IN THE HEART OF A YUKON WINTER, most conversations turn to the Yukon Quest. The world-class sled dog race through the Yukon and Alaskan wilds is an iconic symbol of the North and an elite marathon that tests man, woman and canine against everything winter can throw at them. In Canada, the Quest is the linchpin to a wintertime vacation in the Yukon.
To the ears of a southerner, winter and the Yukon may seem a vacation oxymoron. But for the people who live “north of 60” the long winter means guaranteed white stuff and a full menu of outdoor activities.
Banish the notion of dark days huddled by a roaring fire, waiting only for the spring thaw. Those feisty Yukoners thumb their noses at the stereotype, bundle up and head outside to get the upper hand on winter – dogsledding, cross-country skiing, ice fishing, snowshoeing and snowmobiling.
Winter and snow are for celebrating . . . and in the Yukon, they really go all out. As a vacation option for someone from the south it may seem, well, crazy. It’s another stereotype to be ignored. A Yukon winter and the Yukoners’ enthusiasm are contagious.
THEY SAY THE YUKON QUEST is the world’s toughest sled dog race. It begins with a long and honourable history: for many years, a team of sled dogs was the most reliable form of transportation in the North. Racing the Yukon Quest is a living legacy to those early pioneers who blazed these routes, carrying mail, supplies and news into the hinterland.
Qualifying teams come from around the globe to tackle whatever a northern winter can clobber them with: bone-chilling temperatures, winds that whip into whiteouts, exhaustion, long hours of darkness and complete isolation.
The route connects Whitehorse, Yukon to Fairbanks, Alaska along 1,600 kilometres that can include treacherous climbs, poor braking conditions, and frozen rivers turned to massive chunks of jumble ice. But it is also a route through some of the most breathtakingly beautiful wilderness that Canada has to offer.
The trail had its beginnings around a table in the early 1980s when several mushers talked of honouring the history and heritage of the Yukon River – the “highway of the north” – a route used to shuttle provisions to the Klondike goldfields and the Alaska interior. Each year the Quest route alternates directions; in 2016 it begins in Fairbanks and almost two weeks later the teams will cross the checkered finish line in Whitehorse.
Those days on the trail are serious times for mushers and their team of dogs. Each dog consumes between an estimated 6,000 to 12,000 calories a day and needs a gallon of water to wash it down. Waterproof booties and leg protection keep them in top shape. The wise musher heeds the saying: “As go the feet – so goes the dog.”
Getting a front row seat to the action is never a problem. No matter how low the mercury dips, locals show up to line the route at the starting countdown and at the finish line, cheering each and every team with a first-name familiarity. The trick to comfort in the cold is to layer up (shops and outfitters rent parkas, snow pants and heavy duty boots). Stamp your feet to stay warm, chat with the Yukoner standing next to you and within minutes you’ll be welcomed into the fold.
There are also dozens of vantage spots along the route to watch the teams – from the snowy wilderness along the river to the checkpoints at Pelley Crossing, Carmacks or Braeburn to the halfway mark at historic Dawson City where the teams take a mandated 36-hour rest stop to refuel and recharge.
Even if a trip north is not in the cards, race enthusiasts can cheer from afar. The Yukon Quest website is chock full of race history and interesting tidbits, including a real-time standings board to track the progress of each of the two-dozen teams. Start date is February 6, 2016 and the website will post progress notes and stats until the last team crosses the finish line in Whitehorse approximately 10 to 14 days later.
BUT, SHOULD YOU BE ON THAT PLANE, on approach to a snow-blanketed land below, and wondering, “now what?” here’s a primer to help get the most out of a Yukon winter experience:
• Get grounded in Klondike history with the 20-minute National Film Board film, City of Gold, narrated by Dawson City native, the late Pierre Berton. The Gold Rush touched everything about the Yukon.
• Get into the musher’s seat yourself with a sled dog outing with an outfitter like Sky High Wilderness.
• Take a flightseeing tour above the glaciers at Kluane National Park and Reserve. By fixed-wing plane or helicopter, the world’s largest non-polar icefields make Kluane a contender for one of Canada’s most awe-inspiring places of natural beauty.
• Steep your chilled bones in the thermal waters at the outdoor Takhini Hot Pools.
• Keep moving with a snowshoe outing into the Yukon forests. Up North Adventures offers guided snowshoe hikes and snowmobiling excursions.
• Sign up with a local outfitter, like Northern Tales, for an evening of watching the colourful Aurora Borealis splash across a dark sky. Their remote viewing sites are away from city lights – canvas platform tents are kept warm by a woodstove, so you can hop in and out between looking upward for the lights, constellations and shooting stars.
General information at www.travelyukon.com
– 30 –
Editor’s Note: I have just recently finished reading Charlotte Gray’s excellent book Gold Diggers, about Canada’s Klondike Gold Rush in the 1890s. I have never been to the Yukon, but it inspires me as a wild and wide open place and I recalled that my buddy Josephine Matyas ventured up there in 2015 for the Yukon Quest sled dog race. So I asked her to tell us about it here on Roadstories – Thanks Jo.