Dogsledding in the Yukon, March 2012

Once again I went to Whitehorse for some dogsledding.

I had been there twice already. For a change, I went to do some dogsledding in Svalbard the previous year and it was a nice trip (or, more accurately, were nice trips), but I wanted to go back to Canada again.

Part of the reason for that was the plural in the previous sentence. I prefer trips that are of a reasonable length (if the trip lasts just three days, it's over too soon) and there weren't any long trips in Svalbard. (This was one of the reasons why I took two separate dogsledding trips on my vacation there last year.)

So it seemed like a good idea to head back to Canada. I was happy with the company doing the dog sledding tours there, I liked (most of) the dogs and was looking forward to see them again and they had tours of a decent length. I could either to the Tombstone Mountain trail (which I didn't really do the last time due to weather conditions) or the tour along a part of the Yukon Quest trail, so I had some choices to find something that would fit my schedule.

But it became autumn 2011 and the tour dates for 2012 failed to appear on their web page. Since I needed to plan my schedule and book flights, I finally e-mailed them.

It then turned out that the reason for not publishing the 2012 tours was that there wouldn't be any. They had decided to close down their dogsledding business (since they planned to go for other business ventures). But they recommended another dogsledding outfit in Whitehorse and suggested I should try that.

Since they had a trip that was pretty much the same as the Yukon Quest trail (it wasn't quite advertised like that, but that was the way it turned out), I made a booking. So I would be doglsedding again from Whitehorse, but this time with a different outfit.

As usual, the trip included a stop-over in Vancouver. I didn't do much there, but too avoid going to bed too early and suffer from jetlag for the next days, I went to see Theatresports again (once again in a new venue - I have seen improv in Vancouver three times now and always in different places). It was fun, with a good audience and responsive actors, and it helped me staying awake after the long flight

Vancouver at night

So after a good night's rest I was pretty much synced with the time zone and ready to fly to Whitehorse.

Klondike steamer, Whitehorse

Whitehorse had just hosted the Arctic Winter Games (they were just ending when I arrived), so the town was still unusually busy for this time of year. (Which, admittedly, isn't noticeable from the photographs, but nevertheless was the case.) As a side effect of the Arctic Winter Games they also had a number of snow sculptures from various artists in town, all of them featuring arctic themes.

Snow carving Snow sculptures Raven snow sculpture

There was also a slightly unusual "Beware of cat" sign on one of the houses. Usually those signs just tend to be parodies of "Beware of dog" signs, but in this case the cat living there was looking rather unusual and probably justified the warning sign.

Beware of cat Cat to be aware of

But the reason for the trip was not at all cat related, so it was time to visit the dogs. The kennel is a bit out of town (since any place having more than a hundred dogs is best located far away from anything else), but luckily there were a number of people going there for a day trip, so transport was available.

Company sign

Arriving at the kennel, it turned out that they actually did have a cat there (which I forgot to take a picture of) and, unlike the dogs, it was allowed into the living room.

The 'working' dogs were out in the kennel, but a number of 'retired' dogs were allowed into the house, although they had to stay in the entrance and office area and were separated from the living room by a little wooden gate. So the cat had a bit of a sanctuary beyond that gate.

Retired dogs

But enough about cats already.

It was time to meet the dogs.

The plan for the afternoon was to have a half-day trip with the dogs to get everyone (re-)acquainted with dog sledding and sort out potential problems before we went out for the longer trip.

Dog team rooster Dog team list>

My team consisted of Kathrina, Sas, Ravel, Yahtsee, Gandalf and Elsa.

Dog sled>
Sleddog: Kathrina
Sleddog: Ravel
Sleddog: Gandalf
Sleddog: Sas
Sleddog: Yahtsee
Sleddog: Elsa

After hanging around with the dogs for a couple of days, you start to notice (or at least assign) personality traits. Since I am no expert in dogs and their behaviour, my perception might be completely wrong (and a dog that seems relaxed and eager to me might be obvious to an expert to be barking mad and lazy), so the following descriptions are not necessarily correct. (Which, basically, is a weasel phrasing of saying "If you go there and have one of those dogs rips your arms off, even though I described it as the most friendly dog I've ever seen, don't blame me.") In any case, the descriptions are mostly for my benefit, so when I go there again and possibly get some of the same dogs on my team, I will know what my impression of them was.

Almost the ideal wheel dog you could wish for - pulling strong and consistently, alert, easy to feed, affectionate to humans. The only problem is her behaviour towards other female dogs. Bring one into her vicinity and the snarling starts. When moving dogs around (especially when moving dogs in the yard from their boxed to the sleds), they shouldn't be moved close to other dogs anyway (since it's hard to tell, unless you know the dogs well, which ones might react badly towards which others), but with Kathrina, it's especially important to keep her away from other female dogs. She is, in this case literally as well as figuratively, a bitch.

