Chan­nelling husky

Win­ter trek in Canada’s Yukon Ter­ri­tory

Australian Geographic Outdoor - - Contents - Words and Pho­tos El­speth Cal­len­der

IN THE DEAD of ev­ery sub­arc­tic win­ter, teams of bootie-shoed husky dogs and fur-clad mush­ers race a 1600km wilder­ness course be­tween White­horse, Yukon and Fair­banks, Alaska. The trail is a col­lec­tion of his­toric north­ern win­ter trans­port and travel routes across a frozen land­scape of im­mo­bilised rivers and snow-filled forests and ex­posed moun­tain­tops. De­pend­ing on con­di­tions, sur­faces can be any­thing from fresh pow­der to bare ice. Check­points and hospitality stops are few.

The Yukon Quest is now over 30 years old and, these days, any vis­i­tor to the Yukon can mush a team of huskies on ac­ces­si­ble sec­tions of the trail with a lo­cal ken­nel, pos­trace. I first mushed when I was new to the Yukon with the un­ex­pected re­sult of spon­ta­neous blub­bing from an eye­smeet-eyes mo­ment with my lead dogs as we crossed a pow­dery white lake on a blue­bird day. A mul­ti­day mush­ing and camp­ing tour on the Quest trail with Muk­tuk Ad­ven­tures the fol­low­ing win­ter also pro­duced an un­forseen out­come: vet­eran champ Frank Turner’s bro­ken-record mantra “it’s all about the dogs” forced me to con­tem­plate the ca­nine per­spec­tive.

Back in Aus­tralia again, the de­sire to wear light­weight footwear and a har­ness and drag a sled for days along that snowy trail in­ten­si­fied and took shape as an ex­pe­di­tion idea. I knew I’d hit on some­thing spe­cial when Yukon lo­cals emailed with “Off your meds again, Cal­len­der?” and “Love it… you crazy thing” and the tourism peo­ple flatly re­fused to sup­port the trip due to safety and out­fit­ting con­cerns.

Plans were made to re­turn to the Yukon the fol­low­ing win­ter to chan­nel husky.

FIND­ING A MATE

Canada’s most north-west­ern ter­ri­tory is just un­der 500,000km² with a pop­u­la­tion of just over 35,000. Its si­lence, space and limited dis­trac­tions are a com­mon cat­a­lyst for per­sonal epipha­nies. Its mag­netic pull, spo­ken of in whis­pers and song, can be eas­ily dis­missed as non­sense un­til you find your­self fly­ing back there ev­ery six months.

Ex­treme places at­tract ex­treme per­son­al­i­ties and I al­ready knew a suit­able north­erner who’d be up for this trip.

I first met Fluffy – his name has been changed to pro­tect his iden­tity – at a New Year’s Eve party in a huge fire­warmed shed on the cap­i­tal’s out­skirts when the out­side tem­per­a­ture was 30 be­low. This was my vir­gin visit to the Yukon and I’d re­turned that day from Klu­ane Na­tional Park where the nightly come­down of mo­tel ac­com­mo­da­tion be­tween snow­shoe­ing daytrips had fu­elled what I thought was an im­pos­si­ble fan­tasy of camp­ing out in the win­tery land­scape.

It was an im­me­di­ate con­nec­tion with Fluffy when I said “I don’t give a rat’s trap about the Yukon Quest” (back when I didn’t) and he said “me nei­ther, I was the ex-

Its si­lence, space and limited dis­trac­tions are a com­mon cat­a­lyst for per­sonal epipha­nies.

ec­u­tive di­rec­tor for seven years”. The fol­low­ing sum­mer we ca­noed a wild Yukon river and es­tab­lished we could get on for a week as long as he didn’t hum.

Orig­i­nally from On­tario, Fluffy was a wilder­ness white­wa­ter ca­noe and dogsled­ding guide be­fore go­ing exec for the Quest. A fit mid-50s, he has puppy-like en­ergy to burn, the en­thu­si­asm for out­door ad­ven­ture of a Boy’s Own mag­a­zine cover kid and a body shape his acupunc­tur­ist once de­scribed as “good for push­ing cars out of ditches”.

