Working dogs come in all shapes and sizes, but around the Yukon Quest one is more likely to find huskies, malamutes and sleek mid-size crossbreeds than a white, fluffy, pint-size Bichon Frisé with a big attitude. That didn’t bother my companion Gemma. Since puppy-hood, she’d shared my life fully at work and play. In taking on a position, I explained to potential employers that having Gemma with me was a condition of hire. Over the years, she’d had her own spot in my office as I moved from consultant to Executive Director and Marketing Director. So it was only natural for my little “frou-frou” to become a part of the Yukon Quest extended family when I assumed a lead volunteer role in November 2002.
Gemma attended many meetings, ensuring that we took walk breaks when they went too long. She cheered the office staff on an almost daily basis when I dropped in to sign cheques, confer on marketing and management issues, pick up background materials or join in tele-conferences. At home, she kept me company while I corresponded late into the night on the latest issue: raise the purse, review changes in rules, write the President’s message for the Annual, comment on the website, and our favorite – motivate volunteers to sell ALL those lottery tickets.
Gemma was a team builder – she greeted every Board member, who often hailed her before me. She eased some of the cultural challenges between the Alaskan and Yukon Boards because she looked for, and found, the best in people. Most Alaskans at one time or another shared their “small dog stories” with me. One told me about how his little dog insisted on training his dog team with him; she’d go on training runs regardless of the temperature, sitting between the handles of the sled barking frantically like a husky until the team hurtled out of the yard.
During the race, when we had to be in town all hours of the day and night to assist in any way needed, we’d stay at my husband’s hotel, the River View, where the Yukon Quest held the Whitehorse Pre and Post mushers meetings. Even the most staunch dog musher softened when they saw her in her little red jacket and booties, tail wagging, black eyes alert and keen nose sniffing their boots and pant legs in ecstasy – each musher was a walking encyclopedia of the latest, breaking dog news for Gemma.
On November 17, Gemma sustained internal injuries when she ran under our car, expecting to come along to a meeting in a new volunteer venture. I knew she was badly hurt but she didn’t look it and she never complained. She cuddled quietly in my arms on the drive to our vet. The x-rays showed no broken bones but a dark mass in her abdomen. She licked my hand when we left her in the vet’s care. She died shortly after.
Gemma was not a racing dog but she fit right in with the Yukon Quest – she had a job and she knew it and she took on her role with vigour and eagerness – she had the confidence of a lead dog and the heart of a champion.
Copyright Claire Festel