sled. They bark even louder: “I want to go, go, go!” Once all spots are filled and the sled is made ready, howls of lament go up from the ones left behind.

Then the dogs are given the command and they run. And all is silent. There is the slight scratch of the runners on the snow, but it only heightens the hush. The dogs are doing what they were born and bred to do. They are pure focussed excitement. It is a perfect moment.

Until they start farting.

“We train them to poop on the run,” explains Frank Turner, owner of Muktuk Kennels just outside Whitehorse in the Yukon. Turner has entered the tough-as-permafrost Yukon Quest almost every year since it started over two decades ago. He’s won it once and is a regular top-five finisher. He still holds the record for best time.

But one of the real highlights for Turner was winning the first-ever Yukon Quest Vet’s Choice award. Because Turner loves his dogs. He brings in chiropractors to give them alignments, uses homeopathic remedies, gets vets to come out with portable ultra-sound and X-ray machines, feeds his dogs Arctic char and never, ever, sells one or puts one down just because it cannot run anymore.

That’s why there are around 130 of them yapping away in his front yard. Those that can’t run the Quest still get to run in touring teams, set up to teach city slickers a truly Canadian way of life.

Land of Ice and Paws

It is hard for southerners to understand the importance of dogs in the north. In winter, the land opens up. Uncrossable rivers become frozen highways. “Once the freeze comes, I can go 1000 kilometres right to the Bering sea,” explains Turner. “And travelling with a dog team is different than travelling by Ski-Doo. With a dog team, I always know I’m coming home.”

That feeling of having a partner in survival has been around a long time. Native Canadians domesticated dogs as hunting, packing and sledding animals long before the first fur trader arrived. What horses were to the West, dogs were to the North, and more.

Modern Northern dogs come in all breeds, but there are indigenous breeds as well. The Tahltan bear dog came from the interior of Northeast BC and was domesticated by the Tlingit, Casca, Sikanni and Tahltan. One Tahltan elder, John Carlick, explained: “If you had a bear dog, you could find game; if you didn’t have a bear dog, you starved.”

With the arrival of the Europeans and others, dogs were employed in all sorts of new ways. They were used to pack out fur, to carry mail, to transport gold down from the Klondike and to bring in medical supplies. By 1899, the North-West Mounted Police had 200 dogs working for them in the Yukon.

Hounds of history

The men of the Gold Rush fell hard for their dogs as well. In the crazy summer days and interminable winter nights of Dawson City, the only one they could trust was their dog. The relationship made such an impact that Jack London, who spent only a winter in the Yukon, ended up writing his two classics, White Fang and The Call of the Wild, about dogs of the North.

The famous North-West Mounted Police Lost Patrol of 1910-11 became lost because they were hoping to make a new dog-team record run between Dawson City and Fort McPherson. Ironically, Corporal Dempster and his team later made that record when they set out to find their lost colleagues. When they uncovered the carcasses of the Lost Patrol’s eaten sled dogs, they knew things were not good. It wasn’t long before they found the bodies of the men as well.

Tourist tails

Slowly, the heroism of dog team drivers was replaced by the heroism of bush pilots. And the work of the team was replaced by the snowmobiles. But, in the past few years, the number of teams in the north has boomed. Part of it is tourism driven: the Japanese and Germans want authentic Northern experiences. And who are we to question what they mean by authentic?

But another part of it is people like Turner. People who just love dogs and think they belong running the frozen streams of the north.

Turner himself is a modern convert. He grew up in Toronto, where he got his masters in social work. When he came up to the North in 1974, he started to learn the value of pooches. “For years I worked with the Native community. Having dogs really opened up communication. Elders would want to come up and tell me stories about their dogs. And I’d tell them some about mine.”

Turner’s attitude towards his canine family holds a few wisps of his social-work days: “To me dog teams are all about relationships — with each dog and between each dog — and about trust. With dogs, once you bond with them, it’s so unconditional. Dogs are so giving. The rest of the world can turn on you, and you can go home and your dog will be there for you. Here, that is multiplied by 100.”

Race relations

And while he values the therapeutic benefits of loving-thy-doggie-neighbour, when it comes to racing, Turner switches to a more business-like vocabulary. “Being on a dog team is about building confidence and risk assessment. I do employee evaluations on the dogs so they can be the best team players. I’m evaluated by our performance.

“In my racing team, there are 14 dogs. I’ll likely have about 11 males and three females. The males are there primarily for strength. The females really have much better focus on the trail. The males can get distracted by squirrels.

“Dog teams are very dynamic; I’m always changing the lead. There is only one alpha in the team and that’s me. I try to think two or three days ahead about the dogs I want to use on a particular part of the trail. Some are fast, some are powerful. Everyone is a good performer on a good day; I want to plan for off days. Not just their physical needs, but their psychological and emotional ones as well. My job is to take care of all that. Subtle changes tell you something is going on.

“If you are giving 100 percent, there is no 110 percent. I’ve got to recognize that. I made that mistake a long time ago. I let the competition get in the way and they just quit on me. Now for me the key to a good race is that it be fun for me and fun for the dogs. If it’s fun for me, I project that onto the dogs. The whole key to working with animals is handling our emotions.”

At which point Turner himself gets a little emotional. “Racing is the icing on the cake. The cake is the dogs.”

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