Pure Yukon gold

ELSPETH CALLENDER
Last updated 13:33 15/05/2014

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About three in the morning someone yells "team" and the restaurant empties like an overturning sled on a tight corner as people stream out into the freezing night air to see the winner arrive.

Minutes later, the light of an approaching headlamp materialises into a team of 11 bootie-shoed dogs and their rugged-up driver in a massive fur-lined hood. After eight and a half days on the trail, they slide into the finish chute to cheering, mitten-muffled applause and a light media scrum.

Vets check the dogs as the musher hugs his wife, who won this race in 2000, and answers reporters' questions.

"How are you going with tonight's temperature being below minus 35?"

"Oh, I didn't notice it was that cold."

"What part of the race did you most like?"

"Well, I'm really liking right now."

This is the Yukon Quest 1000-mile International Sled Dog Race. It's considered one of the toughest competitions in the world, with weather conditions and terrain so extreme that few compete and even fewer finish the 1600-kilometre wilderness route between Fairbanks (Alaska, USA) and Whitehorse (Yukon Territory, Canada).

This year the race began in Fairbanks, next year the starting line will be in Whitehorse.

Tonight's scene is not unfamiliar; I've been following the race for a week and have watched teams, including this one, arrive at other checkpoints. What feels different is that once the last team crosses this finish line it'll be my turn to mush the Quest trail.

The word "mush" originated from the French verb marcher, meaning to walk or run, and was how French explorers got their dog teams moving: marche! English-speaking Canadians flattened it into a word they already recognised.

Now in its 30th year, the Quest was created to preserve a disappearing practice. Before snowmobiles, dogsledding was the sole mode of powered winter transport for First Nations, European explorers, mail and freight carriers, trappers and gold rushers in what is now northern Canada and Alaska. The Quest trail follows their traditional routes.

With enough exposure, the Yukon Quest gets under your skin. The finishing line is exciting, but nothing beats a few days at the halfway checkpoint of Dawson City where teams take a compulsory 36-hour break.

During the short-lived Klondike gold rush, this riverside settlement was a city of 30,000 by 1898. Today's 1200 locals still live with that era's infrastructure and, especially in winter, you feel the heartbeat but sense the ghost town.

With an old paddle steamer in dry dock as backdrop, teams pull up outside the well heated Dawson checkpoint. Bright-eyed home-schooled children, who've just performed a season of the musical Cats, serve homemade food. Bill takes over for the nightshift; he's been comfortably living in a nearby cave for nearly two decades.

Another friendly checkpoint face is Harvey. He spends winters mushing in Alaska and the Yukon based out of a Chevrolet Suburban fitted with dog boxes and a wood stove, and never misses watching the Quest.

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Mushing doesn't discriminate; this year's race entrants are aged between 22 and 61, and Harvey would certainly be entitled to seniors' discounts if he wasn't so far under the radar.

Quest mushers carry a SPOT device, which helps predict arrival times. During gaps between teams I snowmobile the Quest trail with local Tr'ondek Hwech'in man, Tommy Taylor, to Fort Reliance.

Another time I take a ski plane to the remote "dog drop" of Scroggie Creek. The vet and volunteers stationed at the cabin talk of mushers teaming up across the treacherously steep Eagle Summit and of sneaking out of checkpoints when competitors are snoring.

By the time I'm back in Whitehorse at the finish line, it's as clear as the night sky during an arctic high that the Yukon Quest truly represents, as cornball as it sounds, the spirit of the north.

After the Meet the Mushers evening and Finish Banquet I head out to Muktuk for a 10-day Run the Quest Trail tour. Although only 20 minutes from Whitehorse, the property feels incredibly remote. In a territory the size of South Australia with a population of 35,000, that's not hard.

"It's all about the dogs," is a favourite saying of Muktuk's owner, Frank Turner. This former Quest addict discovered dogsledding around mid-life and, despite pushing 70, has maintained the fanaticism of a born-again anything. The superb condition and excellent temperament of his dogs and the relatively regular turnover of admin staff are testament.