There’s a point to all this de­tail: it’s not a de­ci­sion I made lightly. The griz­zlies may be snooz­ing when the snow lies thick on the Yukon ground and I might well have scoffed at ev­ery con­ser­va­tive opin­ion on my travel plans, but the wrong com­pan­ion in a sub­arc­tic win­ter wilder­ness ex­pe­di­tion can quite eas­ily mean the end of your life.

In turn, Fluffy dou­ble-checks he un­der­stands my in­ten­tions: to haul sleds along the Quest trail be­tween two Yukon check­points right af­ter the race has gone though so the way is clear, the snow is packed and the sur­face ice on lakes and rivers well tested. When he’s con­firmed there’ll be no obli­ga­tion to wear con­nect­ing neck ropes, sleep out­side on straw, eat frozen fish of­fal or pid­dle on the go he agrees to do it.

PRE­PAR­ING FOR PAW CON­DI­TIONS

Yukon win­ters are typ­i­cally so cold and dry that freshly fallen snow can be shaken off like con­fetti. Yet, like dry heat, dry cold is far more man­age­able than the damp al­ter­na­tive, which is why ‘crisp’ is such a pos­i­tive word and ‘soggy’ is not.

Al­though we could be fac­ing tem­per­a­tures as low as -52ºC, the range is more likely to be around the mi­nus 20s and 30s. That’s what we’re hop­ing for. Not cold enough can be as much a dan­ger as too cold on north­ern win­ter routes.

Yukon Quest Cham­pion, Bruce John­son, fell through the ice while train­ing on Lit­tle Atlin Lake in the mid-1990s and the en­tire team – hu­man and an­i­mals – per­ished. With this in mind we fash­ion a looped strap-and-rope sys­tem for pulling our sleds so we don’t stay phys­i­cally at­tached to them in the un­likely event we break through thin ice.

The Quest al­ways starts in Fe­bru­ary, the best month for win­ter travel at this lat­i­tude. Well past the dark­ness of sol­stice – way back on 21 De­cem­ber – there are over nine day­light hours by mid-Fe­bru­ary.

As part of my pre-ex­pe­di­tion re­search, I read Jack Lon­don’s To Build a Fire. This sober­ing fic­tional short story, pub­lished in 1902 and set in the Yukon wilder­ness, skates around and then smashes into the re­al­ity of the hu­man body’s ut­ter fragility in a se­verely cold cli­mate.

Like se­ri­ous frost­bite, its chilling mes­sage be­comes a per­ma­nent part of me.

GROW­ING A WIN­TER COAT

Over the next few months emails fly back and forth on sub­jects like the best sun­glass lenses against snow blind­ness, num­ber of sleep­ing mats needed be­tween a body in a bag and bare snow, schools of thought on mul­ti­ple sock and glove lay­er­ing, early signs of frost­bite, why wolver­ine is the su­pe­rior parka ruff fur…

My tent, stove, sled, threads and food re­search keeps lead­ing me to a par­tic­u­lar North Amer­i­can tra­di­tional win­ter trekker and camper’s site where my steep­est learn­ing curve is in the hab­er­dash­ery de­part­ment.

Our cloth­ing must pro­tect us from cold, catch and trap body heat and re­lease mois­ture; noth­ing new, just the same old re­quire­ments in ex­treme con­di­tions. Most modern hik­ing gear is weight­less, warm and wind re­sis­tant but not ad­e­quately breath­able for in­ten­sive ac­tiv­ity or re­sis­tant to sparks. Be­cause our weight re­stric­tions are rel­a­tively loose, the so­lu­tion is lay­ers of good old-fash­ioned woollen gar­ments over our ther­mals and, the big­gest sur­prise, an outer shell of cot­ton.

Dur­ing the year, I find heavy wool shirts and trousers and a cot­ton anorak in an army sur­plus store in Prague, bor­row a Nor­we­gian woollen jumper from a friend and or­der felt-lined hide and can­vas boots from Wis­con­sin.

