Shirley LaPlanche

journalist / photographer / author

Gone to the Dogs

Mushing dogs in Yukon in a tricky skill and the famous Yukon Quest is a gruelling race.

From the moment I arrived at Whitehorse and was outfitted with special ‘arctic’ clothes I knew this was going to be a very different holiday. Now, listening to the driver and our guide talking about temperatures below 50C, mushers, sourdoughs, hallucinating, coyotes, bears and The Quest, my ears are flapping. I’m an adventure junkie and I am not to be disappointed.

We are driving along the Alaska Highway to meet Sebastian Schnuelle of Blue Adventure Tours to learn the art of mushing. At his camp new snow has blocked the driveway but no problem, he hitches a toboggan to his snowmobile and off we go bouncing towards the kennels. On seeing us the dogs set up a howling that bounces off the mountains shattering the peace of this vast World Heritage listed wilderness.

The dogs are surprisingly small and have strangely pale eyes, often of different colours. Sebastian explains they are mixed breeds with greyhound for speed, husky for willingness, shepherd for intelligence and so on. What they all have is an overwhelming desire to run and they are incredibly strong. When the dog I am leading to my sled decides to hurry up, it just takes off dragging me along as though I don’t exist.

Having learnt the commands and the basics of keeping the sled upright around corners, we choose a partner and trot off into the wilderness. And there is plenty of that. I am in the Yukon, a Canadian Northwest Territory, a bit bigger than California with a population of 31,000 people, 50,000 moose and 185,000 caribou. This is where, with luck, you see the northern lights, or aurora borealis, wavering and dancing in streams of pale yellow, lime green, blues, even pink into red (best time October to May). They are created by solar dust particles which are attracted by Earth’s magnetic field into rings around the polar regions, where they excite gases in the upper atmosphere making them glow like neon lights.

At first I sit in the sled and my partner mushes. This puts me at a level where I have a furry view of wagging tails and wobbling heads, and in a direct line of the fumes the dogs expel as they warm up. When we change places the air is fresher but I quickly realise there is more to mushing than standing on the sled admiring the view. The dogs are so eager I’m flat out keeping them behind the team in front. To slow them down I can stand on a rubber flap which drags in the snow and steadies them, or I can stop them by standing on a pair of sharp claws which dig into the ground. With my light weight, however, they barely notice I’m there and mostly just keep going. Oh for a pair of reins or a key to switch off!

As well as keeping them in line behind the others, I have to run alongside to balance the sled around corners and to lighten the load up hills. In no time I’m sweltering inside my arctic clothes but eventually I master it and settle down to enjoy myself. We are trotting through a forest of pale trunks, icicles glistening in the sun and silent, frozen creeks. The sky is blue and the air so crisp it could snap. My lead dogs flick their ears listening for my commands and I am overwhelmed by admiration for their power and intelligence.

As we jog along I think of the competitors I meet two days earlier at the start of the 1000-mile Yukon Quest at Whitehorse. This is one of the most gruelling races humans willingly enter. It will take the 32 mushers with 14-dogs each about 14 days to race from Whitehorse to Fairbanks in Alaska. They told me they hallucinate from sleep deprivation and nod off on the back of the sled. They have a mandatory 36-hour layover at Dawson City, roughly half way, where I’ll catch up with them again.

The next day we go snowmobiling and until you have thrown a leg over a snowmobile you can’t imagine the thrill it gives. Powerful and low they are propelled from the back and steered by two skids. Everyone in the Yukon owns one or two and small tour operators offer day, weekend and longer tours. With 300 km of groomed and ungroomed trails around Whitehorse and another 600km of mining and forestry trails further north at Dawson City and Watson Lake there is plenty of space for everyone. I found myself hurtling along valleys, hills, forests and frozen lakes at speeds reaching 50km/h which is scary stuff when the snow from the machine in front is in your eyes and your pillion passenger is screaming in your ear.

My next mushing experience is with a family of ‘sourdoughs’, a sort of Australian bushie. Some claim you are a sourdough after one winter, others say it takes 10 years. Mar and Ted Cathers raised their two children here and have been running wilderness tours since 1974 so there is no doubt about their sourdough qualifications.

We set off in an orderly line across the vast paleness of Lake Laberge, which is frozen solid (we hope). We stop for a camp fire lunch at a clump of white trees that Ted says is a pretty island in summer. He tells stories of the wilderness and explains that the strip of rainbow colours beside the sun is called a ‘sun dog’. It only appears on very sunny, cold days.

Later, warming up in their cabin, Mar shows us photos of the countryside in summer when they take groups on canoeing and walking tours and the dogs carry the packs. Everything that is white now is green in the photos. They say the Yukon is a different world in summer, and I believe them and want to come back.

By now The Quest teams are arriving at Dawson City. During the Klondike Gold Rush in the late 1800s Dawson City had a population of 30,000. Today it has 2000 but it is a national historic site and many of the grand old buildings, gambling halls and wooden boardwalks remain. You can still gamble at Diamond Tooth Gerties, boo and cheer to the Gaslight Follies Musical Revue, pan for gold and ride a paddlewheeler (in summer when the river has thawed).

The river is so frozen huge trucks drive over it and The Quest mushers have icicles dangling from their beards as they dig sleeping areas for their dogs in the deep snow. Vets check the dogs. Some are withdrawn because of sore feet, poor conditions, dehydration or other problems. Ten teams do not reach Dawson City or don’t go on.

The final 855km includes two difficult climbs – American Summit and Eagle Summit – both over 1000 metres. A leading competitor is unable to get his dogs to go over Eagle Summit and he scratches letting Andrew Lesh with nine dogs still running, into second place. But it is commercial fisherman Tim Osmar of Alaska who glides over the finishing line with 10 dogs after 12 days to win the US$30,000 prize money. He says he has never had a race go so well. “I’ve had a couple work out pretty dam good but this is pretty perfect,” he says tossing down a Budweiser.

NOTE: in 2021 the Yukon Quest was cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.