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Channelling husky

This story was published in Australian Geographic Outdoor May/June 2017

In the dead of every subarctic winter, teams of bootie-shoed husky dogs and fur-clad mushers race a 1600km wilderness course between Whitehorse, Yukon, and Fairbanks, Alaska. The trail is a collection of historic northern winter transport and travel routes across a frozen landscape of immobilised rivers and snow-filled forests and exposed mountaintops. Depending on conditions, surfaces can be anything from fresh powder to bare ice. Checkpoints and hospitality stops are few.

The Yukon Quest is now over 30 years old and, these days, any visitor to the Yukon can mush a team of huskies on accessible sections of the trail with a local kennel, post-race. I first mushed when I was new to the Yukon with the unexpected result of spontaneous blubbing from an eyes-meet-eyes moment with my lead dogs as we crossed a powdery white lake on a bluebird day. A multiday mushing and camping tour on the Quest trail with Muktuk Adventures the following winter also produced an unforseen outcome: veteran champ Frank Turner’s broken record mantra “it’s all about the dogs” forced me to contemplate the canine perspective.

Back in Australia again, the desire to wear lightweight footwear and a harness and drag a sled for days along that snowy trail intensified and took shape as an expedition idea. I knew I’d hit on something special when Yukon locals emailed with “Off your meds again, Callender?” and “Love it… you crazy thing” and the tourism people flatly refused to support the trip due to safety and outfitting concerns.

Plans were made to return to the Yukon the following winter to channel husky.

Finding a mate

Canada’s most north-western territory is just under 500,000km2 with a population of just over 35,000. Its silence, space and limited distractions are a common catalyst for personal epiphanies. Its magnetic pull, spoken of in whispers and song, can be easily dismissed as nonsense until you find yourself flying back there every six months.

Extreme places attract extreme personalities and I already knew a suitable northerner who’d be up for this trip.

I first met Fluffy – his name has been changed to protect his identity – at a New Year’s Eve party in a huge fire-warmed shed on the capital’s outskirts when the outside temperature was thirty below. This was my virgin visit to the Yukon and I’d returned that day from Kluane National Park where the nightly comedown of motel accommodation between snowshoeing daytrips had fuelled what I thought was an impossible fantasy of camping out in the wintery landscape.

It was an immediate connection with Fluffy when I said “I don’t give a rat’s trap about the Yukon Quest” (back when I didn’t) and he said “me neither, I was the executive director for seven years”. The following summer we canoed a wild Yukon river and established we could get on for a week as long as he didn’t hum.

Originally from Ontario, Fluffy was a wilderness white water canoe and dogsledding guide before going exec for the Quest. A fit mid-50s, he has puppy-like energy to burn, the enthusiasm for outdoor adventure of a Boy’s Own Magazine cover kid and a body shape his acupuncturist once described as “good for pushing cars out of ditches”.

There’s a point to all this detail: it’s not a decision I made lightly. The grizzlies may be snoozing when the snow lies thick on the Yukon ground and I might well have scoffed at every conservative opinion on my travel plans, but the wrong companion in a subarctic winter wilderness expedition can quite easily mean the end of your life.

In turn, Fluffy double-checks he understands my intentions: to haul sleds along the Quest trail between two Yukon checkpoints right after the race has gone though so the way is clear, the snow is packed and the surface ice on lakes and rivers well tested. When he’s confirmed there’ll be no obligation to wear connecting neck ropes, sleep outside on straw, eat frozen fish offal or piddle on the go he agrees to do it.

Preparing for paw conditions

Yukon winters are typically so cold and dry that freshly fallen snow can be shaken off like confetti. Yet, like dry heat, dry cold is far more manageable than the damp alternative, which is why ‘crisp’ is such a positive word and ‘soggy’ is not.

Although we could be facing temperatures as low as –52ºC, the range is more likely to be around the minus 20s and 30s. That’s what we’re hoping for. Not cold enough can be as much a danger as too cold on northern winter routes.

