If you were a champion musher, what would you do with your dogs in the summertime? It’s no simple question for the Top Canadian Long Distance Musher—not the top female, just the top—Michelle Phillips. Her dogs, bred to be aggressive runners, must be constantly trained, regularly exercised, and fed well all summer long to ensure their viability for the freezing, thousand-mile winter races.
The answer? Let folks like you and me pay to take a thrill ride on a cart pulled by a prize-winning team of dogs. “It keeps the dogs healthy and pays for their kibble,” says Phillips with a smile as she cradles a lithe beast that could probably kill her, me, and everyone in my office. “People are always surprised by how strong they are.”
Looking around at the Pristine Wilderness Tours operation, based at Caribou Crossing Trading Post, an old-timey faux Gold Rush town about 45 minutes from Whitehorse (more on that later —they have a giant polar bear), I am amazed by how different life can be in the Yukon. Phillips has sixty dogs, many of them named in “theme litters,” including cocktails (Brandy, Mimosa) and minerals (Quartz, Nitro).
Phillips raises, trains, and races these dogs in the Iditarod and Yukon Quest, and has won countless awards including the Herbie Nayokpuk (for sportsmanship and love of dogs) and the Yukon Quest Veterinarian’s Choice Award. Her work is all about caring for her dogs, developing teams with the right dynamic, putting them in the right order, keeping control over them, and gearing up for races which put them and her in temperatures as low as 50 degrees below zero Celsius for well over a week. Michelle Phillips can gut a moose. It seems like it should be below her to run dogsled rides for tourists, but she appears to find joy in talking about her unusual work.
According to Phillips, the part of a musher’s body that takes the worst beating in the long distance races is the hands. “There are some things you have to do without gloves,” she explains. This includes but is not limited to changing dog booties. All the dogs (14 on the Yukon Quest, 16 on the Iditarod) have to wear booties which must be regularly changed. “When it’s that cold, the snow, it’s like running on glass.”
In addition to the thousand-plus booties, she also carries ointments, massage oils, and wrist wraps in sled bag—all for the dogs. “I usually [run the dogs] for six to eight hours, then stop for five to six.” She then cares for each member of her team, paw by paw. Phillips sleeps one to two hours per day during a race and loses around eight pounds. Her tip for survival: “Don’t be too comfortable.”
(Me? I write about luxury and experiential travel and manage social media channels for corporations. I sleep six to eight hours a night. My exercise is mostly angry typing. The more I talk to Michelle, the more my job sounds like something someone made up to trick me into thinking I was busy.)
Phillips won’t teach you to mush, but you’ll ride on her dogsled if you visit her up in Carcross, Yukon. It makes sense; would you let tourists ride your racehorse? No, and similarly, while you can play with her overwhelmingly friendly (yet scary-looking) dogs, you won’t be flying through the mountains on your own wheelie toboggan. Instead, my group and I piled into a cart in three seated rows and she claimed her standing position at the back, where there is a brake.
As she began to hitch up the dogs to the front of the cart, I felt my stomach drop. Surely these animals, who were raring to go, could undo this measly cart’s parking brake — but they didn’t. She hooked up nine dogs, hopped back into position and as she eased off the brake, we were jolted into motion about three times faster than I had anticipated. Those dogs are strong!
They pulled our wheeled cart on a well-worn dirt trail through the backwoods of Carcross at a speed I would guess was 200 mph but can surmise was more like 4 mph. I was terrified we were going to run into a tree at several points, but the dogs clearly knew what they were doing, and I am still alive.
The positioning of the dogs is highly strategic. For example, you need smart dogs at the front; confident dogs who will make choices. You need muscular, larger dogs at the back, closest to the cart. In the middle, it’s all about chemistry, and who can pull alongside whom. One thing is clear: these dogs love to run. They know they are supposed to. They were positively ecstatic when she hitched them to the cart. This is literally what they were born to do.
Ten minutes or so into our ride through the ethereal woods of trembling aspen and pine, a series of kiddie pools appeared ahead of us. It was a dog break room. The dogs lined up by the pools and both drank from them and bathed in them briefly, hydrating and cooling themselves. Michelle chatted with us as the dogs took their respite, and then with a single call, she had them back in line and running again, tongues a-wagging. It must be good to be one of Michelle’s dogs.
The ride lasted about half an hour and left me breathless and grinning ear to ear. The way it feels, to be dragged so violently and joyfully by the powerful dogs, is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. I’ve ridden horse-drawn carts of various types, but never in a situation where the horse was running. The sensation is one of urgency and awe. I could hardly believe it when I stepped off the cart and one of the freshly unhitched dogs nuzzled me. These formidable animals were sweet as teddy bears—but definitely the kind of teddy bears you never want to cross.
Another dimension was added to the majesty of the animals by the presence of two-week-old husky puppies in the doghouse just beyond a little fence. The puppies were shaped more like piglets than the graceful canines they will grow to become. Holding the husky puppies is a free perk of visiting the dogs, and one that will melt your city-hardened heart into a little pool of mush (no pun intended). They were spirited, hilarious yippers, and even better snugglers.
Whether you arrive from a fancy lodge outside of Whitehorse or come in from a cruise ship in Skagway, Alaska (an hour and a half away), meeting the dogs and experiencing their prowess will, unless you have some very unusual background issues, blow you away. Conveniently, there are enough other activities at Caribou Crossing Trading Post to make an entire, family-friendly day out of the ride.
There’s a gold panning station, a Wildlife Museum, a gift shop, private dining tables in covered wagons, a huge dining room which can serve 1000 people in three hours, a cafe with delicious, locally-grown-and-roasted Caribrew Coffee and a petting zoo—freshly expanded by the new owners Greg and Denise McHale. The Wildlife Museum is comparable to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, sans glass and habitats (and it’s a good bit smaller). Their privately financed collection includes fantastic specimens of Canadian fauna, many of whom “met an untimely end through natural causes or contact with man, and were donated by caring individuals.” Oh, and the world’s largest polar bear—for real. The largest polar bear ever mounted, weighing in at over 1,700 pounds, is the cornerstone of the museum.
So if you find yourself up in the Yukon in summer, as many thousands of people do each year, be sure and visit the polar bear, the petting zoo, the café, and the dogs. Dogsledding isn’t something you’ll never get a chance to do again in your life, but these dogs, this champion musher, and this experience is an exceptional discovery.
Book a 7-day Iditarod experience tour from Anchorage.
- Annie Scott
All photos courtesy of Annie Scott.