Yukon Quest musher Janna-Lee Cushing hosted a presentation on her Yukon Quest experience via Zoom for the residents of Thomson Centre in Whitehorse recently.
The Thomson Centre is an extended-care facility with mostly senior residents.
Cushing ran in the 2023 Yukon Quest 100 in February, winning the prestigious Red Lantern Award for coming in last in the YQ100.
She began the presentation by introducing herself. Cushing is from Ladysmith, Quebec, where her family runs an International School for Earth Studies, which is, according to Cushing, an environmental educational school based on animals, people and the natural world.
The family's facility consists of 500 acres of property off of Indian Lake.
One of their activities is wildlife rehabilitation.
Cushing works primarily with the dogs. They have 25 Seppala Siberian Huskies.
"That's where my passions lie. The environment, people and the natural world where we live."
Cushing spoke of her grandmother, who has Multiple Sclerosis, and had a dream to go dogsledding. She fulfilled that dream on the family's property when Cushing was eight years old.
"That was part of an evolving aspect of our pack family, making it for people to come see our dogs, be part of our dogs and to be able to interact."
Her fiancé, French Foreign Legionnaire Pawel Wanzy, was an addition to her family.
Cushing said, "I've always wanted to go to the Yukon. I'm very much a northern girl."
She volunteered with the Yukon Quest for five years, starting in 2015.
"It also gave a very cool, very profound feeling, being there, that one day I had to bring my dogs to the Yukon and to partake of this really extraordinary event.
"Every time I came back from the Yukon, it was always about trying to figure out how to get back with a dog team."
Cushing's first race was six dogs, six miles.
She recalled her pre-Quest training methods.
"Training is with the mind, training for a certain discipline, and conditioning is for the body."
During training, her and the team learned each other's strengths and weaknesses, as well as identifying each dog's potential, and then building on that potential.
Cushing said this season of training was very difficult. She had to run the dogs in the early mornings and late evenings, between 8 p.m. and 4 a.m. and 7 a.m. to 10 a.m., all temperature-dependent.
"It was all in the idea of accumulating a certain amount of miles before November-December.
"If anything bad could happen in this training season, it did," related Cushing.
However, on Feb. 4, Cushing, her father Geoffrey and Wanzy started the 5,390 km drive to the Yukon.
"Preparation was bad and the roads going up were almost the same," recalled Cushing. "We had slush, we had snowstorms."
The three split up the driving in shifts.
They were also slowed down by bad roads due to poor weather conditions.
They also had to figure out the truck's range while pulling a trailer loaded with sled dogs and equipment.
"The dogs themselves had not had much experience traveling before. And my experience of traveling with the dogs was very minimal," said Cushing.
They stopped every six or seven hours so the dogs could do their routine, including bathroom breaks and feeding, as well as exercising.
Cushing said the dogs did really really well at traveling.
"They adapted really quickly and they got used to this routine we had them in."
Each dog had its own space in the trailer.
"They really took this, appreciated this, and made it their own," said Cushing. She added that the experience was as much the dogs' experience as theirs.
Cushing was asked by an audience member if the travel resulted in fatigue. She said no, but mentioned that the dogs "were not big eaters during travel. They became very picky. So they had a select food group."
Wanzy created a Polish diet, snacks that were more palatable for the dogs and would help satisfy them during travelling.
Cushing added that two days before the race, the dogs had a better meal intake, as their appetites picked up after they arrived in the Yukon.
Cushing described the evening before the race as "organized chaos", as they organized and packed everything in the sled for the big day.
"In the sled everything has a home."
The sled is assembled in a way that's convenient and allowed easy access to everything while Cushing and the dogs were on the trail.
"It's assembled in a way that I remember where everything is when I'm tired," she explained.
It was a group effort, as Wanzy, Geoffrey and her brother Kirk and his wife Molly, who flew in from Denver, pitched in to help.
Cushing said the start of the race was one of the great highlights of her life.
"This is a really defining moment for both of us as a father and daughter," Cushing said of being at the start of the race with Geoffrey.
"It was, for us, a very proud moment."
Cushing said the trail from Whitehorse to Braeburn was "bliss. Absolute bliss."
Geoffrey documented her run on the Takhini and Yukon rivers using his drone.
"One thing about being a musher or a dog lover and enjoying adventure is that there's no sound, it's silence, it's pitter-patter of dog feet, panting and runners (on the snow)," related Cushing.
"All the months of preparation, learning about the team, putting that team together, this is the moments where it shines, the moment that every musher is built to have.
"We train really hard to race easy."
Cushing spoke glowingly of support from the Yukoners and the sense of community surrounding the race.
"This isn't just a race. This is like a community event."
"Dreams do come true. Just to hit the trail, essentially," added Cushing.
Cushing and her team spent about 24 hours on the trail before rolling into Braeburn.
She came in with nine dogs, including Ozzy, who was riding in the basket.
"He was saying to me that he just needed a break … so he just got a free ride into Braeburn."
Cushing described the finish as "a very huge feeling of accomplishment to not just cross the finish line, but to do it when your family's on the other side of that. They're like, the biggest cheerleaders.
"If I could go back and do it again, that would definitely be on the list."
When asked about next year, Cushing replied, "That is in the forecast. Yeah, we're planning to make a repeat."
Cushing said whether or not she races next year depends on whether there is an improvement in training conditions.
She is also looking into options for flying her and the dogs on Air North next year.
She is considering running a longer distance next year, as well.
Cushing also spoke of some memorable moments on the trail.
"On the trail through the morning and then dusk and then at night, it was a dream. And because we were last, it just made the experience much more personable. It was like having the trail all to myself and the dogs.
"So we took that time, the extra little bit for the rest for the dogs to really look around and appreciate the silence, the sunset, the sun glistening on the trees, snow, how the dogs were just really taking it all in."
Cushing made the point that none of her nine dogs ever raced before but they were exceptional and very instinctive.
"They put their nose to the ground. And they're sniffing for the scent of the other team that was before them. And so to see dogs traveling without hesitation, that they're now following in their instinct, and they're using their sensors and they're becoming more awake and more alive to the environment around them."
Cushing took a few more questions from the audience, then wrapped up the presentation.
Keith Seaboyer, a resident of the Thomson Centre, helped organize the presentation. It came about when Geoffrey visited Seaboyer at the Thomson Centre. Geoffrey was introduced to Andrea Simpson, the centre's recreation coordinator, who set up the event.
Seaboyer said he liked the presentation.
"I talked to other members of the Thomson Centre here that stuck with the whole thing. And they liked it. And they were so much, almost rooting for her."
Seaboyer said it was nice that Cushing's fiancé was able to participate in the Zoom call.
"There was probably 12 other residents here and I had some special guests come in as well from the outside, and they enjoyed it too."
Cushing added, "I was very happy to share our journey through my presentation with the residences of the Thomson Centre. I thought it went really well.
"I very much enjoyed the conversations it stimulated, and loved hearing of the life stories that were shared from our elders."