Erin Stevens’ ten-year plan is to run the Yukon Quest. And she knows by that time she’ll have an entirely new compilation of dogs.
Her six current dogs are from Deb Knight. Stevens handled for her a few winters ago. She says it’s not hard to get a group of B-team dogs.
Stevens lives in a cabin at the base of Bear Mountain, about twenty kilometres down Annie Lake Road, south of Whitehorse.
She wants to get some miles on her dogs; she spreads her arms and says, “Here, we have hundreds of miles.”
Her dogs are Alaskan huskies, which is a husky crossed with whatever kind of dog wants to run. In the winter the dogs go nuts when she pulls out the sled harnesses; Stevens says it’s the same thing in the summer when they hear the bear bells — they know they’re going to put some miles in.
Stevens attaches them to her bike with skijouring gear and takes them for long runs, interrupted by swims.
In the summer, husky mutts turn into hot dogs if a musher isn’t careful. Stevens says she avoids touring in mid-day, and always works a stream or lake into their route.
Huskies are built for running — that’s why they love it. But dogs have personalities, and Stevens says it’s her job to understand how the different dog traits fit into the team.
“I’m the pack leader. In theory.”
Stevens says some of her dogs have the capability to lead, but are shy — they’d rather be invisible in the back, doing the heavy lifting. The confident dogs love being up front.
Stevens’ authority comes from time and miles; the dogs have to trust her, and respect her and she has to put her team in unfamiliar situations and lead them safely through.
The summer is a good time for Stevens to get to know different sides of her dogs. She sees which dogs are squirrel dogs, which water are water dogs, and which aren’t.
Bria, a lead dog, lost an argument with the resident porcupine and ended up with 500 quills and a busted-up shoulder. Vader, another lead dog, won’t leave Stevens’ side.
The dogs are sleek, unlike other huskies in the summer, who get mangy. Stevens says she puts in time brushing the winter fur out of her dogs’ coats. In fact, Stevens puts most of her time into her pack; she doesn’t leave them alone for more than 12 hours, running them every day.
She also pays for vet fees, harnesses, leashes and food. She’s getting kennels built on her new place.
“It’s a lifestyle,” she says. “You can’t just put them away, they’re here with you.”
Sometimes she feels like she’s missing out, when she has to leave friends to attend to her dogs. But, she says what she gets out of her dogs is worth it: “You get to hang out with dogs all day and cruise the Yukon. How awesome is that?”