I come upon Caveman Bill following an Alaskan husky through the snow, with a Dixie cup taped to a forked stick. As I find out later, he’s called Caveman Bill because he lives in a cave. We both crunch along the road into the dog camp outside of Dawson City, in Canada’s Yukon Territory. It’s minus 30 degrees Celsius, during the deep freeze of mid-February, but this Yukon town of 1,850 has emerged just for this week from its seasonal hibernation. Dawson—once, during the Klondike gold rush, the largest city north of Seattle, WA—is for this weekend the world epicentre of dogsled racing.
The official checkpoint marks roughly halfway for mushers on the 1600-km (1,000-mi) Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, billed as the toughest on the planet. A mandatory 36-hour layover means this is also the first stop since the race started in Whitehorse, YT, six days ago, where mushers can get help from their handlers caring for their dogs and rest a little themselves. Still ahead: 805 km (500 mi) of glare ice, overflows and three mountain passes before the finish line in Fairbanks, AK (USA). Like many, my conceptions of The North are based on the lore I read growing up; Jack London’s To Build a Fire, Robert Service’s The Cremation of Sam McGee, Danish explorer Peter Freuchen’s travel logs. Apart from loss of life and limb, the stories all had several things in common: gold, cold and dogs. Hard men—it was always men—would exert their will over the dogs with a whip and endure the unforgiving northern environment in search of pay dirt. With technological advancements of the past century, this primordial partnership is no longer a strict necessity. Here, among the frontrunners of the Quest, I’m hoping to see what vestiges of that bygone era survive.
I go from camp to camp—wood stoves burning, dogs nestled in flakes of hay, sleds under repair. Not a whip in sight. A woman, unmistakably beautiful despite being bundled against the cold, catches my attention. From the name on the site post, I see that it’s John Schandelmeier’s camp. A two-time Quest champ, Schandelmeier, chipper and slim, makes a point of racing with a team of rescue dogs, animals that would’ve been destroyed had he not rescued them from the dog shelter or other mushers’ kennels.
That would make the stunning woman shovelling dog crap behind him his wife and kennel partner, Zoya DeNure. The ex-international runway model from Madison, WI turned her back on a decade-plus of fast living to settle in Paxson, AK with Schandelmeier and a kennel of 50 dogs. Working as his handler on this year’s Quest, DeNure will be competing in the 2008 Iditarod when it will be Schandelmeier’s turn to shovel dog doo for her.
Another former Quest champion wanders by, trying to hide his anxiety while waiting for the musher he’s handling for to show up. Bill Cotter, clean-cut and unassuming, is supporting Yuka Honda, an eternally smiling, 34-year-old from Niigata, Japan, who doesn’t weigh much more than any two of the 14 dogs she races. Cotter, 61, originally from New Hampshire, has over 30 years of racing to his credit. He’s lent his dogs to Honda, now on her second attempt to finish the Quest. Cotter’s bio lists his hobbies as “dogs, biking and fishing.” Honda’s are “snare for rabbit, get drunk and play harmonica.”
She had first visited the North as a university student to view the Northern Lights. But it was images of a dogsled race that she couldn’t get out of her mind. For the past seven years, she’s been taking advantage of annual six-month visitor visas to take whatever job she can get working with race dogs. One year, with a verbal agreement to handle for an Alaskan musher, Honda landed in Whitehorse. Short of money, she bought a used bike for $50 and attempted to pedal the 1,282-km (796-mi) to the kennel in Denali, AK. It was late March, when temperatures can get down to -40 degrees Celsius. Her bike broke down, she lost a glove and when she finally got there, the musher had left on vacation.
Last year, Honda and her dog team joined several others plucked off Eagle Summit by a US military Blackhawk helicopter when a severe storm set in. Another of those rescued was Saul Turner, son of Frank Turner, past Quest winner and course record holder. That one attempt was enough for Turner junior, but his father is back racing this year in his 23rd Yukon Quest.
A former social worker from Toronto, he’d come to Yukon on a coin toss (heads would have taken him to Mexico.) About to turn 60, Turner exudes the energy of someone a quarter-century younger. Standing maybe 5’7” in his white rubber bunny boots, with a beard and glasses, I find him with the forefoot of a dog in his leathery grip, pontificating to a group huddled around him. The group is guests of his operation, Muktuk Kennels, visitors who want a behind-the-scenes look at the race and to try mushing a 3 to 5-day section of its course.
It’s shortly afterward that I see Caveman Bill. Except for the fact that he has a beard, his thin build, pale skin and glasses don’t suggest he’s the rugged type living in a cave. Originally from Toronto, ON, his cave on the banks of the now-frozen Yukon River has been home for the last 11 years. Some winters he’s survived on a bag of rice and whatever game he could bag with a box of cartridges for his .22 rifle. These days, he works part-time at Bombay Peggy’s, once the town whorehouse, now an inn and pub.
When later we sit in his 9.3-sq-m (100-sq-ft) cave, surrounded by the clutter that comes from living in any space for a decade, I find it surprisingly warm, thanks in large part to the wood stove donated by Two-by-Four Bob. Bob, Bill tells me, came to be known as Two-by-Four after he strode into Diamond Tooth Gertie’s, Canada’s oldest gambling hall, and clocked a card player in the head with a length of lumber. Apparently an argument over a woman.
The husky cocks his leg to take a leak, and Caveman Bill swings in the Dixie Cup to catch some of the yellow liquid. Cavemen Bill’s volunteered to collect urine samples for the race veterinarians. Standard drug testing—under the Association of Racing Commissioners International Guidelines. The spirit of the north still resides in the men and women of the Yukon Quest, even if some things in the rest of the world have changed.