Posts Tagged: whitehorse


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.


20
Mar 13

Discovering the Yukon spas and Takhini hot springs

I didn’t know that walking in the snow made such a crunching sound until I moved to Canada. Like the wrong type of leaves, I guess we always got the wrong type of snow. So, when I left the warmth of my cosy Yukon cabin to explore, I walked the trails happily listening to the unexpected sound of the snow.

Splendid isolation

Splendid isolation

I was staying at the Northern Lights Resort and Spa,  some 20km from Whitehorse. I’d hoped to catch a glimpse of those elusive lights, staying far from the glare of the city; I had an image of waking in the night and seeing them from my bed, actually – my ultimate Northern Lights Fantasy involves seeing them from a hot tub as snowflakes fall on my face. Alas, it wasn’t to be – first because the lights were covered by cloud and second I wasn’t allowed to use the tub after 10pm. I guess that’s what happens when you try and make fantasy reality. It pretty much never works out.

Perfect balcony view

Perfect balcony view

I had fun though, staying out in the wilderness; I loved seeing nothing but snow and forest, hearing the howls of excited sled dogs all riled up with the scent of the Yukon Quest in the air and it was great to sit down with locals and share a meal at the dinner table too; I even learned a new phrase; ‘shack wacky‘ which is the northern version of ‘cabin fever’ – a state bought on by too much winter and not enough daylight, which can apparently only be quelled by hard drinking and much dancing. I like these people.

Spa is an elastic term these days – it can be an all-singing, all-dancing palace of relaxation or it can be as simple as the hot tub, sauna and Swedish-style massage on offer here. A nice soft touch in the harsh wilderness of the Yukon. Or – it can even be an outdoors experience like I had at Takhini Hot Springs, a public pool fed by the natural hot spring. In February when we visited, snow lay all around, steam hung over the water and families were all enjoying the bone-warming heat in the middle of soul-crushingly cold weather. There’s nothing fancy here at all. The changing rooms are basic to say the least. Plastic strips separate the indoors area from the pool, you wade through, batting at the plastic as you go. This is far from a luxe experience, but oh! It was magical.

 

Spa Yukon-style

Spa Yukon-style

The sky was impossibly clear and blue that day, I kept my shoulders under the 40°C water until I felt dizzy with the heat and then went for it… scooted out of the pool, carefully avoiding slipping on the ice and threw myself backwards into a drift of snow. Trying hard not to shriek, I rubbed the snow on my face and arms then scampered back into the water. It felt wonderful; I could feel the blood pumping around my body, my arms and legs felt almost burnt by the hot/cold/hot change and I felt giddy with euphoria. Apparently they have late sessions till 2am in the winter and just like that, my fantasy changed. Forget a Jacuzzi – this was more like it – a huge shared hot spring where you could bob around and watch the magic of the Northern Lights zip across the sky – and if the lights don’t come, well, how often do you get to be in a hot spring surrounded by snow? That’s a real-life fantasy right there.

No. I'm not showing you me rolling in the snow...

No. I’m not showing you me rolling in the snow…

I travelled as a guest of Yukon Tourism and the Northern Lights Resort and Spa - as ever, my views are 100% my own.


7
Mar 13

On the hunt for Northern Lights in the Yukon

All the conditions were perfect. It should have been a dazzling display...

All the conditions were perfect. It should have been a dazzling display…

One of the major draws of the Yukon is the possibility of seeing the Northern Lights. I’ve dreamed of watching the night sky dance with colour since I was a child. I had high hopes for this trip to Whitehorse; there were “elevated activity” signs on the aurora forecast site, the skies were clear and all the conditions seemed right. But nature is a fickle thing and it turns out that the Yukon Northern Lights have decidedly diva-ish tendencies.

I won’t pretend I wasn’t disappointed when they failed to show, but compared to last time when I tried my luck in Iceland and froze my butt off shivering outside a bus in a deserted field, this trip was definitely more welcoming. Unlike many Aurora tours, instead of chasing the lights, Northern Tales have a camp set up, around half an hour beyond Whitehorse, far from the light pollution of the town. All the creature comforts that you could possibly need are there, from a crackling campfire to heated yurts and a slightly alarming drop-toilet.

There was something rather comforting about being tucked away in the warm, our hosts were boiling maple syrup on the stove to make maple taffy lollies, I sat and warmed my hands on a mug of cocoa and felt, well, not as sad as I thought I’d feel. I kept popping outside, to sit on a chair in the snowy field, to get my frosty fix of staring at the sky and feeling the bitter bite of cold air. After all, if you get a great reward like dancing lights in the sky shouldn’t you have to suffer a little first? I stared until my eyeballs got cold; every once in a while, I could see the clouds part; the stars twinkled and the more I stared, the more convinced I was that I could see… something. It felt like the sky sighing. Something moving and shifting and shimmering. And then disappearing again.

