Dogsledding in the Tombstones, Part One

Winter camping in the Yukon wilderness is definitely an acquired taste.  A few years ago I spent a February week with some very hardy participants mushing dog teams on part of the Yukon Quest trail.  My fellow adventurers were from Europe and Montreal, had never done anything like this before, but were game to give it their best effort.  I never heard a word of complaint, but short days and long nights where the temperature often dipped to -30c wore on all of us.  As an experienced snow camper I was probably the only one who was really having fun, and even I agreed, halfway through the trip, that a return to the lodge, where we could do day trips, would be a good idea.

This year I decided to try a spring trip, where the sun would give warmth and the longer days would allow time to relax after the dogs were tended to and camp set up.

Once again I arrive at the Uncommon Journeys Homestead near Whitehorse, eager to meet my fellow adventurers and explore a new region: the Tombstone Range north of Dawson City.   There are two young men from Manhattan and Susan, a somewhat older woman, from Washington D.C.  To my dismay I discover that they all had expected to be sleeping in heated yurts on the trip, only learning the brutal truth a few days before.

Uncommon Journeys is run by Rod and Martha Taylor and offers novice mushers a chance to experience the historic method of winter travel in northern Canada.  Many of their dogs are veterans of the Iditarod and Yukon Quest races; all are cuddly, fully socialized creatures that are willing to put up with a new set of greenhorns every week.  The dog yard contains about 70 animals and anyone is allowed to go in, unescorted, at any time to play with them.

We get some instruction from Rod on how to handle our sleds

and sit down to a delicious dinner in the elegant main building.

Next morning, Monday, we board a plane for Dawson City, outfitted with arctic parkas, pants, boots, sundries and large duffels.  After a one-hour flight, we are picked up by Chris, our head guide, and driven to a campground on the Yukon River, where we meet Paul and Melissa, the 2 assistant guides.  Paul is a delightful young man from South Africa who is seeking adventure around the world for a few years before settling down.  Melissa is a nurse who took a leave of absence to work with the dogs this winter, her second with Uncommon Journeys.  We will spend our first days on the river, perfecting our skills.

The dogs were trucked up from Whitehorse the day before and are staked out on lines, resting on straw.

Chris shows us how to pack our sleds before we harness the dogs and hook them up.

Words cannot adequately convey the chaos 0f 28 dogs jumping, howling, pulling on the lines, eager to be off and running the instant the first harness appears. People who claim that mushing is cruel must never have seen sled dogs in action; the cruelty they fear most is being left behind.

In addition to our dog teams we have 2 snow machines, each pulling a skimmer loaded with camp gear and food.  When all is ready, Chris drives her machine a short way down the campground road and stops.  Each sled is released in turn, the dogs galloping madly until we drag them to a halt behind Chris.  Paul and Melissa gather the remaining equipment and stakeout lines and drive their snow machine up to the group.

The turn onto the river is deemed too technical for us, so Melissa and Paul take each of our sleds.   Once on the river we find the first few turns too challenging for our feeble skills.  I think 2 people lost their sleds almost immediately and only blind luck kept me from being number 3.   Good weather and beautiful scenery pass unnoticed as we are busy trying to control the speed of the dogs and keep the sleds upright.

We manage only about 11 miles this day;  although the dogs can travel at  7-8 mph, the sun is hot and we have to pause a few times to rest them (or to reunite a fallen driver with his or her sled).

Camp is set up on the river – a time-consuming process.  First the stakeout lines have to be attached to ice screws, so Paul and Melissa go ahead to do this.  One at a time the sleds drive up, and the dogs are unhitched, unharnessed and staked out.

The dogs are only half the battle.  We have to put on snowshoes and stamp out platforms for our individual tents and the huge cook tent.

The lads from New York are quite out of their element, while Susan, who grew up in Minnesota, is at least familiar with winter.  Erecting the tents requires some know-how, so we are slow this first time.  Meanwhile, Chris starts the propane burner in the cook tent and begins melting a huge pot of snow, while Melissa and Paul give the dogs some broth.  The tent soon becomes a steam bath because  Chris has to bring the water to a boil with the stove raging.  Once boil is achieved, she turns down the flame and we go inside.

We have camp seats that most people put on the snow, but Chris, Susan and I get buckets to sit on – much easier! Our dinners were individually frozen in plastic bags at the Homestead, to be placed in boiling water to heat.  We eat out of the bags, leaving no dishes to wash.  Hot drinks follow, then the dogs have to be fed.  The four of us retire to our tents, while the guides sleep in the big tent, along with one or two lucky dogs.  End of an exhausting day.

Although I provided my own sleeping bag, the others are using a very warm double-bag system from Uncommon Journeys.  The Manhattan contingent, in their innocence, decide that they need to use only one of the bags: by morning they are half frozen and wondering what they have got themselves into.  Susan uses both bags, but is still cold.  I sleep like a baby.

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