In the increasingly urban capital of the Northwest Territories, images of mushers adorn the city’s busses, tourist advertisements and even grace the walls of city council chambers.
It’s that Fran Hurcomb photo, of sled dogs running full tilt through the snow, that musher Jordee Reid points to as she makes emotional appeals to city council to preserve this way of life. In order for mushing to grow, she says, land needs to be available for mushers to live next to their dogs.
Reid’s family is a legend in the dog racing world. Her grandfather, Danny McQueen, lived on the land, hunting and trapping to feed his kids, and is the only person to win the Canadian Championship Dog Derby five years in a row. Dog mushing is ingrained in the psyche of this family.
“There are times when it’s just so beautiful and peaceful, and I think this must be how my grandparents felt when they were traveling from one cabin to the next by dog team,” Reid says. “Just feeling that peace out on the land. And I think without dogs, I wouldn’t feel that close connection.”
When it comes to what is symbolically northern, little can top the image of a musher pulled by a team of powerful huskies, shooting out onto an empty frozen lake. Mushing was the only way to get around before Skidoos, cars, and aircraft arrived in the North. Without a team, one was a “real pitiful person,” as Reid’s father Scott McQueen says, with little hope for food or a good quality of life. And there are still those across the territories who rely on their dogs for transportation and subsistence hunting even today.
On the cusp of a vast wilderness, Yellowknife’s dog mushers can, within five minutes of leaving their front door, be miles away from city lights, traffic and any trace of human habitation. But when those mushers come home again it’s to an urban environment where raising a dog team means battling grocery bills and zoning bylaws. It’s not an easy lifestyle for these mushers. Call it a labour of love.
After decades of discussion by local politicians, decades of having been forced to move by the city several times to undesirable locations (such as close to sewage lakes), the city’s mushers—many of whom have organized as the Yellowknife Dog Trotters Association (YDTA)—now have a home within urban limits. At least, on paper they do. The home is Kam Lake South; a piece of land bordering the lake itself, as well as the built-up areas in Kam Lake and Grace Lake. Where exactly within this area the mushers will be allowed to raise their dogs will be determined as the city revises its zoning bylaw later this year. That’ll probably mean more public meetings at City Hall that mushers like Reid would rather not have to go to and plead their case over and over again. They’re already busy enough scooping poop.
Take a walk around any kennel in Yellowknife, big or small, and you will find a collection of feces and a musher in the yard conducting rounds and rounds of scooping. It’s not a glamorous job and it’s constant, but it has to be done. So does feeding and watering the dogs, as well as caring for medical needs and training. Reid’s family is out at 7 pm every night preparing raw chicken and beef, high-quality kibble and beef fat, all mixed together into a “soup” to feed their 60 dogs.
“You just don’t turn a key or park them in the garage, you know,” says Jo Kelly. The owner of Qimmiq Kennels, who has about 24 dogs of her own, ranging in age from 17 down to 14-week-old puppies, has been mushing since the age of 18. “They’re there and they always need love, and they always need water, and they always need shelter, and they always need exercise. And that is never, ever going to change. It doesn’t matter if it’s minus 40 or plus 30.”
The care is constant, and there is no hanging up the harnesses once the season is over. Sled dogs are for life, every day of a musher’s life. And the dogs don’t take a break, even when the humans might be breaking down.
“I’ve been out chopping frozen chicken and being so atrociously sick that I probably should have been in the hospital,” Kelly recalls. “You just do it because you have to, right?”
Reid’s uncle, one of the only ones in the family who doesn’t have dogs, likes to say that the quickest way to turn money into shit is to own a dog team. He has a point. Not only do mushers scoop a lot of poop, they also pour their funds into mushing.
Reid and her family spend a minimum of $40,000 per year on their racing and ride kennel on Curry Drive. Even a ‘modest’ eight-dog team can cost thousands of dollars each year. On top of this are the costs of traveling to races in the south, where Reid’s husband, Cai, competed for the first time last year. With income from their tourism business added in, the family is able to break even and have jobs for Cai and Jordee’s brother, Taltson McQueen, during the winter. But becoming rich, most mushers agree, is out of the question.
“There’re very few dog mushers who break even, let alone make a profit,” Reid says. “But there’re all those other benefits that aren’t money that you get from it, and that’s why people do it. If you wanted to make money from something, dog mushing would not be the thing to choose to do with your life.”
Money isn’t the goal for mushers like Terry Woolf. To see the dogs working together, on the days where it all just flows, heading out to explore new trails with them, that’s a big part of the draw for the longtime Yellowknifer.
On some cold and still days, crossing a small lake with no wind and the sun low on the horizon, Woolf will look back to see a trail of red mist hanging in the air behind his dog team.
