Carl Gilchrist, Gleaner Writer
Twenty-eight-year-old Newton Marshall became the first Jamaican musher to complete the gruelling Yukon Quest, a 1000-mile international dog sled race between Alaska and Yukon on February 26, 2009, finishing 13th out of 29 racers.
In frigid temperatures, that sometimes drop to as low as minus 50 degrees, the Yukon Quest sees a dog team leader (musher) and a team of between six and 14 dogs race to finish the journey which takes anywhere from 10 to 20 days to complete.
Competitors are left to fend for themselves over the course, sledding, resting and sleeping in the freezing temperatures.
Marshall's story is now in a book titled One Mush - Jamaica's Dog Sled Team, penned by Canadian author John Firth. The book was launched on Sunday at Harmony Hall Art Gallery in Tower Isle, St Mary, before an appreciative audience.
Firth and Marshall read for the audience from a section of the book.
And, addressing the gathering, Marshall, an employee of Chukka Caribbean Adventures in St Ann, recounted his experience with some amount of humour.
At one point, he told the audience, when he was freezing in the dark wilderness, he thought to himself "this is no way for a black man to die!"
But not only did he survive, he became an instant celebrity, being the first Jamaican to enter the race and the first black musher to complete the gruelling distance.
He later told The Gleaner that while the experience was tough, it was good.
"It's a race which is mentally, physically challenging and emotionally also. It makes you look at life differently when you go out there and do a thousand-mile bobsled race, knowing that you're out in the wilderness for many days trying to survive on your own."
But there are no regrets for the somewhat shy, soft-spoken individual, who became Jamaica's third musher after Devon Anderson and Damion Robb.
"There are no regrets, although when I was doing it I regretted being in the race. But finishing the race, and now talking about it, there are no regrets. It made me a better person. It has made me feel like I have accomplished something in life, and now there's a book out and people can read about it, they can read about my life and learn from it. It was a challenging one for me, just growing up, and now I can talk to school kids, people around me."
Author John Firth, decided to chronicle the experience after meeting Newton and learning of his story that goes beyond just being a musher.
Firth explained to The Gleaner: "The story basically follows Newton's journey through the Yukon Quest, interspersed with the story of how Danny Melville (of Chukka Caribbean Adventures ) came up with the idea, how he went about putting it together and basically how Newton became involved after Devon Anderson was the first Jamaican musher. It talks about Newton making the decisions that he needed to make that would eventually bring him to the point where he was actually running the race."
Firth said he decided to write the story after he found out more about Newton and his background.
"I realised this was more than just a story about a dog race, it's the story of Newton and the journey that he took to get to where he was in the position to run this race. The race itself almost became a metaphor for his life. There's a start, there's a finish and there's a lot of hurdles in between; and those decisions that you have to make along the way that will either make or break your race."
Firth had written three books previously: Yukon Quest, (a history of the Yukon Quest); River Time (a story about his family and its history in the Yukon); and Better Than A Cure (the story of a young man, paralysed from the waist down, but who hand cycled 4,000 miles across Canada to raise money to cure polio.)
Danny Melville, whose idea started the entire episode, told The Gleaner how the idea came after he saw a sled with wheels at a factory in Canada.
Later, when he met businessman and musician Jimmy Buffet, he shared the idea and received support, Buffet being the largest sponsor of the Jamaica dog sled team, and for
"We did it and now, it's funny because we're now more famous overseas than we are in Jamaica. A lot of Jamaicans can't even wrap their minds around that kind of cold. But Newton is a hero. It's not Newton alone, Newton is the star because he's the one who did the thousand-mile race. It's a tough, tough race, it shows the spirit of our people and that Jamaican 'can do' attitude that's always there."
Melville said the Yukon Quest was more than just a race.
"It's about education, it's about promoting Jamaica, it's about ethical treatment of dogs, it's about so many good things, not just about running dog sleds. It's about young Jamaicans getting an opportunity to travel and see the world , which these kids have done."
Marshall travels with the Jamaica Tourist Board (JTB) team to Caribbean Week in New York the first week of June, then goes to South Africa in August.
"August is their (South Africa's) winter and they want him as a celebrity musher and to speak at a symposium, and also to go to schools and talk about ethical treatment. It's kind of wonderful to have a Jamaican musher going to South Africa as a guest," said Melville.
At the launch, several copies of the books, autographed by both Firth and Marshall, were sold at $2,125 per copy.