Yuka Honda - Japanese Musher
Yukon Quest 2016 Chena River Bridge, Fairbanks, AK
I was born in Niigata, in northern Japan, which is famous for the tastiest rice and sake in Japan. I’m the youngest daughter of 3 sisters. In 1992, I graduated from National Iwate University with a major in Agriculture. After graduation, I worked as a surveyor for rice fields for a few years.
Before coming to Canada, I had a lot of other part-time jobs, such as a teacher at a private school teaching mainly math and science, a fireworks operator, security guard, cleaning in a hospital operation room, and a barker for the sale of fresh crabs in Niigata. Those jobs still help me make a living every time I return to Japan from Alaska with empty pockets.When I was a student at Iwate University in Japan, I decided to visit Yellowknife, Northwest Territories in Canada. I wanted to watch the Northern Lights.
The Japanese people love the Northern Lights. I enjoyed watching the Northern Lights, but what really excited me was watching the dog race that they held. Because I had never seen a dog race before, it was a BIG race. Now I know it was a small, local race, but all the same I was determined to try mushing dogs.
After I returned to Japan, I continued to think about mushing dogs. I completed my studies, graduated from Iwate University, and worked for 2½ years. No matter how I tried, I could not foget my dream of mushing dogs. We do have sled dog races in Japan, but they are small, usually a trail that is only two or three kilometers and a maximum of 8 dogs.
Dog mushing is not popular because it is difficult to keep many dogs in Japan and the country is small with no land to run dogs.I decided to go to Canada to be a dog musher. Everyone advised me to stay in Japan but I couldn’t change my mind. I saved my money and wrote some letters to Grant Beck, a 4-time Canadian champion dog musher, and secured a dog handler job at his kennel.
Grant’s kennel had about 200 dogs, consisting of approximately 30 race dogs, 50 yearlings, and many pups and older dogs. My job was to help care for the dogs and work with the Japanese tourists. My tasks included cleaning the dog yard, watering the dogs, cooking fish for dogs, feeding dogs, harness-breaking puppies with older dogs on the four-wheeler, running yearlings on the four-wheeler in the summer, giving tourists sled rides in the winter, and taking care of Grant and his dogs at race time.Everything was new to me.
I had dogs in Japan but there was a difference between the working sled dogs and my pet dogs. My greatest struggle was speaking and hearing English. Sometimes I got frustrated because I knew something but I couldn’t explain it or I didn’t understand and people would end up laughing at me. Soon however, I made Canadian friends and enjoyed my handler life with the dogs and the other handlers. Because I fell in love with his dogs and they loved me, I worked there for two years learning as much as I could.
The second spring I was there I got word that my mother was very sick and needed to be in the hospital. My father had died of cancer a few years before and I knew she needed me. I went home and stayed with her until she was doing well again. I got a job and started saving money to be able to return to Canada.When I returned to Yellowknife, Grant already had new handlers so I moved to the Yukon Territory thinking I would find another musher so I could keep learning and maybe race dogs.
Once there, I met Cor Guimond in Dawson City. He suggested that I try to find a really good dog musher to learn from. The Yukon Quest was getting ready to start so I volunteered at Scroggie Creek Dog Drop. That experience really excited me. I did not know about long distance racing and races and I knew I needed to learn more about it. I tried to get a job as a handler for one of the Quest mushers. I asked any of them if they needed a handler. Jim Hendrick said that I could come to his place. He gave me his address and phone number. His home was in Alaska.
Since I grew up in a snowy prefecture, Niigata, in north Japan; I knew how to deal with snow to survive. I wasn’t expecting to be picked up and rescued, then forced to withdraw from the race at this point. It was confusing and upsetting at the moment. My 4-year effort and determination to race was broken to soon. Unfortunately my Quest was ended about 100 miles from the start in Fairbanks.
I didn’t give up, I went back to Japan to work hard and make more money. I then returned to Alaska in the fall of the same year to try again and run the race. In February, 2007, I was still not lucky this time. In just a year and a half before the race, I had to change kennels. When I met Bill Cotter (Cotter’s Kennel) in Nenana, I only had less than one month to prepare for the race. She decided it was all or nothing, and to go for it! She ran the Yukon Quest for the second time. It was even a harder race than the first one. On the second day, unfortunately she lost her lead dog. She was upset and crying but kept going to mush. The team struggled, and the rest of the dogs were distracted by the female dogs in heat.
When I arrived at Dawson City in Yukon Territory, I decided to scratch from the race. As the last team on the race at that point, I still had more than 500 miles to reach the goal in Fairbanks, Alaska. After I got back to Japan, I worked even harder with three jobs. She wanted to forget what happened to me in Alaska and I wondered why it happened to me. I needed to decide what I wanted to do next, or not to mush anymore, etc. In the fall of 2007, Bill Cotter wrote an e-mail to me, “Come back, I need your help as my handler.” Bill was planning to run the
Yukon Quest in 2008. I hesitated at first but I came back to Alaska. As I helped Bill as a handler and saw his dogs again, I slowly recovered from my bruised past and come back to the race. I said, “I am going to run the Yukon Quest forever! I am going to win the race!!!” Then I was back to Cotter’s kennel, and have been here since the end of September 2008. No matter what obstacles may come in front of me, I still love mushing, dogs, running the race, the people of Alaska, and the spirit of Alaska winter wonderland. Now I am living in Whitehorse, Canada and I own my own kennel.
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