While Kathrina is (nearly) the ideal wheel dog, Sas is pretty much the stereotypical one. Pulls hard and eats very well - he's very easy to feed. And feed again. And feed some more. And lick out the morsels from the bowls of the other dogs. And have some more. He's starting out as if he was the participant of a speed eating contest and then licks the bowl clean as if he would be disqualified if there's a crumb left anywhere. Quite relaxed in a simple sort of way. He's a bit like a big, friendly, huggable bear personality - maybe Baloo from the Jungle Book in dog form.

The only thing to worry about is when it takes too long to get going after being put in front of the sled. He's almost a textbook case for displacement behaviour. As all sled dogs, he gets excited when harnessed and put on the gangline, but if the sled still isn't moving after five minutes or so, he will try to snap at the dog next to him, just to have something to do. It doesn't look really aggressive (it's just snapping, no snarling and no attempt at serious biting), but potentially risky for the dog (Kathrina) next to him if he snaps at the wrong moment.

A bit like the 'afterburner' of the team. Pretty useless when going slow and easy, but when the going gets hard or fast, it's like having a booster. On the first day, I was quite disappointed with Yahtsee. We were going along the Takhini River and his tugline was hanging down most of the time and he was just running along. So at the end of the day, I asked whether he could be replaced, since he was fairly useless. (And I had some problems with a non-pulling dog the previous year and since we were about to go for a five day trip, I wasn't too keen to have a 'slacker' dog in front of the sled.) But it turned out that no replacement was available, so it was either just running with five dogs or keeping Yahtsee. And since a dog that pulls occasionally is still better than none, Yahtsee stayed on the team. It then turned out that he just didn't like to do boring stuff (like running along a river in front of a near-empty sled). So when I had to brake the sled down since we were going too fast and were catching up with the sled in front, he didn't pull (which is sensible, but sled dogs usually do not behave that way - if you want to go slower, you brake more, you can't really make the dogs pull less). But once we had more distance to the sled in front and I let go of the brakes, or when we were going uphill and I needed to step from the sled and run along, Yahtsee easily put in as much pulling power as Sas. Good to have him on the team and I felt a bit ashamed of initially wanting to replace him.

Yahtsee is also a notorious loper. Usually dogsledding tourists are advised to slow the sled down until the dogs trot. (Sled dogs have basically two gaits, trotting and loping. While the dogs like to lope, it tires them faster, creates a higher risks back injuries in the long and leg injuries in the short term.) So if some dogs are loping, step on the brake until they fall into a trot. Which for Yahtsee means that the sled needs to be almost standing still before falling into a trot. It's just his way of walking and there not much that can be done about it. In the end, I made Elsa my benchmark. If she did trot, the speed was ok. (There's still the long term risk for Yahtsee's back, but he didn't seem to be particularly exhausted at the end of the day and the risk of leg/shoulder damage does mostly exist in deep snow, which we didn't have.)

Ravel is a nice dog, though a bit non-descript. No particular quirks to mention. The rather description "a sled dog" fits her quite well. As long as he's part of the team. Try to put her on the sled and she's a berserker (though that is probably also true for all sled dogs). I had a minor incident with Ravel on the trip. At some point Ravel started limping quite clearly with the left hind leg (almost not bending it at all, but moving it stiffly like a stick. I stopped the sled, had a look at her feet, but couldn't see anything unusual. By that time the sleds before me had moved out of sight. So I decided to take the dog from the gangline, put it on the sled, catch up with the rest and talk to Frank (the guide). And then found that I couldn't put Ravel on the sled, since she would fight that and jump off immediately. So I put her back on the gangline, but left the tugline off, so she could run without pulling any load. When I caught up with the other sleds, I told Frank about that and then we tried with two persons to get Ravel on the sled. That was quite some effort and took about five minutes, three necklines tied to various parts of the sled frame, one line tied to the sled and the end of the harness, wrapping the dog into the sled bag and a lot of effort and pushing - and about ten seconds until the dog had wiggled out of that. So Ravel was put for the rest of the day on the front sled, so Frank could have an eye on her. Since everything seemed ok, I got Ravel back by the end of the day. (Since there were no noticeable injuries, the leg was bending normally by the time we reached the other sled, the gait returned quickly to normal and problems with the hind legs are much rarer than with the front legs, the most likely explanation is that Ravel had some cramp in that leg, which had already vanished by the time I took her of the sled. Still, it's one of the cases where "better safe than sorry" applies.)

