FAIRBANKS - When dog-racing fans heard that Newton Marshall had entered the 2009 Yukon Quest, many were perplexed. Over the years the appearance of European and Japanese mushers in Alaska’s two long distance races had become commonplace.
However, an entrant from Jamaica was entirely new. Just his presence alone made Marshall an instant celebrity in that year’s race. But when he finished his rookie run in a respectable 13th place, anyone who thought this was a publicity stunt had to acknowledge that Marshall was the real deal.
Along the Quest route Marshall quickly became a favorite of reporters and fans.
His ever-present grin and seemingly bottomless joviality charmed everyone.
But behind the smile was a man who had struggled up from extreme poverty, poor education, personal setbacks (some of them self-inflicted), and other life issues that made his arrival in the far north as a competitive musher all the more improbable.
The story of Marshall’s journey from the shantytowns of Jamaica to the world of dog racing is told in “One Mush,” a new book by Whitehorse author John Firth that explores the disparate people and events that somehow came together and brought the young Jamaican to international renown.
The tale actually begins with Danny Melville, a Jamaican entrepreneur of British descent who promotes adventure tourism in his island nation.
Melville, who has a reputation for crazy visions that he buffaloes into reality, decided that offering tourists dry land dogsled tours was a sure moneymaker.
From this germ of an idea, the Jamaica Dogsled Team was born.
Melville enlisted three men to help get his dream off the ground. Alan Stewart, a dry land musher from Scotland, offered initial training. Retired Minnesota musher Rick Johnson was brought on board for the same purpose. Finally, Melville’s longtime employee Devon Anderson was tapped as the team’s first sled driver. Meanwhile, lingering about Melville’s large complex along the northern coast of the island was a young yard hand named Newton Marshall who seemed to have a strong rapport with dogs. This was an unusual trait in a country where the animals are generally despised and mistreated, according to the book.
Before long, Marshall was involved in training and driving the dogs, and in 2006 was sent north for additional training in Minnesota. Despite never having seen snow in his life, Marshall enjoyed the trip north and seemed destined to play a large role in the growing enterprise.
Unfortunately, just at this point Marshall ran afoul of one of Melville’s neighbors and the resulting fallout left him suspended from work. As he headed back toward a life of sure poverty, the Jamaica Dogsled Team moved forward without him.
Entering competitive races in the North was always part of the plan for the team, but the idea of placing a musher in the Yukon Quest didn’t surface until around this time. Quest champion Hans Gatt signed on as trainer, and in 2007 Anderson was sent to Whitehorse to begin an intensive two-year immersion in preparation for the race.
Anderson lasted all of two days before realizing he wasn’t cut out for northern living. In a quickly made decision, Marshall, who was back at work but under probationary status, was sent to Gatt’s in Anderson’s stead. Whatever doubts remained about his fitness for the job were quickly forgotten when he walked out of the Whitehorse airport and into subzero temperatures and immediately began laughing.
Firth is very forthcoming in this book about the interpersonal difficulties the various members of this enterprise have had with each other, as well as the individual failings that have also hampered things. Marshall proved to be a hard worker and a quick learner, but in keeping with the “island time” mentality of his homeland, he could also let important details slide. Gatt, meanwhile, was a demanding perfectionist who often lost his temper with Marshall. Yet despite their sometimes-rocky relationship, Marshall qualified for the 2009 Quest, and Gatt stuck by his protégé.
Interspersed with the story of how the Jamaica Dogsled Team came to be are periodic chapters that detail Marshall’s run in the Quest. These sections, each covering the distance between successive checkpoints, not only convey his experience, but also offer vivid descriptions of the countryside and the trail conditions, allowing armchair mushers a chance to feel like they’re along for the ride.
Marshall’s biggest problem in the early going was his difficulty in getting enough sleep. Like many mushers, he found himself hallucinating as he barreled down the trail, sometimes losing focus as a result. As his journey progressed, conflicts between his handlers, as well as between him and his handlers, resulted in dismissals and a growing animosity between Marshall and Hans Gatt’s partner Susie Rogan that ultimately proved irreconcilable.
Despite these problems, Marshall had settled into a steady rhythm by the time he reached Dawson City and, apart from a difficult patch on the notorious Eagle Summit, the second half of his race went much smoother. His arrival in Fairbanks was as heavily covered as that of winner Sebastien Schnuelle.
Marshall has continued his upward climb. He’s worked to overcome illiteracy and has finished the Iditarod. He’s also become an inspiration and role model to young Jamaicans, something that was part of Melville’s plan all along.
Filling his book with color photos and the stories of many participants besides Marshall and Melville, John Firth has told Marshal’s unexpected odyssey honestly and well. By all rights, Newton Marshall never should have become a musher.
“One Mush” is a great read about an event so unlikely that it probably couldn’t pass as fiction.
Freelance writer David A. James lives in Fairbanks.
One Mush: Jamaica’s Dogsled Team
By John Firth
• 328 pages