Feb 2, 2015
Damon Tedford's latest dreams of adventure have turned to "mush!" Inspired by early 20th-century writer Jack London and his novel The Call of the Wild, the 37-yearold emergency room physician from Vancouver is fulfilling a youthful fantasy as a rookie musher in the Yukon Quest, the 1,600-kilometre international dog sled race that begins Feb. 7 in Whitehorse, Yukon and ends in Fairbanks, Alaska.
The annual endurance race, started in 1984 to celebrate historic transportation and mail routes used in the Klondike Gold Rush (1896-99), sees the transplanted native of Prince Edward Island become the first musher from the Lower Mainland to take part in the event.
"B.C. mushers are quite rare," according to Echo Ross of Outside the Cube, a Whitehorse public relations company that promotes the race. "We've only had four in the past. Two from Atlin, one from Fort St. James, one from Fort Nelson. That's it."
Of the 26 mushers who submitted an entry fee of $2,000 before the deadline for this year's race, eight are Canadian. Six are from Yukon, plus Tedford and Jason Campeau of Rocky Mountain House, Alta.
There are three women in this year's Yukon Quest - Tamra Reynolds of Mount Lorne, Yukon Territory and Alaskans Ryne Olson and Kristin Knight Pace. Although they're among the rookie contingent of 10, the female mushers are either sled dog breeders or experienced trail runners. Reynolds, for instance, has been competing in shorter sled dog races for 10 years, though this is her first crack at the Yukon Quest marathon.
Tedford, however, is a firsttimer in the purest form.
Before he left his job at Surrey Memorial Hospital and moved to Alaska last October to begin training, the physician's only real experience with dog sledding came in Algonquin Park, Ont., on a one-hour introductory trip run by a commercial adventure company.
"It was a Christmas present from my partner (Lauren Kimball)," Tedford explained, in a telephone interview from Sterling, Alaska. "It was one of those tourist things, where they cycle people through every hour. It was so much fun, a simple little trek. But it probably was the biggest defining moment. I said to myself, 'I gotta do this.' " Dog mushing is an extreme endurance sport, full of numbing sleep deprivation, dehydration and the mental and physical challenges posed by treacherous terrain and the harsh, unforgiving cold. It is no place for wimps or dilettantes of either gender.
"Sleep deprivation is tough," says Mitch Seavey, a two-time winner of Alaska's Iditarod, a race of similar length to the Yukon Quest and considered "the last great race on earth."
"It tests a whole different realm of endurance. You're working in a half-delirious, half-dream state. You're dehydrated. You see things that aren't there. You realize you're going to be depressed and pessimistic. You're going to experience the lowest lows and the highest highs. Veterans learn to roll with it, and laugh at it. But it's really unnerving to new people."
Two years ago, at age 53, Seavey became the oldest musher to win the Iditarod, which is run in March from Willow, Alaska, just north of Anchorage, to the outpost of Nome, a short flight away from the Russian Far East. Although there are mandatory layovers on the route to check the physical condition of the mushers and their dogs, Seavey estimates he slept for a total of 15 hours over the nine days it took to complete the trek.
The family brand of independence and intensity that served Mitch so well was bequeathed to him by his father, Dan Seavey, who competed in the 40th anniversary of the first Iditarod (in which he raced) in 2012. He was 74. A third-generation musher in the same race, Dallas Seavey, became the youngest competitor to win the Iditarod that same year - he turned 25 on the day the 1,600-kilometre trek began - and won again in 2014.
As a member of the first family of sled dog racing, Mitch Seavey was an obvious touchstone for someone looking to get up to speed in the sport in a hurry. Tedford has been living and training at the Seavey compound in Sterling for four months.
To qualify for the Yukon Quest, mushers must compete in at least one 200-mile race and one 300-mile qualifying event.
Tedford has exceeded that requirement by running in the Gin Gin 200, the Copper Basin 300 and Northern Lights 300.
Like all Alaskan huskies, his nine-year-old lead dog, Gumbo, is typical of the breed - a lean, medium-sized animal bred for speed and endurance.
A decorated veteran, Gumbo has won the Iditarod before, finished third another time and, in Seavey's words, "he's no slouch."
Neither is Tedford.
"Damon is way ahead of the curve," said Mitch Seavey. "He's not like some middle-aged guy who rolled out of his office chair and decided to do this. He's tall, trim and athletic, a smart and competitive person used to tough sporting events. He's not bashful. He's a very tough, determined individual."
A graduate of the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont., Tedford spent five years as an officer with the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, based in Edmonton and Shilo, Man. He served tours of duty in international hot spots such as Bosnia and Afghanistan before he decided to pursue a medical degree at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont. He did his residency at the University of Saskatchewan before moving to Vancouver a year ago.
"When I was in the military, I saw (Canadian) doctors and nurses doing medical outreach and building a rapport with women and children in small villages (who initially mistrusted them)," he explained. "They'd show up, pushing the sick and injured in wheelbarrows, for treatment. It made me realize how quickly a bridge could be made across that cultural divide. It made a big impression on me. 'Why don't we go and do this medicine thing?' It will be helping people every day. It will be making a definable difference in people's lives, every day."
ER physicians are known for being high-energy people who must make quick decisions and operate in an environment of uncertainty. Seavey believes that background will translate well for Tedford, out on the trail.
"I see him being as competitive as you could expect a rookie to be," he said.
The winner's share amounts to just over $24,000 from a total purse of $127,110. Only the top 15 will finish in the money, but for Tedford, there's no bottom line attached to his next great adventure.
"Braving the elements, schmoozing with the dogs, surviving on nothing, the northern lights, the whole romance that goes with the North ... I've always been a bit of a dreamer," he confessed. "I feel my military training prepared me for the basic survival skills I'll need. I can do this."
In the words of Jack London, Tedford's patron saint of the North: "Don't loaf and invite inspiration; light out after it with a club."
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