As I sailed backwards through the air, landing in an undignified heap in a snow drift, I can’t pretend for a second that I felt surprised. I knew I’d fall off my sled. I’d told the others, ‘If someone’s falling off, it’s me!’ And I really wasn’t being self-deprecating. So yes, there I was, with the snow in my face to prove it. Wearily, I propped myself up on my elbows and watched my team of four gorgeous huskies disappear at breakneck speed, past our instructor, and off through the trees.
So now what?
It had all started so well; a beautiful drive half an hour from Whitehorse to the Sky High Wilderness Ranch to start our mushing adventure. We ate, family-style, around the table at the old-fashioned wooden ranch house; steaming bowls of chili with sweet juicy berries for afters. Our instructor Jocelyn was a veteran of the Quest. She’d battled her way 1000 miles in the punishing sub-zero cold with sixteen dogs, made it through the other side from Alaska to Whitehorse. All we had to do was a short 20 km with a team of four. A walk in the park in comparison. “Oh, I’m gonna fall off.” I said, as we walked to the dogs.
You hear them way before you see them; whining and yowling, yapping that high-pitched bark of pure excitement that any dog owner would recognise as the Noise That Spot Makes When He sees The Squeaky Ball. There were some 150 dogs up on the property at Fish Lake. That’s a lot of excited dog noise. Jocelyn showed us the basics of mushing, (put your foot on the brake. No, really. Put your damn foot on the brake) and then how to put harnesses on our teams of four dogs. We took up position behind our sleds, full weight firmly on the brake as Jocelyn attached the dogs to the sled. With a final admonition to take it easy, off we went. I timidly took my heel off the brake a little, the straining huskies jerked forward and I reflexively tightened my grip on the sled handlebar.
The dogs left in the yard howled their displeasure as we set off. The sleds hissed across the snow, the scamper of the huskies’ surprisingly dainty paws a pattering counterpoint to their excited panting. I know we went past snowy pines, along a track and on to a frozen lake – imagine! Mushing your own dog sled team across a frozen lake in the Yukon! – but I was so obsessively fixed on my feet that I almost saw nothing those first fifteen minutes. You see you’re balanced on two ‘skis’, with the brake in the centre. Lift your foot off one of the skis and then onto the brake, but then you have to work out which side to lean to balance it all out and, of course, where to put your foot back without falling off. I’m not great with this kind of thing. That’s why I knew I’d fall.
But I was loving it all the same. I had an epiphany around half an hour in, I was getting into the swing of it, if I leaned like that then I could go a little faster… this was easy! This was something I could get good at… this was – and then it hit me – this was the story of a lifetime! This English girl, who moved to Vancouver and then tried dog sledding, turned out to be AMAZING at it and entered the Yukon Quest, the most punishing race on earth. Of course, just as I was basking in the imagined glory of passing the finishing line, we went around a corner, I slammed the brake on too hard, parted company with the sled and well, you know the rest.
They had to send a snowmobile to find my team. As I made the humiliating climb into Jocelyn’s sled, frantically apologising all the way, she told me to not worry. It happened all the time. So I lay back and enjoyed the view; the stunning scenery, the excitement of the dogs and yes, admired their skill at being able to run and poop at the same time. We should all be so talented.
Realistically, I’m probably not going to enter the Yukon Quest, but I’m definitely going to give mushing another go. We caught up with my naughty crew 20 minutes later and I managed another hour or so without falling off. By the end my feet were painfully cold and my hands trembling from gripping the bar so hard. We’d done just 2% of what the amazing mushers of the Yukon Quest do. I have so much respect for them and their dogs and after just a short time doing it, I can see exactly why they do it.
Thanks to all at Sky High Wilderness Ranch – especially Jocelyn for being so patient and Ian for rescuing my dogs. I travelled as a guest of Tourism Yukon, however, my views are 100% my own.
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