The Dr. Duke of Dog Driving

Mushing was far more exciting 20 years ago. 40 years ago was exciting but too often in the sense Vilhjalmur Stefansson meant when he said that adventures were the result of being unprepared. There were more technical problems and practical obstacles back in the 1970s and early 80s that prevented fully enjoying the novelty and adventure in discovering the sport that was expanding and developing in all parts of the world.

I remember the days of racing in the Canadian circuit from The Pas to Yellowknife. Driving into towns like PA (Prince Albert), Pine Point, Ft. McMurray (when it was only 4,000 people), or Lac La Biche to register for the upcoming race. The breweries were often race sponsors. Being met by a few of the local organizers in a pickup filled with cases of free beer; they said, give a shout when you want more, but they didn’t wait for the shout, coming by the motels and other venues several times a day to chat and unload more beer. Peter Norberg and Jack Meachen at the Peter Pond Hotel surrounded by cases of beer at 2 in the morning debating weighty issues of life and hockey otherwise.

At the time the conversation had the dull repetition of too much beer going in and little thought coming out. Suddenly Jack asked Peter about this mercy killing business: if I was really suffering would you kill me? Sure, said Peter enthusiastically. Long silence and confused expression on Jack’s face; not sure what to think. Then: Just wait until I ask, eh?

The scene is 7 in the morning at Danny McQueen’s house in Pine Point. Time to drop and water the dogs that are in the trucks parked outside. Darcy is hauling a big bucket up the stairs from the basement, so big in relation to young Darcy the handle is up to his shoulders. Jim is complaining in the basement because he slept under the fresh lynx skins and now is infested with itching lynx lice. At the kitchen table Grant and Danny drone on and on revisiting the same exchange that has come back every half hour for the last 5 hours or more. Doris has the coffee ready and is cooking bacon and fried eggs for anyone interested but Grant and Danny first hope to resolve on an epitaph for Old Pat. He was a good lead dog, Pat, says Grant in a proud voice. Yeah, he was a good dog says Danny in his crusty voice but with a cunning look of delight knowing that Grant is taking the bait again for the 20th time that night. The kitchen table is covered with dozens of empty beer bottles between them. Old Pat had a big heart says Grant. Danny pulls the trigger. It takes a big sleigh to carry a big heart, he cackles.

Free frozen fish, 50 or 100 for each of the teams from out of town, was gradually going out of style but I always got my share when available and did feed them to the dogs. In the later years I had to remind the race organizers of the tradition so as to get some,  until they finally gave it up forever.

What ended it, the glory years (in fact the second Golden Era if you include the 20s and 30s) for mushing? Was it the Uwe Krupp view of progress that said we had to be more politically correct (by their standards, of course) conventional and conformist so mushing could become mainstream? I doubt it. We got more attention because mushing was not conventional, it was an extreme sport and historic as well, with mushers and spectators bringing to the races their admiration, awe and visions of Jack London, the Gold Rush and the Far North, Le Grand Nord as they say in French. Mushers in button down suits? Give me a break, Uwe!

The title reference to Hunter S. Thompson’s Dr Duke persona was because I recall an article in Rolling Stone magazine back in the 80s about the Saranac Lake sled dog race. Thompson exploited his gigs for Rolling Stone covering sports events and political campaigns to develop an oeuvre and vision of himself as Gonzo Journalist catering to the spaced-out Hippie drug culture, writing disturbing and mind-blowing works such as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail etc. In The Curse of Lono he begins with his job to cover the Honolulu Marathon, during which he and his cohorts station themselves along the route drinking and doping while watching the leaders in true astonishment at their superhuman ability to run, heckling and jeering the peleton. For Rolling Stone and Thompson, for Outside Magazine, if there is not something unconventional or weird they and their audiences aren’t interested.

The article in Rolling Stone was not written by Dr. Duke but in that style. Would be something to see the style manual of RS! I’m gonna look for a copy of the magazine to post or find a few choice quotes. Maybe Fast Eddy has a copy unless he burned it, as he figures prominently.

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