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Journey At The Yukon Quest

Watching the dogs run

Andrew Princz, eTN  Mar 29, 2010

She was an unlikely poet, being a bush-girl and all. But she was not an unlikely musher. Kyla Boivin looked awkward last year at the banquet of the Yukon Quest dog sledding race in her small fitting black dress, freshly-painted red nail polish, and dancing shoes. Her appearance led me to a double take. After all, this was a gathering of the rough and tumble setting off on a very lonely and blistering cold trek through the Yukon’s most unforgiving of landscapes.

But she was well aware of the sleepless nights that were to come; they were even second nature for her. Boivin had run dogs since she was sixteen years of age. She was precocious and no pushover. She was endearing but in a very peculiar way.

The quote on Kyla’s facebook page today reads, “Do the thing that scares you the most.” On the same page she also describes herself as "an asshole." But I don’t believe her. It’s just a mixture of her contrarian nature and an upbringing far away from settled lands, I suspect.

Freshly-painted nail polish and dancing shoes
Needless to say, her appearance, all decked in freshly-painted nail polish and dancing shoes at the banquet, was incongruous. She had spent much of her life driving along tracks etched in the snow, often with a cigarette dangling from her mouth. She learned early to lead teams of old-style Yukon trapping dogs across some of the most bitterly cold, wild, and rugged landscapes of the north.

You would hardly have guessed that this almost dainty yet altogether rough around the edges young woman of twenty-six was about to set off on the Yukon Quest; reputed to be the world’s most grueling of dog races.

“You get tired, and you get cold, and you get hungry; and that’s par for the course,” she told me at the banquet without a hint of hesitation, “If you want to be comfortable, then just stay home.”

“For me it feels like that’s where I’m supposed to be. It’s the best place in the world to be - watching the dogs run. That’s why I just keep on coming back I guess.”

Kyla had run the race a stunning six times since her debut when she was eighteen. The year before, she had won the Red Lantern, a quirky accolade awarded to the last participant to cross the finish line. But she crossed it. And by now she was considered a veteran. She was hoping to finally get closer to the top-tier finishers that she referred to as "the professionals." It was a goal that continues to evade her.

The professionals are those mushers who regularly finish in the top ten of the Yukon Quest or its better-known yet less-rugged Alaskan nemesis, the Iditarod. Most participate in both. In recent years, these races had become so competitive that mushers had to spend top dollars putting together their dog teams. In this race, just to get to the starting line might set you back some ten thousand dollars.

The top-tier racers setting off on the next day’s Yukon Quest included the likes of the German-born Sebastian Schnuelle, the Austrian Hans Gatt or the Swiss-born musher Martin Buser. These mushers made a life and a business out of racing. Their participation in each event could well depend on the purse. It’s an expensive competition for everybody, and they race to win; it’s a business decision of sorts.

Each of these mushers are also tied to a parallel business. Named after his first dog Blue, Schnuelle runs Blue Kennels, while Gatt constructs sleds for fellow mushers for his firm, Gatt Sled and finally Buser raises sled dogs at his Happy Trails Kennels.

Funding the journey to the Yukon Quest
Kyla Boivin had no such business. She had funded her journeys on her own steam, given an initial push by her supportive parents. She had also developed a posse, a group of local friends who cheered her on and helped her along the way. She was on a mission to bring Yukon dog sledding history to life. She was motivated in her own way; although she admitted that her passions may have kept her from having a good job, maybe some money, and certainly a life other than her dogs.

But at that moment in her life, she was motivated by the prestige of finally finishing in the top-tier of the Yukon Quest. She still had the energy to fuel her own mission.

In contrast to Kyla’s coquetries that evening, on entering the vast hall you might have mistook the launch banquet for a bingo-hall evening. The chatter overshadowed a live rendition of Leo’s Song, a tale of brown-eyed puppy love of a low-brow scruffy pound dog, Leo, for the hot-dog Sara, a wonder-dog whose "got papers" and just won’t give poor Leo a chance.

A silent auction sold books on the Quest, calendars, or other paraphernalia. Hard-core quest journalists buzzed about the room looking for their angle. There was the unlikely story of the Jamaican musher, Newton Marshall, who had been trained by three-time Quest victor Hans Gatt. There was the noted absence of the record-breaking, four-time Yukon Quest winner Lance Mackey, who was not around to defend his title. There were volunteers, family members, kennel owners, and team sponsors. It was all taking place in a familial atmosphere.