Yukon Quest Champion, Bruce Johnson, fell through the ice while training on Little Atlin Lake in the mid-1990s and the entire team – human and animals – perished. With this in mind we fashion a looped strap-and-rope system for pulling our sleds so we don’t stay physically attached to them in the unlikely event we break through thin ice.

The Quest always starts in February, the best month for winter travel at this latitude. Well past the darkness of solstice – way back on 21 December – there are over nine daylight hours by mid-February.

As part of my pre-expedition research, I read Jack London’s To build a fire. This sobering fictional short story, published in 1902 and set in the Yukon wilderness, skates around and then smashes into the reality of the human body’s utter fragility in a severely cold climate.

Like serious frostbite, its chilling message becomes a permanent part of me.

Growing a winter coat

Over the next few months emails fly back and forth on subjects like the best sunglass lenses against snow blindness, number of sleeping mats needed between a body in a bag and bare snow, schools of thought on multiple sock and glove layering, early signs of frostbite, why wolverine is the superior parka ruff fur.

My tent, stove, sled, threads and food research keeps leading me to a particular North American traditional winter trekker and camper’s site where my steepest learning curve is in the haberdashery department.

Our clothing must protect us from cold, catch and trap body heat and release moisture. Nothing new, just the same old requirements in extreme conditions. Most modern hiking gear is weightless, warm and wind resistant but not adequately breathable for intensive activity or resistant to sparks. Because our weight restrictions are relatively loose, the solution is layers of good old-fashioned woollen garments over our thermals and, the biggest surprise, an outer shell of cotton.

During the year, I find heavy wool shirts and trousers and a cotton anorak in an army surplus store in Prague, borrow a Norwegian woollen jumper from a friend and order felt-lined hide and canvas boots from Wisconsin.

We organise ourselves a fancy First Nations-style high-density polyethylene toboggan and, for a second one, revamp a borrowed plastic sled usually used for dragging firewood around a suburban Yukon yard. Fluffy lashes out and buys himself the handmade treated canvas winter trekking tent and compatible wood fire stove he’s always wanted.

Because this winter camping trip was only ever going to happen with a heated tent in tow.

I’ve done ‘cold camping’ in the Yukon and, without being preceded by an f-word adjective, the phrase is an absurd understatement. My experience was a dogsledding tour advertised as a multiday heated tent camping expedition, but in-tent warmth consisted of just a few minutes of blasted radiance at each end of the day to ease the agony of transition between massive parka and double sleeping bag. On the second morning of that trip, someone sharing my tent kept the heat on for half an hour, claiming to be looking for a sock, while the rest of us were outside eating breakfast with frost forming around our faces. So that was the end of the propane.

Without nightly respite from that degree of cold, the unrelenting frigidity spreads out around you like an ocean and incites obsessive preoccupation with an imaginary warm island whose possible existence taunts mercilessly from far beyond the cruel horizon.

At –33ºC in a damp sleeping bag under a ceiling of crystal stalactites, I lay awake for hours one night in genuine fear for my life and even sat up at some stage to start removing clothes. But then I got it together and calmed my breathing and lay back down.

This time we’ll be curling up fireside every evening like retired lead dogs in a musher’s cosy cabin.

Sniffing out the trail

After the last Quest team crosses the Whitehorse finish line it snows for a couple of days while we’re making final arrangements for transport. We’ve chosen the stretch between Braeburn and Carmacks because it’s forested and we need firewood, undulations are minor so we can cover a reasonable distance each day, and both checkpoints – one a roadhouse and the other a town – are within 200 highway kilometres of Whitehorse.

Instead of leaving from Carmacks and closely paralleling the highway for at least a day, we choose to be delivered 30km east of town – just past the Columbian Disaster lookout on Robert Campbell Highway – with a plan to locate the Quest trail on the other side of the Yukon River.

We’re under an arctic high so it’s a blue windless day in the low minus 20s. A hundred kilometres lie between us and Braeburn.

