When I walked out of the airport, the cold air hit me in the face. But I was prepared for it. My boots were laced up, and I had changed in the bathroom before stepping out. With big puffy pants and a legit arctic jacket, I waddled my way out of the terminal, towards the truck.
I pulled on the handle but the door did not open. So I knocked on the window and asked my friend to unlock the doors. He shouted that it was open, but when I pulled again, the door still did not open. I knocked on the window again and urged him to unlock it – for real this time. He looked down at the door and then back up at me through the window. “It’s unlocked!”
It took a pretty good tug to get the door to pop open. The thing had frozen shut. “I took it through the wash this morning,” my friend said. “The water must have frosted the door jam.”
The temperature would hover between zero and -5 degrees (Fahrenheit) for the majority of my stay in Whitehorse, leading to frozen beards, cold fingers, and an insatiable desire to stay warm with red wine and whiskey. I was also able to track down some moose stew at my friend’s Super Bowl party. The locals love it here in Whitehorse, but a law prevents it from being served in restaurants. Something about the lack of a government-run inspection plant.
It seems like every out of towner I met in Whitehorse, whether from another part of Canada or elsewhere, shared this goal of staying warm, hunkering down. Which is ironic, because we were all there to watch 21 people take off for two weeks of extreme winter camping. Twenty-one people and about 250 dogs.
The Yukon Quest is a 1,000-mile dogsled race from Whitehorse to Fairbanks, very much in the same vein as the infamous Iditarod, although it started about a decade later and remains a much smaller event (the 2017 Iditarod will have 74 competitors by comparison). The main reason for the field size difference is because the Iditarod has a bigger purse. The 2016 winner received $70,000 and a $40,000 truck, and the total purse was $797,205. The total purse for the 2017 Yukon Quest field was $120,000.
On the morning of the start, it was minus 5 and painful to watch the teams load up their sleds. They had icicles in their eyebrows as they went over their lists, counting out pounds of dog food and loading on bales of hay (they lay it out for the dogs to sleep on). All the onlookers, myself included, were gripping coffees and shuffling our knees. Good luck to you, I heard someone say to a musher. I’m pretty sure he meant it quite literally. There are times when the teams are hundreds of miles from civilization.
I envisioned the start to be something like a track meet, with the teams all taking off at once down a narrow shoot, jockeying for position. It was the exact opposite. One by one, each team enjoyed its own grand farewell, shoving off slow and steady as their racing and life history was shared over the loudspeaker, as they raised a hand to the onlookers. I guess it makes sense. Based on previous years, it will take the winner at least 8 or 9 days to travel the 1,000 miles. It’s about the same as going from San Diego to Portland, Oregon, only forty or fifty degrees colder. There’s not a huge reason to rush.
The dogs were another story. They were raring to go, and they were loving the weather. I learned that they can’t even run it the summer, because it’s too hot for them. Many of the mushers choose to run at night during the race, for this reason. It was insightful to be able to hang around them and see them up close. It’s easy to let your mind raise an ethical eyebrow to the concept of racing dogs until you spend some time with them and realize how happy they are and how good they are treated. There’s a sense of purpose in them that outshines everything.
As I watched them run off, I wondered about the motivation for a musher. What is so great about being pulled on a sled by a dozen dogs that you would want to do it for 1,000 miles? I rode in a dog sled about three years ago and all I remember is sitting there behind them in a constant stream of dog farts for a few hours. They went down your throat and everything. I couldn’t imagine that being the state of my life for that long in this kind of weather.
When they were all off, I decided to drive out to a place about a half hour from Whitehorse called Muktuk Ranch. It’s an active sled dog kennel, and there’s a small lodge and a couple of cabins there. It’s a place you can hang around a few days to get a feel for the culture of dog sledding. They also offer the opportunity to go mushing, which I learned is a lot different than riding in a dog sled. When you’re riding, you’re sitting in the sled, feeling the bumps and bangs on the bottom and sitting quite literally behind the butts of the dogs.
But mushing, standing on the sled, is a completely different experience. Suddenly you’re a stand-up, forward-flying Superman, gliding through the wilderness, poised to take in the scenery around you, your head positioned comfortably above the jet stream of gas flowing at ground level. It’s like riding a bike or hiking, that feeling of conquering the wilderness, only you’re powered by a dozen dogs. There’s a meditating white noise of the sled – comparable to the sound of your skis as you push through a turn – that melts you into a state of relaxation, traveling beneath the pines, through open valleys, and along the frozen rivers.
I think I get it now. The freedom. The conquest of it. The history of this form of travel. But I just can’t imagine being responsible for that many dogs, and the drive is something that goes beyond the everyday ironman. A few of the competitors who ran the Yukon Quest this year will turn around and race the Iditarod in the beginning of March. That’s 2,000 miles in about a month’s time.
Another two weeks on the trail with a dozen dogs. Another two-week winter camping trip in subzero temperatures. Another group of out-of-town spectators, braving the elements to see the stoic start, taking a break from their whiskey or wine or whatever they need to feel warm.
When traveling to Whitehorse, you can rent Arctic Gear from MW Outfits. You can order ahead of time online for pickup upon arrival.
One thing I would recommend is bringing your own boots, because wearing rental shoes that don’t fit well is the fastest way to fatigue and cold feet. I wore the Vasque Men’s Lost 40 winter boots. They were easy to take on and off, comfy enough to wear all day, sharp enough to wear at night, and most importantly, warm.