A test of physical and mental endurance
The Yukon Quest is respected among hard-core mushers as the real thing; a test of physical and mental endurance known to be the toughest sled-dog race in the world. It follows the historic Gold Rush and mail delivery dog sled routes that date from the turn of the 20th century. During the ten- to sixteen-day trek, temperatures can dip lower than minus forty bellow Celsius; you can see one-hundred-mile-an-hour winds and face dangerous jumble-ice conditions, when loosened ice formations protrude from the otherwise frozen rivers.

Alternating in directions every year, last year the Yukon Quest started in Whitehorse in the Yukon, and made its way to Fairbanks, Alaska, passing over five mountain summits and winding down the Yukon River. Mushers run the race with mandatory equipment that is verified at ten designated checkpoints, which are up to two hundred miles apart. In between these, you are basically on your own.

The banquet that evening was the last hefty meal for the group of twenty-nine mushers before they and their dogs melded into the landscape. The next morning the intense race would begin. It was a time when some teams were nervously tweaking their strategies.

Kyla stumbled onto the stage. She thanked a sponsor for lending a truck used by her handler, Kristie Falkevitch. Kristie would follow Kyla over the course of the race, providing provisions at the checkpoints and picking up the dropped dogs. Veterinarians inspect the dogs at any stage of the race, and the injured or those unable to go on, are left in the care of the handler. This is called "dropping" a dog.

The coming days and nights would be spent in what Kyla’s poetry referred to that evening as "dog dreams," where the rhythmic pace of dog paws sounded like music to her as they scratched their way through the snows of a vast landscape.

Kyla reads her poem, Dreams of the Long Run
In contrast to the speeches of the other mushers, Kyla read her poem, "Dreams of the Long Run." The room froze in silence as she narrated in poetic terms the life that she would lead in the coming days. Gone would be the small black dress as her sled would become her home. She would be left to her thoughts, to "drift free in the grand peace... and the mighty chaos of this journey."

The next morning you could hear the multiple dog barks from my second-floor room at the Edgewater Hotel. Originally the Windsor, the hotel had stood at the very same place since the 19th century Klondike era. The Yukon Territory is a vast swath of majestic lands, the settlements of which seem haphazard but retain the rustic charm of a century ago.

I found Kyla, her posse, and her gear dispersed on the snow as she hammered away at a new and lighter sled that was lent to her at the last minute. She wasn’t fazed in the slightest but was just itching to get out of the starting gate.

As start-time approached, a blanket of haze enveloped the scene, as crowds gathered on either side of 1st Avenue in the center of the small city. As the mushers and their dog-sled teams charged out onto the trail, their bulky masses pierced the condensation.

The sun shone brightly, and the sounds of the barking dogs became louder. The canines understood that the moment for setting off had arrived, and their excitement was palpable. One by one the mushers lined up and made a last check, caressed their dogs before the buzzer sounded, and the long run began.

“I really love the trail,” Kyla told me, “Helping a dog team run a thousand miles is incredible. It never gets old for me.

“Watching them get up after six hundred miles, and eight hundred miles, and nine hundred and fifty miles, and they’re wagging their tails saying yea, let’s go! That just blows me away every time. I just love that.”

Kyla’s team was the second to head out towards the Braeburn checkpoint that morning. She had a team of young dogs and was careful not to push them too hard. She had raised these dogs herself; she didn’t have a big kennel to work with. But it was clear that this was a pivotal year. She wanted to become a player in the Yukon Quest.

For the coming days, the snowy landscape and the stars would be the guides for this spunky musher who was most in her element on the quiet trail. She disappeared around the corner of the track and headed for the lonely remote forests of the north.

Living my own adventures
As Kyla and her team made their way, I lived a set of my own adventures in the Yukon. I got my own taste of the wide-open landscapes, albeit a more tame view. I traveled north of Whitehorse to Lake Laberge where a seasoned musher took a group of us on trail over the frozen lake on a sunny day.

Then close to sundown, we visited Muktuk Adventures, a kennel located close to the Takhini River and run by one of the most seasoned Yukon Quest mushers, Frank Turner. He took me out to see his 127 Alaskan huskies, each of which lived in a green box with their names painted onto the outside. There was Kirby, Beethoven, Tucker, Oreo, Kaze... As we walked, Turner suddenly yelled out a long cry, which was swiftly answered by a canine symphony. The dogs really answered to him.

