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Whitehorse, Yukon Territory
"Work is an abomination on man's soul. I hate work, and the times in my life when I've had the least money were the best times of my life. We're not here to work, we're here to learn and have fun."
Steve Craig and I sit at a table against the wall of the Big Picture Window room. It is just after dusk. Most of the others have wandered back to their rooms, preparing for dinner. But now Craig leans toward me, an earnest, intense man with long hair, wire-rimmed glasses, and a beard.
"If one does something he enjoys and gets paid, I don't call that work. When one does something he doesn't enjoy, to get paid, just to survive, then to me that is work and that idea I hate. I try to work to live, not live to work. Everyone thinks I'm a hippie, but I'm not. I don't drink much and I don't do drugs. I worked for Dave Millar out on his gold mine for a summer, and I never had more money in my entire life, and I was never more miserable. And I swore I'd never, never get caught up like that again.
"When I was twenty-one I took a year off University and began roaming. I came back, but at Christmas break I quit to go back to New Zealand to work on a sheep farm. I spent sixteen months in New Zealand and Australia, which was the beginning of my lifestyle of work and travel and play. When I was sixteen I had an inspiration to harvest wheat in Saskatchewan. I don't know where it came from, but it was very strong. I had no connection to farming. I think I farmed wheat in southern Saskatchewan in a past life. From the first time I crossed into Saskatchewan it was like I was home and when I am there harvesting, it is like something that is a part of me or something I was meant to do. I did eleven harvests for the same people until 1996. Haven't harvested since, but I hope to again. Though I hate work, harvest isn't work in that sense. It is a lot of work, but I love doing it. What is it you wrote in your book, the part about the difference between a hobo, tramp and a bum. I liked the idea he was a hobo - he was willing to work. I would be happy with that label. I travel and work to pay my way. I'm not a tramp or a bum.
"Hockey was my very reason for existence when I was a kid. Until I was twenty-one, it was the center of my life. Nothing and nobody came before hockey. I played Junior B in Victoria. I don't know the guys up here that well, I'm a defenseman. I wasn't initially chosen to go on this trip, I only got to go when Wes Peterson gave up his player spot to be the coach, for me. Ever since I first heard about the idea of doing the 1905 trip, it was a dream for me. So I owe thanks beyond thanks to Wes.
"The biggest influence in my life was the deaths of three friends. The first was a teammate of mine, we were eighteen-years-old. The second one was when I was about twenty-three in New Zealand. The third I was about twenty-seven and it was another teammate from hockey since my very first practice and we also graduated from high school together. He had a brain aneurysm during a rec league hockey game. He was skating behind the net, he was dead before he hit the ice. These three deaths convinced me that life can end at any moment, and must be lived for the day. So I try to live in the now. All we have for sure is here and now. People say to me, you're almost forty-years-old, you have no career, you have no future, what are you going to do when you're sixty? Hell, how do they know I'll be here when I'm sixty?
"I'd never done, oh, more than twenty miles in a day and had never run more than eight dogs. Mostly I had run four, a few times six, and only a couple of times eight. For me to mush to Whitehorse was my own dream within the dream of coming to Ottawa. A week before we left I was introduced to Cowboy. I certainly knew who he was but had never been introduced. In the conversation, I said how I wanted to mush to Whitehorse. The next day I get a message to call Sandy Sippola. I did and she says how Cowboy said how I wanted to mush so she offers me ten dogs of hers and Larry's to run. Two times that week I ran ten dogs for about twenty-five miles and then I'm running ten dogs for four hundred-plus miles on the Yukon Quest trail over eight days. I had no idea how tough it would be, but I had a lot of help with Cowboy doing the dog food and Kevin, Gerard and Wes doing the camp. I have never been so physically exhausted in my life. I pretty much fell asleep in the shower in Whitehorse.
"The day into Pelly Farm was the toughest. Over sixty-five miles and twelve hours with a couple of rests. We were told it was sixty miles for that day. We had a good long stop about midway, in the sun, with the other teams and several skidoo guys. Late in the day I stopped to help Gerard with his machine. The dogs didn't want to go after several warm miles, after Gerard left. So I gave them a break. Once the sun went down they came to life. We cruised into the darkness. I had a good idea of when sixty miles were done and there was no sign of camp. I started to wonder if I had missed it somehow or where it was. It was well into the evening and there I was, from Victoria, behind ten dogs on a sled in the middle of total Yukon wilderness, in the dark, thirty-something below zero, alone and feeling quite alone, wondering if I was lost.
"For a while I was a bit uncomfortable. But then I thought, here I am, from Victoria, behind ten dogs on a sled in the middle of total Yukon wilderness, in the dark, in the cold, as part of this incredible 1905 Stanley Cup Challenge re-creation, the only sound that of the dogs running, really cruising in the cold of the night, and the sled on the snow, a starry sky above. It became exhilarating. I gave my trust to the dogs to follow the right trail and reveled in the night travel. I had the dogs, had my sleeping bag. I wouldn't freeze to death. The trail went to Pelly Crossing, eventually. So I figured that I would be OK. After sixty-six miles and over twelve hours on the trail I saw headlamps and the dogs pulled me into camp. What a day.
"Learning each dog was an individual and how to deal with them was interesting. Some needed to be watched a lot to keep them pulling, others were low maintenance. On and off the runners, weight on one runner then the other, or ride them both or running behind and pushing to help the dogs or pumping. Rarely could I stand on the back and just look around like a tourist. The dogs would let you know if you weren't working, too. They turn and look at you as if to say 'Hello. You want to help, too?' It really is a team and you may be the top dog but you are still a part of the team. If you take care of your dogs then they'll take care of you.
"The whole relationship with the dog team and the dogs individually is a big part of the attraction of mushing for me. This trip had an extra challenge for me in that I didn't know the dogs and they didn't know me. The other guys all knew their dogs. Both I and my dogs had to learn about each other as we went and that in itself was an interesting experience. After three or four days I felt I knew them pretty well, and by the end it was great to see one individually and have some understanding of their individuality. Probably the biggest thing for me was that I got them to Whitehorse in good health and that at the end of each day they were still ready to go. I find it interesting that mushing is a meeting of very individual people and dogs, who must come together and work as a very strong team, to make it happen. Mushing to Whitehorse as part of the whole Nugget journey was a dream realized for me. It was physically exhausting but one of the best experiences of my life. I would have liked to have kept going to Skagway by dogsled.
"It wasn't tougher than I imagined, because I didn't imagine. I had no idea. I was a novice recreational musher. When it was over people asked me, 'Are you going to do the Quest? Are you a professional musher now?' Are you kidding? My answer was that I was a novice musher before the trip and now I was a much better novice musher. That's how I feel.
"With Larry, he was definitely intimidating. He is the Cowboy. And I had some of his dogs and was on a pretty large learning curve. But I was looking to learn. On the trip I didn't see much of him apart from arriving at night and hooking up in the morning. And there was the hippy thing. The morning after we got to Whitehorse I was walking through the hotel dining room for breakfast and Chester Kelly was standing with Cowboy. Chester asked me how I did, and Cowboy says, 'Not bad for a hippie.'"
Steve Craig leans back and smiles.
"I was pretty happy with that."
(From Chapter Eleven of The Trail Less Traveled, documenting the 1997 Dawson-to-Ottawa Stanley Cup reenactment)