Sioux Lookout musher Jesse Terry reflects on memorable racing season
Tim Brody - Editor
For Jesse Terry, an Anishinaabe man from Sioux Lookout and a member of the Lac Seul First Nation, this past sled dog racing season holds many treasured memories, including winning his first sled dog race.
Terry began the sled dog racing season on Jan. 30 with the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon. A nearly 300-mile race in Minnesota from Billy’s Bar to Grand Portage.
“It’s really known as one of the biggest races in the lower 48. So, it was really fun. I had been planning to make it to the Beargrease for a good number of years and it was really nice to finally make it there.
“Our team, we did have a tough race. We ended up scratching in that race. It was my first time scratching in a sled dog race. People who race lots throughout their lives say that everyone has a scratching at some time. So, it was my first time scratching in a race and so we didn’t end up finishing the race but we had a really good experience and I’m really looking forward to making it back to the Beargrease to finish what we started there,” Terry shared, adding, “We don’t have the same kind of hills that we experienced on the Beargrease. A quarter of my team is quite young still, they’re two-year-old’s. The Beargrease was the first race for more than half of the team.”
“At the time that I had scratched I had six dogs left (of the 12) on the team that were healthy enough to keep going and I still had more than 100 miles of race trail to go. With that small of a team at that stage in the race it wasn’t in the best interest of the team to keep going and so we had to scratch there,” he said. “These races always have a maximum number of dogs that you’re able to start with and they also have a minimum number of dogs that you are allowed to finish the race with. Along the race, just like human athletes, if you put a group 12 human athletes together, there’s going to be some that get sore before others. There’s going to be some that might sustain an injury, while others will remain completely healthy throughout the whole event. Same thing goes when you’re putting together a group of athlete sled dogs; they’re not all completely equal in the team. So, one might get sore sooner than another.
“The term we use is a dog gets ‘dropped’ on the race. What happens when a dog gets dropped is basically the dog gets left with the race officials and the vet team and so they get checked over immediately by the vet team and then once the dog is deemed to be okay, it gets passed on to the handling crew. The dog is then passed onto the people who are your handlers and are there helping you with your truck and trailer. If they need any medical care, they’ll receive that medical care and then be passed on to your handlers. The idea is that we’re only moving forward on the trail with dogs that are healthy and willing and wanting to move and continue down the trail. You can’t make a dog race. They have to want to be there mentally, and they have to be capable to be there physically,” Terry explained.
“Sometimes dogs will sustain different types of soreness’s like sore wrists for example is a common one, especially in a really hilly race like the Beargrease. They sustain things like getting sore wrists or sore shoulder from running down the steep hills. And so, if a dog is not able to perform, they’re a little bit sore, what happens is we drop that dog and leave that dog with the race officials, like I was saying, so that we’re only continuing the race with the dogs that are absolutely healthy and approved by the vet… Sometimes there will be dogs that want to keep going and they’re just strong headed dogs. They want to keep going and you have to be the gauge to say, ‘I’m sorry. You’re going to have to have to get pulled from the team. I know you want to keep going, but I can tell your shoulder is starting to get sore and if I keep you in the team, it’s only going to get worse,’ so you have to be that deciding factor for that dog,” Terry added.
Terry, 38, has been mushing for more than 25 years and has been recognized on multiple occasions for the exceptional care and attention he pays to his team’s well-being.
“That’s happened in multiple races that I’ve gone to in the past. The Hudson Bay Quest and in the Canadian Challenge in 2020 I was recognized with the Vet Care Award. The vet team decides on the team that has exceptional dog care along the race trail. To be recognized with that was a huge honour and for sure feels better than any placement along the trail with where you actually finish. To be recognized with the Vet Care Award was a huge honour for sure,” Terry shared.
Next up for Terry was the Canadian Challenge International Sled Dog Race in Saskatchewan on February 22, a 200-mile race from Elk Ridge to La Ronge. This time Terry was joined in the race by his wife Mary England who mushed a team of up-and-coming sled dogs while Terry ran with a more veteran roster.
“We had a really successful race at the Canadian Challenge. I knew that we had a competitive team entering that race. I had raced the Challenge in 2020 and was familiar with the racecourse and just had a really great run with our team. We picked first bib, that means that we were the first ones to leave the starting chute. The way that most of these races are run is the teams leave the starting chute in two-minute intervals. So, we were the first team to leave and we were able to keep that lead the whole race and never got passed once the whole time and I was able to finish in first place (in a time of 43 hours, 28 minutes) with seven dogs (of the 10 he started the race with),” Terry said.
The memories he made at the race are one’s he will cherish forever.
