Yukon News

A house full of huskies

Genesee Keevil Friday April 17, 2009

Sebastian Schnuelle

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A bunch of Sebastian Schnuelle's dogs get some quality indoor time at his cabin.

When Sebastian Schnuelle rolled into Whitehorse more than a decade ago, there were 18 huskies in his camper.

“People say I was a very strange sight arriving in the Yukon—so I guess nothing’s changed,” he said with a laugh.

The dogs still share his living quarters, crowding onto his bed and couch.

But instead of 18, there are 80.

Schnuelle, who won this year’s Yukon Quest sled dog race, went on to take second place in the Iditarod.

“Everything worked out,” he said, munching pizza on Monday afternoon.

Schnuelle hadn’t set out to win the Quest.

In fact, he called up the Quest office and withdrew from the race in early January.

“I was planning to run the Kusko and the Iditarod, and didn’t think I could do all three,” he said.

But weather foiled his plans.

The Kusko is a 300-mile (482-kilometre), fly-in race in Alaska, and bad weather kept Schnuelle and his dogs on the tarmac.

“I was discouraged,” he said.

“But looking back, that’s part of the test—are you willing to pull through it?”

By day three at the airport, Schnuelle called the Quest office a second time.

They hadn’t officially pulled him from the race yet.

“Don’t,” he said.

“I want to run it after all.”

That’s mushing, said Schnuelle.

“You have to constantly adapt to what’s thrown at you.”

And this year, the weather kept throwing curve balls.

The Iditarod started off warm, with temperatures hovering just above zero.

It also started off slow, for Schnuelle.

“I wasn’t even a mile in, when the first team behind me called ‘Trail’” to pass, he said.

It was part of the plan.

“Right from the first second I raced to be in the top 10,” he said.

“And this meant going as slow as hell.”

Running dogs too fast at the start of a race can burn out the team.

But watching team after team sail by was tough on Schnuelle.

“It was horrible,” he said with a grin.

“But you just have to do it and believe in it.

“I just kept slow and steady.”

Partway through the race, the temperature plummeted to minus 35 and the wind picked up—just in time for a section of trail that crosses sea ice.

Plenty of mushers decided to wait it out at Shaktoolik, the checkpoint before the crossing, but Schnuelle didn’t even consider stopping.

“Norton Sound is intimidating, because there’s no trees to orient yourself with, and I couldn’t even see the mountains,” he said.

“But I made a mistake last year.”

Schnuelle stopped at Shaktoolik when he should have pushed on.

“And there wasn’t a day that went by this summer when I didn’t think about it,” he said.

“So this year, it wasn’t even a question—I was going through, there was no hesitation.”

Two hours out, Schnuelle had second thoughts.

The ground storm had wiped out the horizon, as 80-kilometre winds whipped up snow squalls.

“I realized, Goddamn, it is really windy,” he said.

As soon as Schnuelle’s doubts surfaced, the dogs picked up on them.

“And their speed dropped,” he said.

Playing happy didn’t help.

The team can sense when emotions are genuine, and when they’re not, he said.

As he got closer to the finish in Nome, Schnuelle had trouble sleeping.

“There was so much adrenalin,” he said.

“I was running in second place and with so many good people—one little screw-up or mistake and I could lose it all.”

But Schnuelle had newfound confidence this year.

“It felt different,” he said.

“Before, if I was ahead of someone like (Martin) Buser, I would start to worry I was doing something wrong,” he said, referencing the former Iditarod champ.

“But this year, when I was ahead of him, I thought, ‘Cool.’”

Five years ago, Schnuelle sold property in Braeburn to fund his racing.

“It was supposed to be for my retirement cache,” he said.

But dog racing is an expensive sport.

Schnuelle got into it by accident.

After earning his degree as a young environmental engineer in Germany in the mid-‘90s, Schnuelle soon realized he was in the wrong field.

“It was too much chemistry,” he said.

So he went back to his old job at Mercedes.

“There’s a rule in Europe, if you don’t use your holidays by the end of March, they disappear,” said Schnuelle.

So, come February, he started looking around for an interesting vacation opportunity and found a brochure on dog sledding in Canada.

One thing led to another and Schnuelle ending up guiding at the operation he’d visited in Ontario.

“I knew I wanted to run my own tourism business,” he said.

And after passing through the Yukon on the way back from a canoe trip down the Mackenzie River, he knew it was home.

Schnuelle found a property on the road to Haines Junction and set up camp.

A couple months later, he came to an awful realization—the area didn’t get much snow.

“With a little brains I would have seen it was dry because there’s no trees,” said Schnuelle.

He’s continued to look for other properties, but nothing has convinced him to move yet.

“I like it because of the high quality of life for the dogs,” he said.

“They can run loose, and it’s dry so there’s no mosquitoes.

“And once I started racing (the lack of snow) didn’t matter anymore.”

Initially, Schnuelle tried to continue his tour business and race, but it was too much.

Schnuelle scratched during his first Quest in 1999.

“I realized there was a lot of things I didn’t know,” he said.

Five years later, he ran the race again, “to finish unfinished business.”

“I had no intention of racing long term until about two days after the race,” he said.

“That’s when I fell in love.”

It was seeing what the dogs can do and how much they love it that got Schnuelle hooked.

“The dogs get a certain demeanour,” he said.

“They’re like well-traveled people, there’s a certain experience and wisdom—it makes them mellow.

“And I love being outside and camping,” he added.

“I could do that with the tour business too, but I ended up spending so much time in the office.”

Schnuelle made a six-year racing plan, and decided to run both the Quest and the Iditarod every year.

“I didn’t grow up in the sport, like Lance Mackey—people who’ve been on sleds since they were five months old,” he said.

“So I thought, to catch up my knowledge, if people like Jeff King are doing the Iditarod once a year, I would double my learning curve and do two races a year.

“That way you have so many experiences to draw on.”

This year, when Schnuelle was packing a dog in his sled during the Iditarod, it “bummed him out.”

But then he remembered a Kobuk race in Alaska when he ended up packing two dogs.

It could be worse, he thought.

“And as soon as I was happy, my dogs picked up.”

Schnuelle plans to run the Iditarod next year, and after that, he’s not sure if he’s going to continue racing.

“But I will always stay in dogs” he said.

They give him joy.

“You can wake up in the morning, and it doesn’t matter how crappy you feel, there are 80 faces happy to see you, wagging their tails.

“And I love that happiness.”

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