Frank Turner had participated in the Yukon Quest all but one year of the twenty-five runs of the race. When he wasn’t running, he was supporting his son in the adventure. Last year was the first year that he didn’t have a team running in the Quest.

“To get in the top-ten you really have to believe in yourself and in your team. You also have to work like heck,” he told me. “You have to establish really good goals and then a plan that is going to achieve those goals. You can’t switch your plans in mid-stream. You’ve got to believe in the plan.”

Before flying northward to Dawson City, some three hundred miles away, to meet up with the Quest teams, we took a flight over Kluane National Park on a small floatplane. Almost the size of Switzerland, from above we witnessed the open waters, steep banks, and high mountain landscapes. We saw moose, evidence of wolves, and endless fields of white-carpeted snow pierced only by towering ice-blue glaciers and northern forests.

By the time we arrived at Dawson City, the first mushers had already begun to check in to the camp across the frozen Yukon River. Mushers and their teams have a mandatory 36-hour layover here before continuing on their 1,000-mile journey.

Kyla Boivin arrived at Dawson City eager to set her dogs to rest at the camp in a straw blanket prepared by her handler. She was eager to change her socks, but maybe more ready to have a beer. I could not help but noticing that her red nail polish from the banquet had chipped away. The Dawson City stop was the only checkpoint on the race where the dogs and their teams were permitted contact and to receive assistance from family and friends. The road to the camps was a busy place where, well into the night, fires burned and vets made their rounds looking like miners in the night with flashlights strapped to their heads.

Hanging out at the Dawson City camp
During the Dawson City rest, I hung around the camp and for a moment became an adjunct to the crew. I would take the dogs for walks and chop wood for fire. There were Kyla’s parents, Roch and Katheryn Boivin. The jolly atmosphere included her childhood friends Sylvia Frish and her little baby, Madeline Derepentigny, or Mado as they called her. Of course, there was the steadfast team handler, Kristie Falkevitch.

Dawson City was Kyla’s hometown. Her father, Roch Boivin, was originally from the Lac St. Jean area of Quebec and had headed up to Dawson City at eighteen years of age with the dream of becoming a bushman. He was inspired by the stories of his great-grandfather who had come here during the early days of last century.

“He told the stories of the Klondike, of the dog teams, the horses, the miners and the can-can girls,” Boivin told me, “He would come back from Dawson five years later with enough gold to cover the top of a double bed, and that is what purchased our homestead land in Lac St. Jean.”

The mythology of turn-of-the-last-century Dawson City is well known. Adventurers from far and wide came here for fame and golden fortunes. The city itself to this day has let time stand still. The architecture is much as it was, the town a tiny community. When Kyla’s father arrived here, he found the quirky nature of the place as familiar as the stories and people that he had heard about from his childhood.

“It was just as crazy as he said it was. There were still all the crooked buildings, the mushers, and dog teams and trappers. I never went back,” Boivin said.

Roch and Katheryn Boivin raised their children, Kyla and Eli, outside of the central Yukon First Nation village of Mayo where they spent months at a time in the bush, isolated from the outside world. The family spent the winters on trap-lines and summers building lodges, air-strips, or working with horses. Dog mushing was not a sport for them, but it was a necessity. It was the only mode of transportation that they had.

“She is socially awkward,” Kyla’s father admitted to me, resulting from years in the isolated north, “But when she’s on a dog team, that’s where she wants to be. When she’s alone, she’s happy. Kind of like me.”

Kyla never finished the Yukon Quest last year. A one-line sentence in a CBC report said that race had ended for her on the steep climb up Eagle Summit in Alaska. She attempted to climb the summit but turned back when her dogs were unable to make the ascent.

She wasn’t at the Yukon Quest this year either. The last note I got from her read simply, “No racin [sic] this winter, just workin [sic]. Thanks for your help last year in Dawson.” I am pretty sure that she will be back. She will return to watch the dogs run.

Montreal-based cultural navigator, Andrew Princz, is the editor of the travel portal He is a writer and broadcaster and is involved in country awareness and tourism promotion projects globally. He has ventured to almost sixty countries around the globe.

Watching the dogs run
Photo by Andrew Princz


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