Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 25, 2021

© Josephine Matyas

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Yukon cold spell

The epic dogsled race through true wilderness could make you fall in love with winter

If cars could skate, I am certain our SUV would have done Lutz jumps and half-axels all the way up the Klondike Highway. It’s a storied route, well travelled in the summertime by nature enthusiasts, scanning the roadside for bears foraging for berries or horsetail. In the months when the sunshine finally warms the soil, the ditches are painted a bright purple with fireweed, the Yukon’s territorial flower.

In the dead of winter, not so much.

It’s a six-hour journey of snow and ice, ice and snow. We met few other vehicles and passed through a smattering of small communities marked by lonely gas stations and the occasional roadhouse. The snack rack at the filling station is the closest one gets to dining out.

I chose this route from Whitehorse to Dawson City on — what seemed at first blush — a crazy notion to explore the Yukon’s infamous long, dark winter. In short order, crazy became sly as a fox. The Yukon winter got its hooks into me, dashing away all prudent reservations of snowfall, wind chill, frostbite and darkness, and replacing them with an awe and reverence for the miles and miles of pristine wilderness and the quirky people who proudly wear the nickname sourdough as a badge.

Officially branded as Highway 2, the Klondike Highway gets its name from the greatest gold rush in history, a time in the late 1800s when 100,000 prospectors rolled the dice and made for Dawson City, heads filled with visions of streambeds choking with golden nuggets. Lady Luck dealt a harsh hand and the majority limped home with empty pockets, dreams dashed by poor preparation, bad luck and the hardships of the North.

The ice-topped, rink-of-a-road hugs the Yukon River, the twisty waterway they call the “historical highway of the north.” In the winters of days gone by, mushers like the legendary Percy DeWolfe carried mail and supplies along these dogsled routes through the harshest conditions imaginable: bitter cold, blizzards, jumble ice, hostile wildlife.

But by SUV outfitted with snow tires, the road is good and, for my single-minded purpose, the best way to follow the progress of the sled dog teams racing the Yukon Quest, the 1600-kilometre race between Fairbanks and Whitehorse, a competition they say is the toughest of its kind in the world. There isn’t a temperature mark or a snowfall measurement that delays the Yukon Quest. Every February, two-dozen or so mushers and their teams set out on a solitary journey through the wilderness of Alaska and the Yukon in what has become as much a testament to honour those before them as it is a world-class moneyed competition.

The teams leave in staggered starts; sleds loaded with enough supplies to make it to the first checkpoint a day along the route, well-trained dogs jumping and howling for the starter’s mark and the musher’s command. At the 2015 starting gate in Whitehorse, there’s an endearing mishmash of serious international competitors (teams from around the world display their flags) and small-town community spirit. Mushers walk up and down their line of harnessed dogs, bending close to whisper to their canine teammates, ruffling their fur to make gentle contact.

“See you down the trail,” shouted the announcer as the dogs shot from the start chute and the musher in the pole position, bundled from head to toe, waved at the cheering supporters. Everyone admits to a favourite team but they yell with the same unbridled passion for every brave musher and every dog.

Few sports make such demands of endurance and isolation. Racing sled dogs is unlike any other team sport. Out on the wilderness track is a solitary human facing the elements, making life and death decisions. For the audience it’s different. The biggest challenges are camera batteries that deplete at lightening speed in the cold and the nuisance factor of peeling clothing on and off.

Grabbing the reins

As we drove north toward the halfway checkpoint at Dawson City, my mind wandered to the teams covering their long and lonely trail, face-to-face with elements so much harsher than iced-up windshields and frozen door locks. In Dawson, I hurried to the finish line, stamping my feet to stay warm in the minus-40 temperature. Kristin Knight Pace, one of the few female entrants, was all smiles as she skidded her sled under the checkpoint flag stretched across Dawson’s main street. The 800-kilometre point is a mandatory 36-hour layover to refuel, sleep and restock.

“It was awesome,” she exclaimed. “I don’t know what the hardest part is — I’m sure it’s to come. But the best part so far was through the jumble ice [on the Yukon River caused by different rates of flow]. It was incredibly brutal and I ended up losing my team and chasing them, watching them go out through the jumble ice without me. Then I caught them and I had to repair my sled sitting in the middle of the river. But then they totally made this connection and I had a team of dogs going through the jumble ice with me. They understood this is the time to walk and to wait until I tell them what to do. To have total command over 14 dogs like that was something truly awesome. I can’t believe this is me doing this with these dogs.”

Two days later, Knight Pace’s enthusiasm was ringing in my ears as I mushed my own team of four Alaskan Huskies across frozen Fish Lake just outside Whitehorse. Led by a guide with Sky High Wilderness, we were shown how to balance on the sled runners, how to pace the speed of the dogs and how to stomp the iron anchor into the snow at breaks. Juggling four frenzied pups took all my faculties. Fourteen and a loaded sled? Inconceivable.

We stopped in a clearing, ringed by a snow-frocked forest, jumped on our anchors like pros, gave each dog a friendly scratch and cupped mugs of steaming hot cocoa that appeared magically from guide Marine Gastard’s daypack. My eyelashes and eyebrows were tinged with a thick frost. My fingertips were chilled. But, like Knight Pace, I was grinning from ear to ear. The world was very cold and clean and quiet; I was cocooned in my own little intimacy with a magnificent landscape both vast and unsullied.

Yukon winters are, to say the least, challenging. There are stories of cabin fever through the long, dark winters — after all, this is the land of poet Robert Service’s The Cremation of Sam McGee. There are joking references to “strange things done in the midnight sun,” a kind of Get Out of Jail Free card for embracing the bone-chilling temperatures with activities like dogsledding, snowshoeing, snowmobiling and cross-country skiing.

To that list I added a bone-warming steep in the thermal hot springs at Takhini Hot Pools. It’s hard to beat sitting in an outdoor pool of 40-degree water, watching snowflakes the size of toonies gently fall onto ice-encrusted fir trees. The water was warm, certainly toastier than any tropical sea, although the air above was a different matter. By that time the Yukon winter really did have its hooks into me. Crazy notions had slipped by the wayside. The days of sly as a fox were here.

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