We or­gan­ise our­selves a fancy First Na­tions-style high-

The Yukon Quest is now over 30 years old and, these days, any vis­i­tor to the Yukon can mush a team of huskies on ac­ces­si­ble sec­tions of the trail with a lo­cal ken­nel, post-race.

den­sity poly­eth­yl­ene toboggan and, for a sec­ond one, re­vamp a bor­rowed plas­tic sled usu­ally used for drag­ging fire­wood around a sub­ur­ban Yukon yard. Fluffy lashes out and buys him­self the hand­made treated can­vas win­ter trekking tent and com­pat­i­ble wood-fire stove he’s al­ways wanted.

Be­cause this win­ter camp­ing trip was only ever go­ing to hap­pen with a heated tent in tow.

I’ve done ‘cold camp­ing’ in the Yukon and, with­out be­ing pre­ceded by an f-word ad­jec­tive, the phrase is an ab­surd un­der­state­ment. My ex­pe­ri­ence was a dogsled­ding tour ad­ver­tised as a mul­ti­day heated-tent camp­ing ex­pe­di­tion, but in-tent warmth con­sisted of just a few min­utes of blasted ra­di­ance at each end of the day to ease the agony of tran­si­tion be­tween mas­sive parka and dou­ble sleep­ing bag. On the sec­ond morn­ing of that trip, some­one shar­ing my tent kept the heat on for half an hour, claim­ing to be look­ing for a sock, while the rest of us were out­side eat­ing break­fast with frost form­ing around our faces. So that was the end of the propane.

With­out nightly respite from that de­gree of cold, the unrelenting frigid­ity spreads out around you like an ocean and in­cites obsessive pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with an imag­i­nary warm is­land whose pos­si­ble ex­is­tence taunts mer­ci­lessly from far beyond the cruel hori­zon.

At -33ºC in a damp sleep­ing bag un­der a ceil­ing of crys­tal sta­lac­tites, I lay awake for hours one night in gen­uine fear for my life and even sat up at some stage to start re­mov­ing clothes. But then I got it to­gether and calmed my breath­ing and lay back down.

This time we’ll be curl­ing up fire­side ev­ery evening like re­tired lead dogs in a musher’s cosy cabin.

SNIFFING OUT THE TRAIL

Af­ter the last Quest team crosses the White­horse fin­ish line it snows for a cou­ple of days while we’re mak­ing fi­nal ar­range­ments for trans­port. We’ve cho­sen the stretch be­tween Braeburn and Car­ma­cks be­cause it’s forested and we need fire­wood, un­du­la­tions are mi­nor so we can cover a rea­son­able dis­tance each day, and both check­points – one a road­house and the other a town – are within 200 high­way kilo­me­tres of White­horse.

In­stead of leav­ing from Car­ma­cks and closely par­al­lel­ing the high­way for at least a day, we choose to be de­liv­ered 30km east of town – just past the Columbian Disas­ter look­out on Robert Camp­bell High­way – with a plan to lo­cate the Quest trail on the other side of the Yukon River.

We’re un­der an arc­tic high so it’s a blue wind­less day in the low mi­nus 20s. A hun­dred kilo­me­tres lie be­tween us and Braeburn.

The sides of the Ter­ri­tory’s long­est river are lined with jumble ice where the surg­ing cur­rent and fluc­tu­at­ing tem­per­a­ture in early win­ter con­fused the freeze, but lo­cals’ snow­mo­bile tracks show the way through. The to­bog­gans slide well on the packed trail. We walk sin­gle file up river, slowly strip­ping down to main­tain what win­ter trekkers call ‘the edge of cold’.

The sun on our faces tricks our skin into think­ing it’s be­ing warmed. My muk­luks are sock-light and silent on the snow. The dis­com­fort of leav­ing a warm car to pack gear in the freez­ing air has been re­placed by a chest-ex­pand­ing urge to jour­ney into this land­scape I have the ever-in­creas­ing sense I’ve al­ways known.

Yukon ter­rain is es­sen­tially river val­leys, plateaus

and moun­tain ranges. Veg­e­ta­tion is mainly ev­er­green­dom­i­nated bo­real for­est of small spruce, pine and aspen or colour­ful tun­dra at higher al­ti­tudes and in the arc­tic north.

On the far side of the river we have a steep up­hill haul through spruce for­est rav­aged a decade ear­lier; the count­less black poles stand in the snow like spent sparklers still on a cake. The tem­per­a­ture drops with the sink­ing sun.

