Meet the man who’s bring­ing a bit of Alaska back to Scot­land...

Wat­tie McDon­ald raced Huskies across Alaska, but nearly gave it all up when his wife died. He told El­lie House what kept him go­ing

The Press and Journal (Inverness) - - CONTENTS -

It’s a deep mid­win­ter morn­ing as Wat­tie McDon­ald is ac­com­pa­nied by a cho­rus of fren­zied bark­ing while he takes his dogs for a walk, crunch­ing across the frosty fields of Stone­haven be­fore gaz­ing out to sea.

Howl­ing would per­haps be more ac­cu­rate how­ever, for this is no av­er­age dog walk with 16 huskies strain­ing in their har­nesses.

Wat­tie’s breath comes out in foggy gasps and he bel­lows as only a musher can, urg­ing the team up a steep hill be­fore start­ing work for the day.

The 53-year-old runs Husky Haven, where he gives peo­ple a taste of what it re­ally feels like to race these beau­ti­ful and pow­er­ful dogs.

Wat­tie is at one with his pack. He knows each dog by name with only a quick glance and his pas­sion is ev­i­dent in the rough but af­fec­tion­ate greet­ings.

Stone­haven is tame in com­par­i­son to the frozen wilder­ness of Alaska, where the grand­fa­ther has twice con­quered the gru­elling Idi­tarod race.

Cov­er­ing 1,049 miles of frozen ter­rain in tem­per­a­tures of around -55C over the course of two weeks, Wat­tie is known as the Tar­tan Musher and re­lies on his pack to bring him home safe.

Wat­tie’s dogs have seen him tri­umph but also helped him through the tough­est of times, as he lost his wife Wendy to cer­vi­cal cancer three years ago.

He even con­sid­ered turn­ing his back on huskies for­ever, but founded Husky Haven in Wendy’s mem­ory.

He has only just re­turned to peak health him­self af­ter a near death ex­pe­ri­ence off­shore, where he was given emer­gency CPR be­fore un­der­go­ing a heart by­pass at Aberdeen Royal In­fir­mary ear­lier this year.

The dogs have re­mained his one con­stant and he is now look­ing for­ward to the fu­ture.

“It has been an in­cred­i­bly tough cou­ple of years. There seemed to be one ob­sta­cle af­ter another but my love for the pack will never change,” said Wat­tie.

“It started off in 1999, me and Wendy had a husky that we gave a shot at rac­ing.

“The dog took to it straight away and then I met other like-minded husky peo­ple and found my­self re­ally en­joy­ing it.

“Fast for­ward 10 years and rac­ing was still my hobby.

“I first went to Alaska in 2008. I took part in the Idi­tarod twice and it’s only when you look back that you re­alise how dan­ger­ous it was.

“There were so many sit­u­a­tions where I was out in the mid­dle of nowhere and if you make one wrong de­ci­sion you end up dead.

“You have to think of your dogs ev­ery sin­gle step of the way. I still have night­mares about the sled smash­ing through the ice and my dogs drown­ing.

“That al­most hap­pened to another musher – thank­fully she was OK but for weeks af­ter the race I couldn’t switch off.”

Wat­tie had to drop out of com­pet­ing when Wendy fell ill how­ever. She was only 49 when she died from cer­vi­cal cancer.

The cou­ple had three chil­dren to­gether and Wat­tie has nine grand­chil­dren.

“Af­ter Wendy died I just didn’t know what to do – I was in a re­ally bad place,” said Wat­tie.

“She was the mas­ter of the pack and she loved the huskies.

“I was close to giv­ing ev­ery­thing up but be­neath all the grief there were so many happy mem­o­ries.

“Some­thing was telling me that if I walked away I would re­ally re­gret it.

“The idea of bring­ing a bit of Alaska back to Scot­land was our dream so the cen­tre has been done in her mem­ory.

“Af­ter all the ob­sta­cles it just made me more de­ter­mined that ev­ery­thing would come to fruition.”

There are cur­rently seven boys and nine girls in the team, and their names all be­gin with K.

Wat­tie has bred some of the dogs him­self and taken on oth­ers as res­cue dogs.

They can­not race if tem­per­a­tures are above 10 de­grees, and live in ken­nels out­side.

Just like peo­ple, each dog has a dif­fer­ent per­son­al­ity and Wat­tie is alert for any changes in their health.

“Each dog is dif­fer­ent men­tally, they are all ath­letes but you have to get in­side their heads,” he said.

“When I left Alaska I had to leave the pack be­hind and that was pretty hor­ri­ble.

“You build up the most in­cred­i­ble bond and then you have to say good­bye. I was both re­lieved and dis­ap­pointed that it was all over. It’s a re­ally emo­tional time but I still had a pack wait­ing at home.”

Wat­tie is now re­mar­ried, to Jackie, who thank­fully shares his pas­sion for huskies.

The cou­ple wed ear­lier this year and Wat­tie be­lieves he has Jackie to thank for help­ing him see the dream through.

“I’m so glad Jackie didn’t let me pack ev­ery­thing in, she’s a tough cookie,” he said.

Alaska was, of course, the only fit­ting hon­ey­moon des­ti­na­tion, and Wat­tie was able to scat­ter Wendy’s ashes be­neath a tree which now bears her name on a plaque.

Plan­ning per­mis­sion for the cen­tre was granted on the week of what would have been Wendy’s birth­day, and Wat­tie is now in­un­dated with book­ings.

“I’m just so grate­ful to have this op­por­tu­nity. Life is in­cred­i­bly busy with the pack but I wouldn’t have it any other way,” he said.

“STONE­HAVEN IS TAME IN COM­PAR­I­SON TO THE FROZEN WILDER­NESS OF ALASKA”

Wat­tie McDon­ald

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