Posts Tagged: Yukon Quest


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.

Find out more: 

Travel Yukon 

 

Get there with Air North


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

 


25
Feb 13

Canada Goose: staying warm in freezing cold Canada

Minus 26 degrees. So cold that when you breath your throat hurts. So cold that you suddenly realise that funny feeling in your nose is all the little hairs freezing. So very painfully cold that although the morning light as you crunch through the densely packed snow is breathtaking, and you want to take photo after photo, you can’t because your glove-less hand begin to hurt after about 20 seconds and after a minute it burns and aches until you have to admit defeat.

Stunning light but oh! Too painful to take many photos.

Stunning light but oh! Too painful to take many photos.

I’m from the UK and I’m completely unused to such frozen temperatures. Living in Brighton  doesn’t prepare you for the harsh conditions of the great white north, so when I knew I was going to be travelling to the Yukon and Quebec, I had a small panic – what on earth would I wear?! I had snowpants and thermals but I knew my jacket simply wasn’t up to the job. So I asked a few Vancouverites and they all said the same thing: “Canada Goose”.

I did a bit of research and they do sound like the perfect fit for me on my quest to keep everything I do as Canadian as possible. I especially liked this quote from their web site about keeping their production in Canada: “Cold weather is part of our national identity… We’re proud to have Canadians rely on us for protection in unspeakably cold conditions. We stay in Canada because that’s who we are.” I just love the idea that yes, to be Canadian is to live, work and play in really cold weather… I’ve come around to the idea living in basically sub-aqua conditions in ultra-rainy Vancouver, that if I stay at home and wait for good weather I’ll never leave the house! So I put waterproofs on and go and have fun.

It's a SERIOUS coat

It’s a SERIOUS coat

I contacted Canada Goose and explained that I wanted to do a spot of road-testing and they very kindly sent me a parka. When it arrived I realised that this was a SERIOUS coat. Canada Goose have a 5-point ‘Thermal Experience Index’ so you can work out if you need a light jacket or something for more hardcore arctic activities. My ‘Dawson‘ parka is in the ‘extreme’ category, good to -30 “field-tested for the coldest places on earth.” There is something awfully scary and exciting at the same time reading that. I slipped it on in my toasty-warm apartment, struggled with the zip (it took a few weeks to loosen up) and then looked at myself in the mirror. I liked it. I looked ready for all kinds of arctic action!

As it’s a SERIOUS coat, it’s packed with gizmos, I adore the genius addition of shoulder straps in the lining, so I can carry the coat on my back like a rucksack when I’m indoors so I don’t overheat and easily slip it on before I go outside. I got asked twice about this in the airport by curious women – it’s a really cool idea. As is the fleece in the chin guard, which if you snuggle, goes right up to your nose. I suspect I may still be finding pockets in this next year…

This guy is about to drive 1000 miles with huskies across the arctic. He's wearing Canada Goose. Case closed.

This guy is about to drive 1000 miles with huskies across the arctic. He’s wearing Canada Goose. Case closed.

So – how did it cope? Well, when I arrived in the Yukon for the 1000-mile Yukon Quest race, I wasn’t the only one Goosed-up and I think that tells you everything you need to know. All the locals had Canada Goose jackets and the tour companies hire out scarlet jackets to visitors. My eyelashes may have iced up and my fingers felt like they’d snap, but the rest of me was cosy. I could play out in the snow all day long – even lying in it for two hours taking photos – and not feel cold. I’ve learned that it’s not about bad weather, it’s about having the right clothes – and for winter in Canada that means one thing: Canada Goose.

Loving the Goose...

Loving the Goose…

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