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
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”