Gandalf is an undemanding lead dog (though I assume he could be run in any position). And he seriously loves to be petted behind the ear. Or have his head rubbed. Or the back massaged. Or the shoulders scratched. Or the belly. Repeatedly. For quite some time. And then a bit more. If sled dogs would be paid for their jobs and there would be dog spas, he'd be the dog to spend it all there.

Elsa was a great, unusual, but a bit of a worry. She's the most focused sled dog I've seen. And purely professional. Lead. Sleep. No fun. No play. No eating. (The last part is a problem...) Most sled dogs are actually fairly lean (they look quite chunky, but most of that look is due to the fur - the dog below is surprisingly small), but with Elsa the body feels like pictures of anorectic models look with rips sticking out. Oddly enough it doesn't at all show in the behaviour - Elsa is highly energetic and focused, but most of the times during the trip, she didn't touch her food. We tried to feed her on dry food instead, then on snacks, but many times neither of this works. Though saving some bits of our dinners (like steaks and pork chops) helped a bit, since she did eat those. But even while normally being a fussy eater, this was unusual for her. The plan was to do some blood tests on her once we returned to the kennel, but I don't know what the results were. (Update: I got a mail update two weeks later: The blood test came back negative so there wasn't any clear diagnosis. But at least there doesn't seem to be anything seriously wrong. And Elsa is putting on weight again, so, hopefully, it was just some temporary thing.) Another unusual thing about Elsa is that she hardly relates to humans. With the other dogs, you get a reaction when you pet them or scratch them behind the ears, but Elsa is either fully focused on the trip (keeping the gangline stretched out, waiting for the start command) or she just curls up and sleeps the moment she's taken off the gangline.


After going on in detail about the dogs, probably the humans deserve a short mention as well. We were five clients on the trip. In addition to me, there were Nancy and Derek from Utah, a mother/son team doing some dog sledding during his last high school spring break before going to university, Chuck from Ohio and Constanze from Leeds.

Nancy and Derek Nancy and Derek Nancy and Derek

And, of course, there was Frank Turner, our guide.


One of the things that still intrigues me about travel in polar regions is the quality and experience of the guides. You get to hang around with (or at least follow) people who skied across Greenland, pulling a sled/kayak hybrid behind them, to kayak down a meltwater river to the sea and then continue along the coast to the next settlement (like Eric Philips), people who visit North and South Pole the hard way (on ski) and find time in the same year to climb Everest (like Eric Larson) or the first Canadian woman (and, as far as I know, still the only one) to ski to the North Pole (like Denise Martin). In short, some of the people who just happen to be your tour guides would probably be regarded as celebrities in any other (more publically visible) field.

Since I had gotten the recommendation for this particular dogsledding outfit from another dogsledding outfit I was happy with, I didn't pay much attention to anything else and just booked the trip. Only when I got there, I actually realized that the owner was Frank Turner, one of the most experienced Mushers around. He had participated in more Yukon Quests than anyone else (23 times), though David Dalton is sneaking up on him with 21 Yukon Quests and might catch up, since he's still racing. And Frank has one the Yukon Quest once.

Yukon Quest Trophy
Yukon Quest Trophy

Depending on how you see it, Yukon Quest is the World Championship and the Iditarod the Olympics or vice versa. Or one is Formula 1 and the other is NASCAR racing. What I'm trying to point out is that, in the realm of dog sledding, the winning the Yukon Quest is a big event. So having Frank Turner as the tour guide was a bit like showing up for your driving lesson and finding that your instructor is Jacques Villeneuve.

The first 'test run' went well. We went down the Takhini river for about an hour, turned around and went back. Mostly the trip was about learning what the specifics to this outfit were. Every dogsledding company has its own rules and methods. For example, when stopping for a couple of minutes on the trail, one company had the rule "go to the front of the sled and stay with your lead dogs", while another had "always stay on the back of the sled, so you have control over the brake and can do something when the dogs try to bolt and the snow hook comes loose". Here, there was a second snow hook that could be clipped in the neckline of the lead dogs, so the back of the sled was secured with one snow hook, the front with another one, allowing us to pay attention to the dogs; "If you're standing like a statue in front or on the sled, you're not being any use." There were also a number of other differences in the sled set-up compared with previous trips. Which I like. It's still a fairly individual activity and it would be boring if everyone had some 'standardised' procedure that is the is the same all over.

