Source: CBC (Extract)
Posted: February 6, 2022

Kat Lapointe’s love for dog mushing was ignited years ago while living in Quebec and studying for a career in adventure tourism. She recalls arriving at a dog kennel for the first time with her classmates.

“We just heard them howl. And that was amazing and it was so touching for me. I started to cry,” she said.

She credits those dogs for showing her how beautiful mushing can be. Watching how happy they were to pull the sled and socialize was a life-changing experience for Lapointe.

Next week Lapointe, who now lives in Fort Smith, N.W.T., will be making the 2,000 kilometre road trip to Whitehorse for the Yukon Quest sled dog race. She will be competing in the YQ100, a 100-mile (160-kilometre) race through the Yukon wilderness.

Lapointe has her own dog team and has been mushing for eight years. She moved to Fort Smith in 2016 and her kennel consists of 10 dogs — four adults and six of their pups.

The adults dogs — Yukon Quest veterans — were purchased off fellow racer, Yukoner Michelle Phillips. Lapointe is happy those dogs will have a chance to go back to the Yukon to show off their skills.

The Yukon Quest, which was cancelled last year due to COVID-19, is traditionally a 1000-mile (1,600-kilometre) international race. It follows the Gold Rush and mail delivery sled routes across Yukon and Alaska. Because of the ongoing border restrictions, race organizers decided to split the route this year into shorter sections on either side of the border. 

‘They give me so much joy’

Lapointe says her dogs are the most important aspect of her life, and she admits that two-thirds of her income goes toward their care. She says she takes them into account with every decision she makes.

“They are my rocks,” she said.

“Living off the grid, it’s really hard on a person. Because they are there, they give me so much joy.”

She initially planned to volunteer for the YQ100 but was encouraged by her mentors, Kevin and Rita Antoniak, to participate in the 100-mile race. Lapointe is incredibly grateful to the Antoniaks for taking her under their wing. It was their experience and unique philosophy of dog training that gave her the confidence to take on this race. 

The Antoniaks have been running dogs recreationally in Fort Smith since 1983, and they started mentoring Lapointe when she moved to the community.

The Antoniaks and Lapointe combined their six fastest dogs last year to enter an eight-mile sprint race at the Western Canadian Sled Dog Championship in Fort Smith. After placing 14th, they realized that Lapointe’s might do better in a long-distance race. 

“When the team crossed the finish line, they could have went another 20 miles,” Kevin said with a laugh. “That’s what they were trained to do.”

The Antoniaks won’t be in Yukon to watch Lapointe cross the finish line later this month, but they will be cheering her on from home.

“I’m very proud of her …  most of the other people in this race will be coming from mushing families that do the big races like the Iditarod and the Quest. But for us, none of us have done anything like this before,” Kevin said.

Although excited, Lapointe is still heavy in the preparation process. She runs her dogs every three days, sometimes with a more leisurely run in between. 

She is grateful for the help of her team’s handler, Marie-Pier Garant. The handler plays a key role in helping train and care for the dogs, and provide support during the race. Garant also helped plan the logistics of the trip by making phone calls and doing research.

“I wouldn’t have been where I am at [without her] and sharing this experience with her is something I can not value enough,” Lapointe says.

Lapointe’s race begins Feb. 19 and fans can track her progress on Yukon Quest’s website. Although nervous, she remains hopeful for a positive outcome for her and her team.

“I want to be happy [for] my experience and I want my dogs to have wagging tails and [be] healthy by the end of it,” she said.