Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Outdoor Theatre at it's Finest?

Hello my friends,
What is this I see? While perusing through the local paper I recently came upon an article about dog mushing that was quite perplexing. For only twice was the word DOG even mentioned though the word MONEY was mentioned 17 times - I guess it really does make the world go round. Curtis Erhart, an accomplished sprint musher who I was quite lucky to learn many things from always laughed whenever the discussion came to dog mushers getting rich off of racing, "you're wasting your time if that's all you're in it for..." Though one might be relatively successful, a musher has so many expenses just to survive in this demanding environment that the pursuit of instant wealth is pure folly at best. LOVE of these northern canine beasts, their unique spirit and talents as well as the notion of 'living life to its fullest' on a daily basis should always be the driving force, hopefully, for anyone who is so lucky to be a part of this rare lifestyle. Now don't get me wrong- Dogs- since the advent of the Gold Rush in the Yukon territory just over a century ago have been a form of commerce. Whether through labor or trade, (Some at up to $500) their ability to assist in transporting goods via the sled has been a major backbone for the northern economy. That's why it is quite disheartening to see modern day mushing events, particularly long-distance races, primarily focus the public's attention on the money, speed and fame. There being lil' if any print on these amazing animals whose spirit defines our existence.

Now most folks probably feel that after our Quest embarassment this past season that I'd be chomping at the bit to get some retribution, especially after our successes towards the end of the year with those very same dogs. Far from it - others can judge us as they wish- after all it's a sign of their spirituality not ours. Personally I'm more worried about an incredible Dogmushing Event - the YukonQuest- that in recent years hasn't come close to honoring the spirit in which it was originally conjured up over a few beers in a bar called the BullsEye back in the mid-80's. The pooches and myself have been over this majestic, awe-inspiring terrain from Whitehorse to Fairbanks 6 times now- though we were halted in Dawson this last time around. The landmarks, the people, The Dogs will always be enmeshed in my very soul for this is where we "Grew Up." On my back rests a tattoo of our 2003 Quest squad to remind me each and every day of how fortunate we have been to be a part of this sacred ritual. To see something so wonderous transformed into a game of #'s- "How much dinero you gonna pay me to come back next year?" is so sad that its comical. $25,000 'imagined' dollars added to the purse? Why not put a band-aid on someone whose suffering a heart attack?

Even sadder than this is that after our departure in Dawson not ONE of our fellow dogmushers, people I considered friends, called to see how we were doing. In fact the few who spoke with us in Dawson were Cor Guimond,Paul Geoffrion and Wayne Hall- sourdoughs, decent human souls as well. Modern day mushers, what I like to refer to as the "Me- Generation" are generally all about themselves and that is why we're seeing such a spiritual collapse in the mushing scene. Biggest difference between the Quest and Iditarod? It ain't the Money folks- it's the sense of community. Sure, there's gossip everywhere you go but there's also a willingness to give a little in order for the community to thrive as a whole. You won't see Jeff King hiding out in the bushes so that other's dogs have to break trail thus enhancing their chances of making more $ at the finish line. Destroying the competition for personal gain. There once was a "Code of the North" that is but a myth nowadays. Heard the one about how great the Quest dogmusher said the other guy/gal was ? Neither have I. Suppose that's just the way humans are evolving. What about the DOGS! (since hearing from a few Quest mushers of their point of view about this incident I wanted to clarify that my impression of this was from the newspaper that perhaps exaggerated a musher's view on breaking trail. In actuality, Lance did most of the trail breaking in the section from Central to Circle even with a dog in the sled - another reason why they deserved to win. In hindsight I should have stayed back and rested with these teams so there were more teams together alternating the task of breaking trail.)

There are all types of beautiful flags; besides Alaska's I believe that of the Yukon Territory is my favorite. Why? Because there's a Husky dog on it silly! (It was designed by explorer James Huston) For some of us in this mushing world $ might be a continual struggle but it is not the only SOLUTION. Dogs are a Religion, a sense of one's spirit- whatever it takes we'll make it work. Aren't the public sick of mushers whining? With some 50 furry friends to play with on a daily basis we don't have time to complain- there's too many other things to keep us happy and occupied. That's why it's so sad to see organizations throw a small pittance of money into a race in order to attract 'premiere mushers' when they should be more concerned with a safer trail as well as promoting the attributes of our lovely canine friends. Who wants to hear about how great some person is when they could have a chance to learn more about 14 beautiful beasts of the north. You wanna attract more mushers? Here's a few suggestions: Spread the prize $ out more so that all benefit, not just the same few. In bad weather years be more open to bypassing dangerous sections of trail- After 500 miles does it really matter how long the race is? (It's laughable to imagine the Iditarod, like the Quest having 80 mushers 'vote' on where the trail should finish. For the record I voted for Dawson). Allow ALL of the mushers who weren't allowed to continue on down the trail after the Eagle Summit experience FREE entry into this year's event. Though only a few of them could afford it, the positive PR would surely do the Quest well. Pay professionals i.e. Mitch and the Canadian Rangers to mark all of the trail. Most importantly, something which is obvious to me but which I fear most of my fellow Questers will never comprehend-- The 'Ideal Quest' should be run under the "Stage Race Format"-- it's best for ALL of the Dogs. Considering that nearly all of the checkpoints are accessible by road wouldn't it make sense to allow the mushers a pool of 16-18 dogs to pick from? Team limits could also be reduced to 12 so that it would be safer travelling over the more dangerous sections. Thus any pooped out pooches could be replaced and put back into the squad later on in the race. Mushing is like playing chess-- the strategies would multiply, would they not? More importantly it would give the race a chance to have more teams finish with larger, happier and healthier dogs. Numerous mushers I have talked with outside of the "Quest Scene' felt this was an intriguing idea that would attract plenty of 'premeire mushers' who have no interest at all right now in participating under the present format. Who wants to put so much work and effort (be it they or their dogs) into a large scale adventure with only a 50% success rate? A statement like this however, makes so much sense that the general Quest mushing community would probably find it outlandish. That's one aspect which is nice about being the YukonQuest's "Outcast" musher- the ability to say what you feel without worry of retribution- too late for that. You know why I LOVE the Quest so deeply? Because if it were a dogmusher, its nickname would have to be "Huge Mess". It'll be interesting to see whether folks are more worried about keeping things 'in house' thereby protecting the institution or will they be receptive to listening to ideas that are 'outside of the box' in seeking some evolution? Which way shall the trail lead...?

This life of mine is absurd, when I migrated up to the Greatland 10 years ago from Chicago (with only $200 to my name) I would never have believed all that we would be accomplishing so quickly- 9 One-thousand mile races competed in, all of the vistas and friendly folks found along the way. We might have made a buck or two but without them Dawgs the picture just wouldn't be so pretty. This year has been truly amazing, though others might view it in a different light, it was quite an honor to have our team on the 2006 Quest Poster, the cover of "Lead Dog Ale" as well as The Mushing Calendar . Personally I can find no monetary success that will ever equal that of the Dogs being honored in such a way. Others may seek to use animals whether it be in circuses, zoos, racing or tourism in order to acquire personal wealth. At Laughing Eyes Kennel it's "All about the Dawgs" or else how will we ever make it on down this trail of life in the days and nights to come...?
Enjoy the view, Hugh, Tamra and the Crew

Postscript: If you're ever in the Whitehorse/Skagway area feel free to stop by for a visit- just look for Annie Lake, a slice of Heaven just off of the South Klondike Hwy.


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