“It was a really great experience at the Challenge. That race, a lot of my family was able to attend. Tevai (his son) and Miali (his daughter) came to the race, and it was made possible because my sister and her son joined the race as well. So, my sister was able to look after my kids while Mary and I were out racing, so that was really special. My dad was also there, and he was acting as our handler. He was the one that was driving the dog truck and trailer from place to place during the race and was looking after the dropped dogs. So, it was a really special family experience for all of us to be there together and bringing the kids to a race is something I’d been wanting to do for a while. And to have them meet me at the finish line, winning a race, was pretty much the highlight of my life I feel like. It was really special to be there with them and share that experience with them for sure.”
Commenting on the two teams he and Mary raced he explained, “My wife Mary England was racing the puppy team. When I say puppy, I mean yearling. These are full sized sled dogs, but they’re yearlings, so they’ve just reached their full size. The goal with the puppy team was to get some race experience behind them and have a fun time introducing them to this idea of racing, and so we set a much more relaxed schedule for the puppy team, and again with the goal of just experiencing the race scene. To feel good about it. To know what it’s like showing up at a checkpoint and resting for five hours and getting up and doing it again.
“Unfortunately, Mary had to scratch from that race. Not because of the yearlings. The yearlings were the happy and healthy ones on the team, but she had two older lead dogs as the main upfront dogs on the team and the lead dogs kind of decided they’d had enough in that race and if you don’t have lead dogs that are willing and able to be in front of the team moving down the trail, the team can’t move forward anymore. So, what had happened is these two older lead dogs had decided they had had enough, and so Mary had made it three quarters of the way through that 200 mile course with the yearlings and had to scratch there, but pretty happy with the experience because the puppies, we wanted them to have a good experience, get introduced to racing, and to get that start in their racing career. I know Mary has some pretty strong feelings about wanting to go back and finish it next year.”
This was the first time Terry had ever finished first in a race.
“Definitely a huge feeling of accomplishment,” he said. “We’d been putting a lot of effort into our team the last few years. Really improved the quality of sled dogs on our team, as well as just the amount of training that goes in prior to a race, and to make it happen was really special for sure. It felt really great considering the temperature in the race was brutally cold, I think one person said they saw the thermometer and it was minus 45 air temperature one night. It was pretty much below minus 35 the whole course of the race. So that can be hard on both the musher and the dogs, the dogs do fairly well in that temperature. All the dogs are wearing really good jackets to help keep them extra warm and cut the wind, if there is any wind. So, it’s always the case that the dogs are the strong members of the team and it’s usually the humans that are the weak link on the team when it comes to a sled dog team. So really cold weather for that race.”
Competing in his third and final race of the season, the Can-Am Crown International Sled Dog Race, was an impromptu decision made after speaking with some new friends at the end of the Canadian Challenge.
Terry and England drove over 1500 kilometres back to Sioux Lookout from La Ronge Saskatchewan in a day and a half, unpacked and repacked, then hoped back in the truck and drove approximately 2500 kilometres to Fort Kent, Maine.
“I’m just really fortunate that I have a partner who is keen and willing and motivated to do these kinds of adventures with me,” Terry said.
Terry started the 250-mile sled dog race on March 5, racing from Fort Kent to Lonesome Pine, finishing in 8th place.
“It was a lot to ask of the dogs because it was a short period of time between the two races, but it was also time that was pretty much exclusively spent in the doggy truck… The dogs performed great. It was a very competitive race at the Can-Am. Very similar to the Beargrease. There are a lot more teams that enter these events,” Terry said, adding he was very happy with how he and his team did.
“At the Can-Am it was very warm, and it was also warm at the Beargrease, so I was really conscious of the effect that had on the dogs. It’s almost better for the dogs running at minus 40 than it is at zero degrees or whatever we had at the Can-Am and the Beargrease. The dogs can overheat when it gets to be that warm. So, these whole other health concerns arise when a dog is overheating, the main one dehydration. You have to make sure that the dogs are staying properly hydrated as they are exerting themselves going down the race trail,” he said.
“It poured one night,” Terry recalled. “Pouring rain, mushing down a trail in the middle of the night, and just being completely soaked, and having literally puddles of water in your sled bag which is normally dry… for the second last run of the race at the Can-Am it was just raining and it was really interesting and different to be out running dogs in those conditions. It was definitely a good experience. I feel like any time you’re out with your dogs in new conditions you’re always learning, you’re always growing as a team, and in the end, you’re always improving what you’re doing because you’re experiencing new situations. New challenges,” Terry commented.
Reflecting back on the race, a highlight for Terry was the race’s start.
“That was really special. It’s really awesome what the town of Fort Kent, Maine, does to put on the Can-Am Crown Sled Dog Race. Basically, they shut down the main street of this small town the night before the race and they haul in I don’t know how many truckloads of snow to line part of the street to make it basically the starting chute for this 250-mile sled dog race. It was a really neat time.”
