By RON FANFAIR
The race marshal was stunned and confused when Oswald “Newton” Marshall faced the starter for last year’s Yukon Quest, considered the toughest dog sledding race in the world.
The marshal had every right to be bewildered since it was the first time that a Black musher had entered the race in its 15-year history. More surprising is that Marshall is from warm and sunny Jamaica and not a cold climate country.
Competitors and spectators joined the marshal in concluding that Marshall’s appearance was a publicity stunt, but the young Jamaican proved them wrong.
He finished 13th in the grueling event, covering the 1,000-mile course of frozen wasteland between Whitehorse in Yukon and Fairbanks in Alaska in 11 days in extreme temperatures that could pose a health threat. This was quite an incredible achievement since 13 of the 29 starters failed to complete the course.
Marshall, who was introduced to the sport just three years ago, received the Challenge of the North award presented to the musher who best exemplifies the spirit of the demanding race, and Jamaica’s St. Ann Chamber of Commerce recognized him with a special award for his historic accomplishment.
“Doing the Quest was one thing, but I am very proud of the fact that I completed the race,” Marshall told Share last week while in Toronto for the screening of the 45-minute documentary, Underdog, that chronicles the history of the musher’s humble beginnings in rural Jamaica as a horseback ride ‘n’ swim tour guide at Chukka’s Caribbean Adventures to the Yukon Quest.
He admitted the trail, on which wildlife such as moose and wolves are on the prowl and the Eureka Mountain peak reaches almost 3,500 feet, was very challenging.
“Yes, a couple of times and on certain parts of the trail I seh, bwoy this is foolishness,” said Marshall. “You can’t really believe this happening. You think about Jamaica and then this cold. In the end, I must say I enjoyed the experience and I learned quite a few things about myself, including discipline and mental toughness under extreme pressure.”
Having conquered the Quest, Marshall is now going after the 1,161-mile Iditarod which begins on the first Saturday in March in Anchorage and ends in Nome.
Defending Iditarod champion Lance Mackey has been hired to train the Jamaican for the arduous event. He replaces three-time Yukon winner Hans Gatt who prepared Marshall for the Quest.
“The good thing about this is that I don’t have to start from scratch with Oswald because he already knows how to race dogs,” said cancer survivor Mackey, a four-time Quest winner and three-time Iditarod champion. “He’s also already mentally and physically tough because he finished the Quest. I am going to help him with basic survival skills and training techniques to help him overcome the course.”
The main difference between the two sled races is that the Iditarod has 27 checkpoints as opposed to the Quest’s 10.
“That means there are lots more media, snow machine traffic, helicopters and other distractions along the way,” added Mackey who in 2007 became the first and only musher to win both races in the same year. “The race is miserable, expensive and time consuming, so it’s important that Oswald has fun and relish the experience. I have no doubt that he’s going to make it to Nome and that will be incredibly rewarding for him. Another Jamaican might never get this opportunity again.”
Marshall reports to Mackey’s training base in Fairbanks, Alaska early next month to begin training. He will participate in the Gin Gin 200-mile race in late December and the Copper Basin 300-mile event in Alaska in early January as part of his preparation for the Iditarod.
Chukka Caribbean Adventures founder Danny Melville introduced Jamaicans to dog sledding following a business trip to Edmonton four years ago.
“I was there to look at some equipment to take back home when I saw what seemed to be a sled on wheels on the floor that this guy was building for somebody,” he recounted. “I am very curious and adventurous and when it was explained to me what the contraption was, I told the guy we can do that because we have dogs in Jamaica. I’m a spur of the moment kind of guy, so I made some phone calls and here we are today as members of the International Federation of Sled Dog Sports and the International Sled Dog Racing Association.”
Singer/songwriter Jimmy Buffet has been the biggest supporter of the Jamaican team which is constantly fundraising.
“This is a very expensive sport even though we have some sponsors like WestJet,” said Melville who owns property in Toronto. “We have to pay for travel, professional trainers and dog teams. Our budget for this year is nearly US$200,000.”
Jamaica’s other dog sled competitor is Damion Robb who began mushing in 2006 after graduating from Marcus Garvey Technical High School in the parish of St. Ann. He saw snow for the first time two years ago when he went to Minnesota to train with dogs from the Elfstone Kennel owned by Ken and Donna Davis.
Robb made several stops on the Canadian circuit earlier this year, finishing 20th out of a field of 33 in the four-dog class at the nine-day International Federation of Sled Dog Sports world championships in Daaquam River, Quebec.
His 2010 season starts in early January with the Markstay-Warren Challenge in Sudbury. He returns a month later for the 16th annual Kearney event, the Haliburton Highlands Dogsled Derby, the sixth annual Cannington Winter festival and the Kinross Classic to be held on successive weekends.
“I am looking forward to racing again in Canada,” said Robb. “It was a great experience for me last year, visiting different cities and meeting so many mushers. As someone who is new to the sport, it’s nice to meet experienced people and absorb as much as possible.”
Marshall and Robb are proud to follow Jamaica’s bobsled team which made a big splash at the 1988 Calgary Olympics.