The sides of the Territory’s longest river are lined with jumble ice where the surging current and fluctuating temperature in early winter confused the freeze, but locals’ snowmobile tracks show the way through. The toboggans slide well on the packed trail. We walk single file up river, slowly stripping down to maintain what winter trekkers call ‘the edge of cold’.

The sun on our faces tricks our skin into thinking it’s being warmed. My mukluks are sock-light and silent on the snow. The discomfort of leaving a warm car to pack gear in the freezing air has been replaced by a chest-expanding urge to journey into this landscape I have the ever-increasing sense I’ve always known.

Yukon terrain is essentially river valleys, plateaus and mountain ranges. Vegetation is mainly evergreen-dominated boreal forest of small spruce, pine and aspen or colourful tundra at higher altitudes and in the arctic north.

On the far side of the river we have a steep uphill haul through spruce forest ravaged a decade earlier; the countless black poles stand in the snow like spent sparklers still on a cake. The temperature drops with the sinking sun.

At the top of the slope we intersect with the Quest trail.

Bedding down

Making camp takes hours and the cold drains our energy reserves like birch trees harvested of sap.

In hardwood snowshoes with rawhide lacing we march like toy soldiers, back and forth, to pack down a solid base. After jointly erecting the tent, chores are split for time efficiency – one starts the fire and cooks dinner while the other chops, saws, carries and stacks wood.

We always overdo the firewood to avoid this imagined scenario: we wake in the early hours to a tent drained of heat and no cut wood; half asleep with limited light and in the wrong shoes one of us goes outside to use an axe or saw; we slip and fall or cut a hand and need attention; one down, both getting colder and still no wood.

When outside work is done, mukluks are hung to dry from the ceiling of our little canvas kennel in the woods and replaced with cushy down booties. I inevitably fall into a dribbling power nap while Fluffy does the finishing touches on the evening chores, such as melting snow for the next day’s water supply. Though, when I’m the nightly fire keeper, I wake every couple of hours and methodically restack the glowing belly as if I’ve done it all my life.

One night, Fahrenheit and Celsius rendezvous outside at minus 40o but we don’t notice. There are no stalactites here.

Following our noses

Apart from fiddling with fabrics and nightly chores – necessary for creatures with limited natural resistance to cold – I’ve never felt so dogish in my life during our week of eat, pee, poo, walk, sleep.

Each day begins with voracious consumption of fatty, sugary foods. When full, a compulsion to get moving kicks in. The arctic high holds all week and such great weather, gear and planning culminate in an idyllically uneventful trip; the height of problem solving is sighting the next orange and black track marker.

The silent white trail, carrying the scent and memory of so many dogs before us, cancels out pretty much everything but here and now.

We trot across vast white lakes, lope down snowy slopes and pad through copper-coloured forests of unburnt spruce – shabby with age and stunted from cold – to find stories in the snow: blood and feathers that tell of a struggle and a meal; yellow and brown smudges around trees colourfully illustrate team pit stops. Across our path, on and under layers of snow, are the footprints and hoofprints and claw prints of squirrel, chipmunk, lynx, wolf, moose, coyote, fox, hare, wolverine, river otter, marten, fisher, raven, magpie, chickadee and whiskey-jack.

There’s such hypnotic steadiness to the whole trip – a purity of focus that comes from building a routine in survival mode – that when it’s all over and we drop our loops in Braeburn, the relief at coming to the end of a week of constant exertion wrestles with an instinctivity to take up the slack and keep going.

“How was Aurora?” friends ask, because it was apparently awesome and spectacular that week, but the question makes me quadrupedally inarticulate. Head cocked to one side and eyebrows in a twitch, I wonder how I can explain that all I had the energy and inclination to do each night was scoff elk and bison smokies then stretch out in front of the fire and chase rabbits in my sleep.

Thanks to: Snowtrekker Canvas Tents www.snowtrekkertents.com and Black River Sleds www.blackriversleds.com for their generous support and fabulous equipment. More information: www.wintertrekking.com

Published in travel stories