A dog musher’s dream

Brian Wilmshurst has a dream – a big one.

The Dawson City area dog musher is running the Yukon Quest, which is considered the toughest sled dog race in the world. The Quest starts this year in Fairbanks Alaska on February 4, 2012 and ends in Whitehorse, Yukon.

Why would an easygoing dog man want to subject himself to 1,600 kilometres of wilderness trail and brutal cold?

“If you’re a hockey player you want to win the Stanley Cup. If you’re a dog musher you want to run the Quest,” says Wilmshurst, matter-of-factly.

Wilmshurst has always had a husky. As a kid, he and his brother tied their pet husky to a GT racer.

Competitive by nature, Wilmshurst decided to run the Quest after going to the finishing banquet in Whitehorse in 2007.

“It really opened my eyes to the world of competitive dog mushing,” he says with a glow. “I wanted be a dog musher, and once you’re in, you want to go further.”

Working seasonally for the Yukon Government as a deckhand on the George Black ferry, Wilmshurst feels he has the perfect job for mushing.

“I’m free in the winters,” he says with a smile.

Originally, Wilmshurst and his long-time partner, Melissa Atkinson, had two dogs as pets. One day in September after the fateful banquet, Wilmshurst came home with a third dog and started skijoring.

Initially, Atkinson says she was not happy about the number of dogs. Little did she know the following April they would buy a house approximately 25 km outside of Dawson to have enough space for the nine more dogs that were soon to follow.

Atkinson, who works as an employment and training officer for the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in in Dawson, says she eventually accepted everything.

“I’m an office girl by day and a musher’s wife by night,” she says with a sigh.

She remembers thinking that first winter, “Here we go!”

To start, Wilmshurst bought his equipment and the nine dogs from local Quest veteran Peter Ledwidge, who was getting out of racing.

“It was good timing,” he says.

While most would-be Questers learn the trade by dog handling for an experienced musher, Wilmshurst learned by jumping straight in.

“I’m like that,” he explains, adding ruefully, “I’ve probably done everything wrong you could do in dog mushing, but hopefully only once.”

Wilmshurst did research by volunteering at the Quest’s Dawson checkpoint and questioning the mushers, vets and officials. He got more dogs from friends and started breeding his own.

Initially, Wilmshurst just ran the dogs. But he came to realize that if he recorded the runs and calculated the miles, performance would improve. Eventually, the running became easier, the dogs became faster, and Wilmshurst did better in races.

To date, he has run the Percy de Wolfe Memorial Mail Run in Dawson City in 2010 and 2011, the Quest 300 in Whitehorse in 2011 and the River Runner 100 in Whitehorse in 2011.

He also got advice from veteran Quest mushers on how to train for the race. In September, Wilmshurst started with one-mile runs and will eventually work up to 100-mile runs.

He hopes to have 2,500 miles on the dogs by race time. He trains six days a week, but takes Sundays off.

“Sundays are for football,” says Wilmshurst with a smile. “No one should work on Sunday, not even dogs!”

How does a musher’s partner fit in to all this commitment, training and general dog focus?

“I want to help him make the dream,” says Atkinson. “I’m involved all the way.”

Atkinson handled for Wilmshurst during the Quest 300, which involved driving the dog truck, taking care of dropped race dogs and cleaning up campsites.

“I learned so much!” she says.

She also plans to handle for him during the Quest, along with friend Marc Hebert.

“You don’t get a break,” says Atkinson with a smile of resignation. “This year’s vacation time will be on the trail.”

She remembers with a laugh how she originally thought that 12 dogs were a lot of work – they now have 34. Atkinson considers herself “mama” to each of them and helps with the daily chores, including feeding, cutting out snack portions for runs, scooping poop and checking paws for soreness.

She also helps with the paperwork, including keeping vet records, filling out entry forms and the finances.

“She keeps me organized!” Wilmshurst adds with a grin.

Wilmshurst is hoping to finish the Quest in the middle of the pack – a reasonable goal in his estimation.

When asked how he’s feeling now that the time is finally drawing near, several emotions play out on Wilmshurst’s face.

“Some days I’m excited,” he says, “Other days I’m nervous.”

He goes on to add that some days he feels ready, other times he wonders, “What am I doing?”

He pauses for a minute, then summarizes, “Guess that’s just the way it is… dog mushing is minute by minute as to how you feel!”

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