Turns out I am terrible at drawing hearts

Turns out I am terrible at drawing hearts

Our hosts were phenomenal; born cheerleaders and optimists, we stayed out till past 1am, hoping that our diva would show. They made snacks and hot drinks and even entertained us shooting slow-mo light shots… but no northern lights. I just read this morning that according to NASA, the ‘Solar Maximum’ – the summit of the sun’s 11-year cycle of activity, which gives the best Northern Lights – has shifted from May to autumn. That means it’s not over yet between me and my quest to see those dancing lights. If there’s a yurt and a campfire, turns out I’m happy to keep on chasing…

I travelled as a guest of Tourism Yukon. My views are 100% my own.

Travel Yukon


3
Mar 13

The Yukon: What to do in Whitehorse

Transformative. That’s how a friend recently described the Yukon and I think she’s right. You get the first clue that things aren’t going to be business as normal at the airport gate. As I sat, checking my phone and sipping coffee, I realised that almost everyone around me was chatting to each other. Was it a group outing? No. It’s just one of those places where everyone seems to know everyone and if they don’t – well, they’ll introduce themselves.

Even the carrier, Air North, are hands down the most friendly I have ever flown with; ridiculously polite and cheery, they handed out fresh baked banana and maple loaf for breakfast onboard which set me up for arriving in Whitehorse with a smile on my face. One of Canada’s three territories, far up north, the Yukon experiences brutal sub-arctic weather. Snow blankets the ground for months on end. Biting sub-zero temperatures are normal for months. The days are short throughout winter; you need layer after layer of clothing to simply get down the street without freezing. Thick soled boots, warm gloves, a hat. Just getting ready to go out is exhausting.

Out for an early-morning walk, crunching through the snow

Out for an early-morning walk, crunching through the snow

But oh! When you do… there is so much to be excited about. I found the light extraordinary, the colours dazzling, the strange physical sensation of feeling painfully cold oddly exhilarating. There’s a lot to do around Whitehorse; from Northern Lights spotting and learning to dog mush to going ice fishing or taking a plane sightseeing over a glacier. But don’t discount Whitehorse as a place to explore, it’s full of surprises

1. I’ve written before about my long-suffering journey to find some decent coffee out here in Vancouver… sorry, Canada, you roast your beans too much for me! All the coffee that people rave about seems… burnt to me. So try to picture my delight when I took a sip of Bean North at the uber-funky Baked cafe and discovered heavenly just-right, perfect-roast coffee. I may have to get my beans sent from the Yukon in future as these are superb.

BEST coffee in Canada to date. Thanks, Bean North!

BEST coffee in Canada to date. Thanks, Bean North!

2. Bear with me on this. It could have been post-dog sledding-euphoria, or maybe just the giddy come-down after the amazing start of the Yukon Quest race but I really recommend you visit Duffy’s Pet Store on Alexander to check out their harness and dog bootie room! OK – where else in the world are you going to have the chance to browse harnesses for your dog? I spent a happy ten minutes imaging that Freddie was a sled-dog, we’d go whizzing across the tundra! I could imagine his little paws in the fluorescent booties, alas (or possibly for the best) after the Quest they were all out and only had the sensible black ones, so after one last moment of sled-fantasy, I left, bootie-less.

How could I not fall in love with this as a look for my dog, Freddie?

How could I not fall in love with this as a look for my dog, Freddie?

3. You don’t expect to discover fiery Caribbean cooking in the frozen north and yet walk into Antoinette’s on 4th Avenue and that’s exactly what you’ll find. I loved the funky dining room – bold reds on the wall and colourful art work – and the spicy flavours were just what I needed to warm up. The lime and chilli-spiked king prawns were so damn good I found myself greedily sucking the shells to get the last juicy drops. Gorgeous.

4. I’m a sucker for a local museum. I like the contents to be as random as possible, I love the feeling of being catapulted into another world entirely, getting to see other people’s interests and obsessions. In fact my favourite museums of all are those that clearly are the result of an enraged partner bellowing, ‘That’s ENOUGH! Get this crap out of my house’ and the collector yelling back ‘I’ll start a MUSEUM… It’s not crap, I’ll show you… I’ll show everyone!’ -  I’d like to point to the Chocolate Museum in Biarritz as a particularly fine example of this – all moulds and posters and no apparent point. I was fascinated by it. The Macbride Museum takes this to a glorious daft place with the ‘Cluttertorium’ I read the sign “…from the 1950s to the 1970s the museum simply put as many artifacts as it could in a random display… the Cluttertorium is designed to give visitors access to portions of the collection” and scrambled down the stairs. Fantastic! A pair of joke underpants, a plait of hair, spectacles… no rhyme, reason or connection except the Yukon. I adored it.

Any day I get to go to a museum like this is my best day.

Any day I get to go to a museum like this is my best day.

5. Using local products, inspired by the northern boreal forest, the Aroma Borealis herb shop sells gorgeous hand-made skin care and herb teas and makes for a good stop-off for gifts. I love their ethos of using Northern wild plants alongside organically-grown herbs and essential oils from around the world to create natural herbal bodycare. The Sweet Slumber crystal rock salt bath salts are fantastic.

I travelled as a guest of Tourism Yukon, as always, my views are 100% my own.

Find out more: Travel Yukon

 

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