Well, except for one thing. It would be useful if there would be some agreement on the start signal. Most of the other commands are universal: "Gee", "Haw", "Whoa", "On by", "Easy" and "Line-out". Not all dogs know them and, on a tourist trip, you don't need most of them. Since the dogs just follow the team in front of them, you never need the directional commands. And "easy" gets ignored anyway. (Basically it just tells the dogs that you're just braking to slow them down and that it's not an attempt to stop and a prelude to "whoa". But I haven't seen any dog take it easy (for a tourist) just based on the command. But, oddly enough, there is no universal "Go!" command. One trip had "Hup-Up", I don't recall the specific word in Norway, but as far as I recall it was something like "gå", which would be plausible since it's Norwegian for "go" and pronounced the same way. As far as I can tell from literature (well, the two dog sledding books I own, which is probably not a representative sample) "Hike!" seems common, but I haven't been with any dogsledding tour that actually used it.

Admittedly, it doesn't really matter. When you pull out the snow hook and let go of the brake, the dogs will start running. The start command is not really for getting the dogs going, but more for establishing that you are in control and say when it's time to go. But it would still be useful to have something universal here, if only not to confuse the dogs. When I was starting on this first short trip the dogs were all ready to go and I unfastened the sled and called out "Hup-Up". And the dogs half-started and the lead dogs turned around and looked at me. They quickly gathered that they were indeed supposed to go (and didn't need any more prompting), but generally you shouldn't confuse your dogs (who did expect me to say "Let's go!").

So it would be nice to have some widely used command. Realistically, that would probably be "Hike!", though it would be more sensible to have some two-syllable cadence to avoid confusion of "Hike!" with other short commands like "Haw" or "Whoa!". Though personally I'd prefer "Mush!" just to annoy all the "myth dispelled" pages...
There are many pages that 'clear up the misconception' that "mush!" is the starting command, which seems to me to be one of the "myths" that only appear in the context of debunking them, but it seems like nobody actually knows of the presumed myth until told that it's wrong. It's a bit like "the quack of a duck does not echo" - which is inherently silly and I have never heard anyone mention that as an actual belief, but only in the context of showing that the assumption is a false one. So it would be kind of fun if "mush" would be generally accepted as the word to get the dogs going, only to prove all the debunking of that false in retrospective...

But enough off-topic rambling and back to the trip.

Since it was overcast that day, I didn't take many pictures (and those I did take look somewhat drab), so I haven't put any on this web page.

However, just for the record, we covered a bit more than 17 km on that trip.

The next day was day without dogsledding, so there was some time to sort out stuff, decide what to take on the sled and what to leave behind, charge all camera batteries and generally hang out in the dog yard and socialise with the dogs.

Dog and me

Though, given that picture, it seems more like Kathrina is checking out whether my hat is real rabbit fur or just synthetic.

Since, by that time, we knew 'our' dogs, we mostly did hang around with them, though, naturally, the dogs would suck up to everyone willing to rub their shoulders.

Kathrina being petted

Having nothing specific to do also allowed some time to just hang around and take some pictures of the dogs and the kennel.

Dog kennel Dog kennel Dog kennel
Sled dog Sled dog Sled dog
Sled dog Sled dog Sled dog

In addition to the 'active' dogs, which were out in the yard and had their individual boxes, there were also some young dogs in separate enclosures.

Young sled dogs Young sled dogs Young sled dogs
Young sled dog Young sled dog Young sled dog

It was also interesting to see some dog sleds getting ready for a tour. There were a number of people going on a day trip and that allowed usually, when go When I am on a dog sled trip myself, there is no opportunity to stand back, watch and take a couple of photographs, since I'm busy preparing my own sled, harnessing and handling the dogs and, when finished, stay close to the sled. So being able to watch the proceedings as an observer and be able to move around for some pictures (such as going down the trail for a bit and taking images of the sleds going by) was a nice change.

Dog being hugged Sled getting ready Dogs dashing off
Dogs dashing off Dogsled going down hill Dogsled going down hill

For example, something I hadn't really noticed before was how much the non-running dogs get mad with excitement when the sleds leave. Looking at the picture on the upper right above, it is easy to see how all the dogs that are next to their boxes are running around, yanking on their chains and jumping up and down.

Well, at least most of them...

Lazy sled dog

There was also an unexpected visit to the dog yard - a Bald Eagle sitting on a dead tree nearby (and getting harassed by a couple of ravens). After sitting there a while, it took off and went for a dog snack that someone had placed on the path for it, but it was moving a bit too fast, so I got only blurred pictures of the flying eagle.

Bald Eagle Bald Eagle Bald Eagle Bald Eagle
Bald Eagle Bald Eagle Bald Eagle

Next day it was time to go on the center part of the trip, the five day camping trip.

Continue to the next part of the Canada 2012 trip.

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