Dog mushers are the coldest of the cold

Now that he is retired from 1,000-mile dogsled races, Frank Turner knows to stay in the house when the temperature gets cold enough to break things.

As the thermometer dipped into single digits in southern Indiana a few days ago and the United States was rattled by storms, cold and everything else that defines winter, I had contact with this old friend from the Yukon Territory.

He may have been in the the chilliest clime on the continent, though he was well-equipped to withstand it.

“Two nights ago, it was the first night in at least 10 nights the temperature wasn’t 40 below,” Turner said.

Most Americans’ familiarity with the Yukon consists of Sgt. Preston’s old television show, though many have read the pearls of poetry from Robert Service.

They may have heard of Alaska’s 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, but fewer know of the Yukon Quest. That was Frank’s baby. He raced between Whitehorse, Yukon, and Fairbanks, Alaska, 24 times. At 73, however, Turner has become a spectator.

Casual comment to people in this neck of Indiana of temperatures of 40 below produces responses such as “No, thank you.” My personal record low temp is 40 below, but it was just a few minutes spent walking from a building to a car.

Another old friend, Dick Mackey, who won the Iditarod in 1978, used to operate the farthest north truck at a place aptly called Coldfoot, population 10, located 55 miles north of the Arctic Circle. It was minus-17 Monday morning there, though there are legendary tales of cold at this isolated place.

“The first winter in Coldfoot, I thought we were going to freeze to death,” Mackey once said. “I’ve lived in cold places, but this was something else. By December, it hit 60 below zero. Regularly, it was 35, 40, 45 below. And much of the time, we had to work outdoors. At 45 below, hey, it’s getting nippy. At minus-50, man, it’s cold.”

Then it hit 82 below in January 1989. That month, Mackey said it was minus-60 for 17 days in a row.

Turner grew up in Toronto and said as a kid, he owned lousy boots and coats, and fingers and toes were cold in much higher temperatures. What he learned is that clothes make the man. Or at least help the man survive.

“Now, I look at clothing as my tool,” said the musher who owns 110 sled dogs and has likely mushed 100,000 to 200,000 miles, though he did not keep track.

Turner and wife Anne live on the outskirts of Whitehorse, capital of the Yukon, and they made sure they were not going to have drafts in their house.

“Where we are, we built for the conditions,” Turner said. “We have quadruple-pane windows.”

And extra insulation in the roof. And extra thick walls.

Whitehorse has about 25,000 people and can endure storms like the United States has just seen much more often. Sometimes, the power system fails, Turner said. Not at his house, though.

“We’ve got our solar with a backup generator,” he said of being prepared. “Our lights never dim.”

I’m not sure residents of Houston are going to relocate to Whitehorse just for that reason, but compared to the ills of the latest Texas aggravation, it sounds appealing.

At his age and staying home from the wilderness more after running dogs for 35 years, Turner doesn’t really have to worry about keeping a schedule. When you are racing, you have to cope with the elements.

“I lived for the Quest,” he said. “I loved the Quest.”

The Quest and Iditarod are endurance races for the people as well as the dogs, sleep-deprivation exercises for the humans who need shuteye over nine or 10 days. They might just be naps, though.

“When you got so cold, that was your alarm,” Frank said.

While Mackey says there is no such thing as staying warm at minus-60, Turner said it doesn’t matter what you’re wearing at minus-40, you’re going to feel it. His personal low temperature is minus-55. And don’t ask about windchill.

“You learn how to exist with the cold,” Turner said, “but the wind, I never reached the point where I was comfortable and settled physically and emotionally. I thought, ‘I’ve got no business being here.’”

Still, Turner is in a different cold league compared to southern Indiana residents, even now that he is older.

Turner has some elderly house dogs who respond to the call of the wild and he must take them out. It doesn’t seem worth it to bundle up if they’re only going out for five minutes.

Even at 30 below, Frank Turner will just toss on a sweater and hat.