February 2nd 2019
Whitehorse, YT, Canada
It was -35 degrees with a light breeze in Whitehorse, Yukon on this morning. The Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race was just about to start. The race traverses the wilds of the Yukon Territory using tributaries and old wintertime trade routes over the frozen rivers and mountain-scapes finally arriving in Fairbanks Alaska. Michelle Phillips is a musher I know from the Yukon and she thought it was a great idea to wear some True Fleece Merino wool gear during the race. I went to do a pre-race interview with her, still dark at 8am, I had to wait a bit.
There were so many preparations to make, getting the dogs ready, her sled, the team. I stopped by her truck, neck warmer up around my nose, three layers of True Fleece, fleece lined pants, a parka, snow boots rated to 20 below with two pair of wool socks. It was my toes that protested most vehemently.
Michelle wasn’t quite ready for our chat, so I roamed the grounds taking photos, talked with some Aussies who had come to see the northern lights put on a show the night before, joked with a few support staffers. A quick dip into Tim Hortons for some coffee and Tim Bits, but mostly to warm up. Back out into the cold, still not ready.
Finally after a few trips inside the Frank Slim building to warm up, Michelle was ready to talk. Everything was ready, it was a half hour before her launch. All of my good race questions had been pretty well frozen out of my head, but we had a great chat and I watched her mush on into the wild.
I ran back to my hotel and ran my feet under cold water until I could feel my toes again, getting the water warmer gradually, dealing with the pain of near frostbite. Then a long hot shower and I felt like I was going to make it.
Michelle? A different story. She will have no hot showers, no putting her toes under running water until they warmed up, for about ten days. Sure there are checkpoints, places to stop and rest along the route, but a thousand miles in ten days means very little time for anything but mushing.
At the stops she will put down straw for the Alaskan Huskies on her team to nest in, she’ll pack snow into the cook stove and melt it. Then she’ll add some good animal fat and pour it over the dogs’ kibble as a stew to keep the huskies fed and hydrated. They will eat roughly 10,000 calories a day on the trail. She will massage each dog, spend time with them, make sure there’s no injuries, finally she’ll eat, rest for a minute, then pack it all up and hit the trail again.
Sleep deprivation is standard fare for these northern extremists. The mushers. A top ten finish means sponsorships. A company will provide food, another will provide the booties that each dog wears to prevent foot damage from the cold. Finish in the bottom half? It’s fundraising time.
Mushing is a sport of love and endurance. It’s a survival test for you and your team of dogs among the vast northern wilderness. I am humbled by Michelle Phillips’ toughness. Her ability to be surrounded by some of the harshest weather conditions on the planet, with nothing but a sled and her dogs for company, and her indomitable will to keep moving, to keep mushing.
Best of luck to all the mushers in this year’s Quest, hopefully it’ll warm up to -20!