MEDIA REVIEW: 1000 MILE SLED DOG JOURNEY

The Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race, like the proverbial redheaded stepchild, has only received a fraction of the attention paid to the other 1,000 mile race in Alaska. The world famous Iditarod has numerous videos made and books, magazine and newspaper articles written about it annually, but as the Yukon Quest grows in popularity, media materials about the race are slowly starting to be produced as well. This year, Michelle Phillips, a four-time Yukon Quest finisher from Tagish, Yukon Territory, makes her contribution to the collection with “1,000 Mile Sled Dog Journal – My Yukon Quest Story.” Phillips’ book is a good read because it is a firsthand perspective of the event. She details her experiences competing in the 2006 Yukon Quest from a musher’s perspective, and it truly is a journal as the name implies. It simply and very purely captures many of the emotions she felt while taking part in this sled dog ultra-marathon. Distance mushers can relate to the book opening with Phillips’ concerns: will the dog truck make it the whole way without breaking down, will the dogs pick up the kennel cough virus going around other teams, will the temperature drop to minus 50 degrees as can be the norm for this race, and will she and the dogs be able to deal with the culture shock of seeing thousands of people crowding around them after hardly seeing anyone else all year.Phillips’ writing style is not pedantic or overly dramatic. Professional journalists and book authors may be better writers than mushers, but they can’t truly capture the race experience like someone who has stood on the runners in minus 40 degree cold, staring at their team in the dark of night through the narrow beam of a headlamp for hours on end like Phillips has.Because of this, the book would be a good read for novices to sled dog sports, or others that operate on the fringes, such as race volunteers or spectators interested in learning more about what is going on in the mind of a musher. It would also be an excellent way to learn some of the responsibilities mushers face along the trail, such as the seemingly non-stop list of chores that are done while camping between checkpoints.“First thing I do when I stop is snack all the dogs, pull them off the trail and hook down the leaders, then I get my cooker going to melt snow for water, pull their booties off, put down straw and start my health checks. Once the snow is melted and the water is hot, I add it to a cooler with frozen meat, high calorie kibble, vitamins and oil. This same routine is repeated every stop I make,” she said. This is common knowledge to distance racers, but to those waiting in the checkpoint, passages like this will make it clear why mushers look wearier than their dogs upon arrival.However, Phillips also includes many experiences that even seasoned dog drivers could learn from if considering running the Yukon Quest. And those who have run the race will likely enjoy reading about the people and places they already know, but from another competitor’s point of view. She talks about Jack, a gold miner who lives in Central, that helped her fix a broken sled as he has done for many competitors over the years. There is also mention of everyone’s favorite sourdough, Carl Cochran, an energetic oldtimer that annually offers mushers conversation and a warm place to stay between Central and Circle.Of course, no book on the Yukon Quest would be complete without mentioning the notorious Eagle Summit, a mountain that has given many mushers nightmares, and cost more than one competitor a shot at a first place finish after their team faded on the steep uphill climb when the race travels north. Phillips does not disappoint with her tale of a white-knuckle descent down the mountain in the same year some of her competitors had to be airlifted out by Blackhawk helicopters after being caught in a wicked winter storm.“We flew down this hill and then the trail went over to the left, but my team decided to travel straight down the mountain! I couldn’t stop them and a lot of the markers had been run over so I wasn’t really sure where to go. We flew over ice and rocks. At one point I had two snow hooks and one bounced off my sled and jammed into the ground. I was traveling so fast my sled kept going and the line from the snow hook snapped my brush bow. I had to cut the line to my snow hook and give it up to the mountain,” she said. She eventually made it down safely, and hugged each of her dogs to celebrate, although she admitted “They all looked totally freaked out and I couldn’t blame them!”Phillips’ love of her dogs can be felt throughout the entire book, and readers will feel her pain as she describes the heartbreak that accompanied dropping injured leaders and Yukon Quest veterans like Tufford, who she calls her “little Tuff man,” but they will feel the pride she experienced when some of her younger dogs that she hadn’t expected to be cornerstones of the team stepped up, shined and got her to the finish line.The only criticism a reader could have with the book is that Phillips could have written even more about her individual dogs, and what they experienced – their highs and lows – through the race. She mentions a few by name, but it would have been nice to know the names, ages, strengths and weaknesses of all the dogs in the team, particularly since there are so many beautiful photos of them, by Derek Crowe and Ed Voos, spliced throughout the book.Still, the book is an easy read and well worth the $5.95 asking price. Phillips’ book is also refreshing because in an age of blogs, it is nice to know there are a few people who are still willing to put words to paper. Blogs are a great way for mushers with jobs to pass time during the day while trying to look busy in front of the boss, but to truly enjoy mushing stories there is no better way to take in a tale like sitting in a tiny cabin, curling up in front of the wood stove or hunching near an oil lamp, and reading a real book. Anyone who does that with this book won’t be disappointed.Joseph Robertia is an outdoor reporter for the Peninsula Clarion newspaper in Kenai, AK. He and his wife, Colleen, maintain Rogues Gallery Kennel, a mid-distance racing kennel in Kasilof, AK.

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