“It’s their breath,” he says. “Like a vapour trail behind a jet.”
On an overcast winter morning in late December, Woolf ushers his team of eight dogs to the edge of Great Slave Lake with a “gee, gee, gee” and a “good dog.” Halfway through the run, he calls each by name, starting with the dog in the lead—“Trigger, good dog!”— and working his way down the line. Once in a while, he’ll sing, too. More often than not it’s the Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil.”
The bond between owner and dog team is so strong that a musher with their eyes closed can tell you who’s barking. So says Taltson McQueen, who runs tours for the family business. For those mushers who breed dogs, naming becomes another exercise in creatively reinforcing that bond. Often litters of puppies are named with a theme. Angela James, mother of Reid and McQueen, remembers one litter lucky enough to be christened after The Beatles. Unfortunately, a few of those pups ran off one day.
“Then we had to put on the radio, ‘Oh, we lost some of our Beatles sled dogs,’” says James. “‘We still have Ringo and Paul, but George and John took off.’”
Historically, people would “Denetize” their dog names, says Fred Sangris, by adding a human surname and making the dog a part of the family. The former musher, racer and chief of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation named his lead dog Diamond Sangris after a spot on the canine’s forehead (this was long before the gemstones were discovered in the territory).
A well-trained team can shepherd you across vast expanses, says Sangris. And a good lead dog will sometimes make decisions that are better than your own. “A good lead dog can bring you back to your community, you know, hundreds of miles at night,” he says. “The lead dog is the boss.”
Raised in Dettah before the advance of roads and power lines, Sangris remembers a time when sled dogs were considered the “Cadillac of the community,” and parked next to the home. It's how Reid imagines Kam Lake South's growth—mushers able to build homes with their dogs living right outside. Sangris grew up living a nomadic lifestyle, travelling with his family via dog sled. In his early twenties, he set out alone with his dogs to the Barrenlands every winter for nine years. It helped him understand his ancestors, and “the wonderful long stories of the land.
“I saw lots of graveyards,” he recalls. “And when I did that I felt, OK, this is my home now. This is my purpose of life, to go see the land, to visit the elders that are buried out there. Also, understand the traditional place names.”
Because it’s cultural, he says. It’s a way of life.
“You’re an Aboriginal person. This is what your ancestors did in the past. You’re seeing the same way of life, but with a little bit different tools and maybe a little bit more education.”
Dog mushing is a part of Jordee Reid’s Indigenous identity as well. Getting on the sled is about keeping her culture alive.
“My husband, he’s British and he loves it just as much as any of us. But to also be an Indigenous dog musher, and to have all of the cultural aspects that are just ingrained with it as well, and to know that my ancestors all owned dogs... it’s keeping that alive in me.”
Identity is part of the story the Yellowknife Dog Trotters Association has told each time its members have pleaded their case in council chambers. It’s emotionally exhausting, Reid says. “Every single time I, I bring a part of me and maybe lose a little part of me because I have to give it up in order to make my case over and over and over again.”
It takes time away from growing the sport and lifestyle of dog mushing. As president of the dog trotters association, Reid wants to work on a mentorship program to make mushing more accessible. “I just want more people to enjoy it because I feel like once you dip your toe if it’s for you, you’re hooked,” she says.
It’s what happened to her husband, Cai. The two met volunteering in Southeast Asia when Cai had never tried mushing. Now, he’s the main racer in the family and Reid suspects he might love the sport more than she does— so much so that vacations in the winter other than to race dogs are out of the question.
“Last January, I got my parents to look after my boys and we went down to Hay River for a dog race. That was a romantic getaway, dropping dogs every four hours and scooping poop,” she laughs. A love for the racing circuit is a love for traveling with the dogs on a specially designed truck, “dropping” them every four hours for a pee and stretch and spending hours in hotel rooms massaging sore dog muscles, soaking paws in Epsom salts and rubbing in salves to prevent paw pad cuts.
For mushers born into this lifestyle, their earliest memories are of sled dogs. Reid’s twin one-and-a-half-year-old sons, Rocher and Rhys, are now more comfortable with dogs than humans. They’re being raised close to the animals, mirroring her own childhood spent running into the dog yard with her “nice school clothes” (to the consternation of her parents) and falling asleep in the puppy house.
Decades later, sitting in the family’s log cabin on the shore of Kam Lake, Reid looks out to the point where she made her first solo ride at the age of three. “Pappa” Danny stood on the shore as her father ran out onto the lake with her and her favourite sled dog, Christmas Angel, before turning the sled around and letting his daughter take control.
The dogs knew where to go. Straight back to the shore, with dad chasing after.