He added, “The starting trail is just lined with people for a long, long way that are there to see the start of the race. So, you’re racing down this starting chute with a short fence on either side to keep the crowds off the trail and so that’s where you’re starting. Most of the crowd are reaching out over the fence looking for high fives from the mushers as they race by and so you can’t help but just want to try and reach as many of those hands as you can on your way by and deliver as many high fives as you can as you’re cruising down the main street at the start of this big race. What I’m really always amazed about is the dogs. It comes back to the dogs again and how the dogs just handle these new situations with such ease. It was busy at the Beargrease but not as busy as the Can-Am, but how they handle these new situations where they’re at the beginning of a run and they’re very excited at the beginning of a run, they’re all leaning to go and slamming into their harnesses and the excitement is just insane, and how they can do that in a completely different environment that is very hectic, that is very loud with lots of people there shouting and there’s cow bells going and there’s an announcer talking really loudly and how these dogs just can handle these new situations with such ease and it’s always a real pleasure to work with them and see them overcome these obstacles and new environments and new terrains. It was really cool what the town of Fort Kent does, and I feel like it’s really neat what they do and the idea that a small town can come behind an event like this and make it into something so special and so large is really interesting. Something I think about a lot is the idea that it sure would be cool to have a race in Sioux Lookout again someday.”
Asked about the sport he is so passionate about; it is a good bet that many people can’t see themselves running a 200 to 300 mile race in the freezing cold.
“That’s the impression I get when I share these experiences with most people,” Terry said with a good-natured laugh. “It’s just an environment and a situation that I feel like, personally, I feel I thrive in environments where I’m outdoors and I’m in a situation where I’m pushing myself physically and mentally. And I feel like the sport of long-distance mushing brings all of that together because I get to share hours and hours of time with my dogs who absolutely are inspiring and amazing to me.”
Terry said his dogs are huge inspiration to him. “I feel like they can always teach us things about living a good life and about teamwork, or about dedication and motivation and bringing passion to the things in our life because of the amount of passion and drive that a sled dog brings to running down the trail is unparalleled to anything that a human does, I believe. I don’t think that us as humans are capable of achieving the level of excitement that a sled dog has for running down the trail. I just don’t think our brains and our bodies are capable of reaching that level of passion and excitement. And so, when I say that I’m learning from the dogs, I just try and have this idea that I’m just trying to keep up with that level of passion and motivation that they have for what they do in life.
“The other thing about it is that I just love travelling out on the land, and I love seeing new places and I love being in new environments and distance mushing is something that forces me to be in that environment where I’m constantly out on the land traveling with my dog team, seeing new places, experiencing new environments, and when I combine that with distance racing, it’s just even more so because I have to travel to different events and different areas and different regions and I get to share the trail with my dogs and see new places. It’s just really a pleasure to be able to do this with my dogs,” Terry stated.
Terry has been mushing since he was 11 years old, sharing, “My dad, I was fortunate enough, I didn’t feel like I was fortunate at the time because I remember we wanted a new snowmobile instead, but my dad got sled dogs when I was 11 and I can’t express enough gratitude to him and my mom for making that decision to get sled dogs when I was 11. It definitely changed and shaped a large part of who I am and what I do today as an adult. It sure is a pleasure to be sharing this lifestyle with my two children who joined us at the race in Saskatchewan.”
Terry has turned that passion into a business, his kennel, On The Land.
“It’s definitely been a big part of shaping what I do and who I am,” Terry said of mushing.
Something else that has shaped who he is is his Anishinaabe heritage.
“I grew up in Sioux Lookout and am a member of the Lac Seul First Nation. Certainly having that connection to my Anishinaabe culture is something that has been a big part of my life since I was a kid and the way my parents raised us, and that’s partly a reflection of my parent’s strong belief and desire to take their children out on the land themselves when we were little kids.”
He continued, “As an Anishinaabe person, my connection to the land is something that is a part of who I am as a person. I feel like spending time out on the land is not just something that I do because it’s pleasurable, because I enjoy seeing nature, it’s also a part of, like I said, who I am as a person, an Anishinaabe man who is from Lac Seul area, who has ancestors who have lived here for thousands of years. Being here and doing what I do is really important to me for that reason, continuing that idea of spending time on the land and sharing that idea with my children is definitely really important to me. It’s definitely something that is a big part of who I am and the way that I live my life.”
Following the March Break, Terry visited Sioux Mountain Public School to talk to students about mushing and his race season. The experience was extra special as his son Tevai was able to assist him.
Terry concluded, “It’s really cool because Sioux Mountain, their mascot is the Sioux Mountain Husky. I find it really cool that that’s something that they have as their mascot and them showing interest in the dog sledding.”