Mushing Myths and Trail Tales

Posted: Sunday, February 27, 2000

Like hunters and fishermen, any musher has a few good tales to tell.

While the Carcross school principal served up bowls of moose stew and pan-fried bread in the home-ec room after the first day of the Trail of '98, the mushers talked. They chattered about dogs, sleds, trail conditions and training tips. John Schandelmeier, a Yukon Quest champion, held court on the pros and cons of various dog foods.

The mushers talk down their own dogs. Before the race Whitehorse musher Brian MacDougal, who ended up winning, said he only had a few good dogs and wasn't sure what he was going to scrape together for a team. Schandelmeier also pooh-poohed his own team.

``The first time those dogs trotted more than 10 to 15 miles in their life was yesterday,'' he said.

This year the talk inevitably turned to snow, which mushers treat like a natural resource. Darren Kinvig bought land and built a home near Annie Lake, 25 miles from Whitehorse, because it's the first place in the area to get snow and the last to lose it. He can harness his dogs in the lot and take off from there on a 100-mile run. Carroll Johnson left Petersburg in search of better snow and ended up in Tok.

When the other mushers ask Haines musher Jim Stanford how the snow is where he runs, he answers, ``Is 30 feet enough?''

Actually, that's too much. His dogs spent the entire winter breaking and rebreaking the trail. Twice they ran into moose along the way.

Stanford may not be fast or famous, but he has a few stories of his own, like the time he made the mistake of wearing Carhartts on the Klondike 300 race. At the start of the race it was raining and the coveralls were soaked through. Then night fell and everything froze. Finally Stanford stopped the sled and took off his Carhartts, setting them on the side of the trail. They stood up straight, one empty arm pointing the way down the trail.

The next guy down the trail probably thought he was hallucinating. Mushers often see or hear strange things on long trails. Stanford was mushing alone past the ghost town of Fortymile on the Yukon River during the Percy de Wolfe race when he heard a human voice.

``I heard a very loud, distinct voice in a Native tongue. Somebody said something to me and at the same time all the dogs looked back,'' Stanford said. He looked back too, but saw nothing. ``It was spooky. It wasn't the wind and it wasn't the runners.''

Then there was the time Stanford was preparing to run the Yukon Quest. He'd already packed his supplies to be sent ahead to the checkpoints and his dogs were ready to run, when he went to Tagish to train with a friend.

The area was stuck in a cold snap, 50-60 below zero, and just getting the cars started took most of the day. The trail was tight and narrow, winding around trees just 4 feet apart. Stanford's sled slammed into the trees, broke into pieces and he injured his back.

``Picture a pinball machine and that's what I was,'' Stanford said.

That was the end of his Quest. At $4,000 to $7,000, it's too expensive to try again.

``I've got to be realistic. I've got a daughter in college,'' Stanford said.

But several times during the Trail of '98 he looked at his dogs and said, ``These would be great on the Quest.''

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