At the top of the slope we in­ter­sect with the Quest trail.

BED­DING DOWN

Mak­ing camp takes hours and the cold drains our en­ergy re­serves like birch trees har­vested of sap.

In hard­wood snow­shoes with rawhide lac­ing we march like toy sol­diers, back and forth, to pack down a solid base. Af­ter jointly erect­ing the tent, chores are split for time ef­fi­ciency – one starts the fire and cooks din­ner while the other chops, saws, car­ries and stacks wood.

We al­ways overdo the fire­wood to avoid this imag­ined scenario: we wake in the early hours to a tent drained of heat and no cut wood; half asleep with limited light and in the wrong shoes one of us goes out­side to use an axe or saw; we slip and fall or cut a hand and need at­ten­tion; one down, both get­ting colder and still no wood.

When out­side work is done, muk­luks are hung to dry from the ceil­ing of our lit­tle can­vas ken­nel in the woods and re­placed with cushy down booties. I in­evitably fall into a drib­bling power nap while Fluffy does the fin­ish­ing touches on the evening chores, such as melt­ing snow for the next day’s wa­ter sup­ply. Though, when I’m the nightly fire keeper, I wake ev­ery cou­ple of hours and me­thod­i­cally restack the glowing belly as if I’ve done it all my life.

One night, Fahren­heit and Cel­sius ren­dezvous out­side at mi­nus 40º but we don’t no­tice. There are no sta­lac­tites here.

FOL­LOW­ING OUR NOSES

Apart from fid­dling with fab­rics and nightly chores – nec­es­sary for crea­tures with limited nat­u­ral re­sis­tance to cold – I’ve never felt so dog­gish in my life dur­ing our week of eat, pee, poo, walk, sleep.

Each day be­gins with vo­ra­cious con­sump­tion of fatty, sug­ary foods. When full, a com­pul­sion to get mov­ing kicks in. The arc­tic high holds all week and such great weather,

When out­side work is done, muk­luks are hung to dry from the ceil­ing of our lit­tle can­vas ken­nel in the woods and re­placed with cushy down booties.

gear and plan­ning cul­mi­nate in an idyl­li­cally un­event­ful trip; the height of prob­lem solv­ing is sight­ing the next orange and black track marker.

The silent white trail, car­ry­ing the scent and mem­ory of so many dogs be­fore us, can­cels out pretty much ev­ery­thing but here and now.

We trot across vast white lakes, lope down snowy slopes and pad through cop­per-coloured forests of un­burnt spruce – shabby with age and stunted from cold – to find sto­ries in the snow: blood and feath­ers that tell of a strug­gle and a meal; yel­low and brown smudges around trees colour­fully il­lus­trate team pit stops. Across our path, on and un­der lay­ers of snow, are the foot­prints and hoof­prints and claw prints of squir­rel, chip­munk, lynx, wolf, moose, coy­ote, fox, hare, wolver­ine, river ot­ter, marten, fisher, raven, mag­pie, chick­adee and whiskey-jack.

There’s such hyp­notic steadi­ness to the whole trip – a pu­rity of fo­cus that comes from build­ing a rou­tine in sur­vival mode – that when it’s all over and we drop our loops in Braeburn, the re­lief at com­ing to the end of a week of con­stant ex­er­tion wres­tles with an in­stinc­tive­ness to take up the slack and keep go­ing.

“How was Aurora?” friends ask, be­cause it was ap­par­ently awe­some and spec­tac­u­lar that week, but the ques­tion makes me quadrupedally inar­tic­u­late. Head cocked to one side and eye­brows in a twitch, I won­der how I can ex­plain that all I had the en­ergy and in­cli­na­tion to do each night was scoff elk and bi­son smok­ies then stretch out in front of the fire and chase rab­bits in my sleep.

Left to right Cross­ing Man­danna Lake; morn­ing breaks on the trail.

Left Fire­wood duty.

Above An easy up­hill haul.

Clock­wise from left Dry­ing the many lay­ers of muk­luks; re­lax­ing over morn­ing cof­fee; tra­di­tional snow­shoes still work bril­liantly.

Left to right Across the frozen Yukon River; a starry night at thir­tysome­thing be­low.

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