MUKTUK KENNELS: WHERE DOGS RULE

Ah, to be a dog in Frank Turner and Anne Taylor’s Muktuk Kennel, a place where all 130 four-legged team members have the best of every possible world.Part racing kennel and part adventure-tour camp, Muktuk is all heart and there are few better ambassadors for the sport of mushing than two-time Yukon Quest winner Turner and his dogs.It’s a bright sunny summer day in the Yukon and the mercury in the thermometer is flirting with 80-degrees Fahrenheit. Hot for the dozen or so tourists who have come to experience an afternoon at a real working sled dog kennel, and certainly hot for the dogs.Relief is on the way however and the guests are about to get their first look at sled dogs in action.Working with an international team of volunteers and guides, Muktuk handler Manuela Albicker – herself a native of Germany – unclips 10 huskies who instantly streak out of the yard and down a well-worn path to the Takhini River about a half-mile away.With a few stops to mark a favorite bush or a bit of rough and tumble with each other, the dogs lead the way and lunge full tilt into the water.“This is a good way for them to cool off and to socialize,” Albicker explains as the guests snap pictures. “Of course, they know to come to me because I have the treats,” she adds, tapping a pouch hanging from her belt.“They don’t fight with each other?” one guest asks, as the dogs splash past.Albicker shrugs. “We do a lot of work with them like this so they establish a kind of pecking order,” she said.But typical of sled dogs, a moment later two of the huskies seemed intent on contradicting her and entered into a minor tussle with a few growls and were instantly separated by Albicker.“That’s why we carry these,” she said, holding up a leash and clipping on to the collars of one of the dogs while an assistant clipped on to the second dog.It’s all part of the up close and personal learning philosophy behind Turner’s tours.“This is just awesome and he’s such a wealth of information,” Linda Steckley of Green Coast, Florida, said. “I’m learning none of this is as easy as it looks.”Steckley, her husband and four of their fellow Floridians were spending the afternoon at Muktuk taking part in the kennel’s Taste of the Yukon Tour.One of five summer “mini-tours” offered at Muktuk, the Taste of the Yukon is an in-depth introduction to sled dogs, the Yukon Quest and includes an authentic northern barbeque of Arctic char, bison, caribou and elk compliments of Taylor.In addition to the free run with the dogs to the river, Turner offers a hands-on demonstration of the equipment and gear needed to mush during a Yukon winter and plenty of time to interact with the dogs and a new litter of 8-week-old puppies.“We are really learning how much love he has for his dogs,” Steckley said. “The dogs are so energetic and rambunctious.”Jean Slody of Port Charlotte, Florida, agreed.“People always tell you these (sled) dogs are happy but I really didn’t believe it until I saw it,” Slody said. “I can’t get over how you can go up to any one of these dogs and they come up to you like you are their long lost friend.”That’s exactly how Turner likes it.“It’s really funny,” he said. “You know what these dogs can go through on the trail but they really just want to be couch potatoes.”In fact, clients taking part in the overnight mushing adventure tours have the option of bringing dogs into the guest cabins with them.During the winter months Muktuk’s winter packages range from the Rookie Ranch for novice mushers wanting to give the sport a try to the Spring Camping Tours in which the serious musher follows a traditional trail from Aklavik to Herschel Island in the Arctic.Turner also has a Quest Trail Tour that follows the same route as the Yukon Quest.“That’s a great trip to get some inside perspective on the Quest,” Turner said.It’s a trail he knows well, and not just because it passes within a mile of his kennel.A veteran of 24 Yukon Quests, Turner was in the first running of that race in 1984. Ten years later, he won the race and successfully defended that win in 1995.While justifiably proud of the back-to-back victories, it’s the two Aleyska Vet’s Choice Awards he picked up in 1991 and again in 2001 he really treasures.“The trophies get rusty and the money gets spent,” Turner said. “But that mutual support you have with the dogs never goes away.”That’s why it’s “dogs first” at Muktuk Kennel.“I’ll never do anything to compromise the dogs’ health or safety just because someone paid me money,” Turner said. “Mushing is not about going out to prove something. If that’s what you want, go bungee jumping.”With 130 dogs, it’s easy for Turner to field both competitive Quest teams and gentler teams fit for a rookie.“Most of the competitive dogs go toward the Quest team,” he said. “But just because a dog can’t race doesn’t mean it’s not a good dog and they can go on our tour teams.”Turner’s racing days are now behind him and Albicker is training the new racing stock.She had intended to run the Yukon Quest 300 last year, but a foot injury forced her to abandon those plans. Now she’s aiming for this year.“A dog team isn’t a random group of dogs,” Turner said. “Each dog has its different strength (and) it’s kind of like a puzzle where you try to fit all the pieces together.”For their part the dogs, Turner said, are intuitive creatures who get to know the different mushers – whether rookies or experienced – fairly quickly.“If the dogs could talk they’d tell you the best thing about the person behind them on the sled is trust. The treats are nice and pats are on the head are nice, but it’s really about the trust,” Turner said.Clients are each assigned their own team of dogs from the Muktuk kennel and learn everything that goes along with proper sled dog care from feeding to booting to trail etiquette and commands.There is perhaps no greater testament to Turner’s marketing skills than the fact people pay him to shovel dog poop.His most popular tour is the six or eight day Rookie Ranch where beginners start out with a guide but are soon driving their own teams on overnight expeditions in the Yukon wilderness.Turner noted because Muktuk is a relatively small operation, it’s easy to tailor trips and tours to individuals and small groups.“As well as learning about the dogs people learn about themselves,” Turner said. “They learn how to channel stress because if you just get mad when the dogs don’t do what you want them to do, you’ve blown it and you’re not sending good messages to the dogs.”As far as Turner is concerned, his dogs can run on a team for as long as they want, even if it’s only for a mile.“We have some dogs that we are focusing on strictly for the Quest and some that are strictly for tours,” Turner said. “But as long as a dog wants to pull we try to create a team for that dog.”There are currently 24 retired dogs at Muktuk living out their lives between the kennel and guest cabins.For Turner, each and every dog is a lifetime commitment.“We never cull in our kennel and don’t place or sell dogs very often,” he said. “We give the older dogs palliative care because as long as a dog is eating, drinking, mobile and not in discomfort we believe they deserve to be well looked after in their retirement.“A lot of people say it’s so nice I have old dogs,” Turner said. “But we get so much from them and I learn so much from them, the least I can do is make them comfortable when they are done running.”Turner recalled his early days of mushing in the 1970s when whips and fear were the motivators in a race.“Now we work with the dogs,” he said. “If you take care of them and give it your best effort, they will, too.”Turner and his guides explain all this at the start of each tour and he said most of the clients get it, but every so often there’s an exception.“If a problem comes up on the trail between a client and the dogs I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and re-explain the rules,” Turner said. “But if it happens a third time we turn around and come back and that’s it.”In the years Turner has offered his tours that has only happened once.“His philosophy is not just for the dogs but it’s for people, too,” Steckley said.“His whole personality just transfers to the dogs,” Slody added.“You have to love dogs, nature and the wilderness to do this,” Turner said. “But for the people who come up here we do our best to make this an educational and fun experience.”Muktuk offers adventure tours year-round ranging in price from the informal $15 self guided summer tour to 10-day camping trip starting at $2,600.Complete information is available through his website at www.muktuk.comJulia Bayly is a freelance writer-photographer and musher living in Fort Kent, Maine.

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