Posts Tagged: mushing


21
Mar 13

The Yukon Quest 2013

And so it begins

And so it begins

The Yukon has fascinated me. I’ve waited to write about the Yukon Quest race because I just keep reading more and more about it, losing myself down a rabbit hole of myths, legends and impossible-sounding stories which turn out to be true. This is a race like no other: one thousand miles in bitter sub-zero temperatures following the route of the historic 1890s Klondike Gold Rush route between Fairbanks, Alaska and Whitehorse, Yukon. Just mushers, their teams of sled dogs and the bone-numbing cold and unimaginably vast spaces of the Great White North. On average it takes between 10-20 days to cover the route. Unlike other endurance races, there are only ten checkpoints along the way – some are more than 200 miles apart. The originators of the Quest decided to make it harder than other races, more ‘woodsman-like’ as they wanted it to be a race where ‘survival would be as important as speed.’

I was taking photographs at the start of the race. I lay in snow at the side of the track, I had my Canada Goose parka on; gloves, scarf, snow pants, I was well-wrapped up, but some 45 minutes lying in that snow, slowly feeling the cold bite at my face and fingers, made me look at these mushers with awe. To be that cold; to race through the day and night, frost forming on beards, eyelashes icing up, with no hope of a warm bed at the end – took courage that I couldn’t imagine possessing.

Late sun in Whitehorse - this was about 1030 am

Late sun in Whitehorse – this was about 1030 am

There’s a romance about the race for sure; I shared a lift into town with a couple from Vienna who’d come to Whitehorse to see the lights and had been bitten by the bug, “It’s highly non-technical,” enthused Peter Pollak, “It emphasises self-reliance, there’s no one there to pick you up, you have to take care of your dogs first and then yourself.” His wife, Mary, agreed, “We didn’t know about it before we came, but there’s something addictive about it. We’ve already planned to come back next year to follow the trail.”

Race into the snow

Race into the snow

I’ll come clean – before I came, I couldn’t imagine being interested in this at all. This has “NOT MY THING” all over it in neon letters, but I got excited by the atmosphere and found myself pulled in; I talked to the handlers, petted the excited dogs and chatted to a few of the mushers, like Christina Traverse who saw the Quest on TV and thought, “I want to do that one day”. This was to be her first Quest, but I saw on the site, that she lasted just 41hrs, 44mins before being retired from the race and hospitalised. I remember the trepidation – and excitement – in her eyes and I know she’ll be back again another year.

It takes about 15-30 seconds to put on each bootie.. which could be almost 30 minutes for a 14-dog team

It takes about 15-30 seconds to put on each bootie.. which could be almost 30 minutes for a 14-dog team

Brent Sass, a Quest regular, running his seventh race, came in third. He first got started after he saw a dog team, “I wanted to do that. One dog turned into five, turned into 10, then 25. The first time I did the Quest was scary; all the uncertainties of the trail and the obstacles ahead, you don’t know what you’re going to run into, but I enjoy it all, I thrive when the hard weather comes.”

The love of the mushers for their dogs was clear; the last musher to run spent time kissing, hugging and talking to each of his dogs, who were all excitedly pulling and jumping, desperate to get racing before stepping behind his sled and heading off into a thousand miles of snow and ice.

They adore their dogs

They adore their dogs

I looked at the stats and the times of all the mushers from this year’s race, there’s a section on the site where you can leave messages for them – there must have been thousands. School children who were studying the race who saw the mushers as their heroes (I found this amazing Yukon Quest maths sheet!), fellow dog-lovers, even relatives and friends leaving messages of love and support that had me welling up. I thought about how they must feel – anxious for their loved one but bursting with pride – imagining them far out in the snow with nothing but the sound of bootie-clad paws racing across the ice for company, nothing but 250lbs of packed equipment and provisions on their sled between checkpoints to keep them going. I saw wisps of straw fall as I lay in the snow, I imagined the dogs curled up on it, resting, and the musher, after massaging their feet, changing their booties, feeding and watering them, eventually curling up too, grabbing a few short hours sleep before pushing on again to that finish line.

Ready to go

Ready to go

I travelled as a guest of Yukon Tourism - as ever – my views are 100% my own.


13
Mar 13

Dreams of the Yukon Quest

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?

Team Get Nikki Off The Sled

Team Get Nikki Off The Sled

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.

This is what a proper musher looks like.

This is what a proper musher looks like.

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. 

Blinding sun, blazing blue skies and the dogs. Heaven.

Blinding sun, blazing blue skies and the dogs. I get the appeal.

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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