Like real Quest mushers, the sleeping situation for the tour is a mixture of four cosy walls and trailside camping. Log cabins dotted around the wooded acreage of Muktuk are accommodation for the few days before and after the camping trip.

Out on the trail it's essentially an unheated tent, give or take a few minutes of propane-generated warmth for getting into and out of sleeping bags. "It helps if part of your personality is a little bit masochistic," as Turner says.

Joining my tour are a Swiss couple and a retired nuclear power plant foreman from Virginia who has dogsledded with Muktuk for seven consecutive winters. Elmer wanders the lodge in a onesie between belting out Johnny Cash ballads on an out-of-tune guitar. On the trail he wears a big red jacket and yells "whoohoo" around the corners like some cowboy Santa.

I've dogsledded before and brush up during a daytrip. After coming off on the same downhill bend twice, it all starts to come back. Experienced mushers don't always realise how back-to-basics we sled dorks need to go; when I ask Turner for some pointers that evening, he launches into acrobatic moves appropriate behind 14 race dogs at top speed.

Another challenge is caring for both you and a team of dogs, whatever the weather. In February, Whitehorse is a dry cold ranging from around zero to minus 50 degrees. Just like heat, varying degrees of cold are significantly different once you've experienced the whole gamut. After minus 35 degrees, anything over minus 20 degrees is the Bahamas.

Our guide, Jeff, is calm and capable and says it as it is: "You will get cold". Damaris joins us and, like most dog-handling volunteers at Muktuk, is smart, kind and extraordinarily strong.

In an arctic climate, current conditions have the last word. A warm January shifted the Quest finish line to Takhini Hot Springs and, the trail further north is too icy to safely start at Carmacks so we get on the Quest trail at Muktuk and aim for Braeburn.

It's chaos before we go: dogs hooked up to the sleds are straining to run while those left behind bark like mad.

After two hours of mushing the Takhini River we meet the Dawson Trail, constructed in 1902 as a route between Whitehorse and Dawson when rivers froze and the paddle steamers were hauled onshore.

Forest trails are far more technical and physically demanding than the river. To save dogs from fatigue, it's suggested you run alongside the sled on the uphills. It's tiring, but keeps you warm.

The view, when I look around, is almost too much to process. Under a matt-blue sky, I'm travelling with six beautiful sled dogs - all a striking mix of husky, labrador, collie, shepherd - through a landscape of endlessly rolling icing-coated mountains out beyond the sparse trailside stands of spruce and aspen.

With 30 kilometres behind us, we reach the first night's camp well before dark. After tending to the dogs, tents are erected while Jeff cooks and Damaris chainsaws fallen trees for firewood.

February, at this latitude, is a superb wintery month; well past the darkness of solstice, daylight increases by around five minutes every day. By nightfall we're settled around the fire, resting cups of hot chocolate against full bellies listening to Elmer recite Yukon poems and tell tall tales of past trips in his gravelly voice: "the only thing that made it worthwhile was day five, when it all went to hell".

Overnight, I'm compensated for the bitter agony of getting up to urinate with a brilliant sky of wandering green light.

In the morning we feed our frosty-faced dogs while Jeff brews coffee and grills elk sausages. As the morning warms to a balmy minus 15 degrees we hook up the dogs and hit the trail.

For a few days, this is life.

Having Elmer along is like travelling with a Sourdough, the name used in Klondike times for men who'd survived their first northern winter. For generations, people have been drawn here; some take a bite and that's enough while others thrive and return to feast on the place and feel more at home in the Yukon than anywhere.

In fact, most of this year's Quest mushers originated further south in Ontario, Saskatchewan, Minnesota, Arkansas and cities like New York and Chicago, but now live in the Yukon and Alaska.

Driving my dogs down a Coney Island-style slippery dip section of the trail on to Little Braeburn Lake, I get it: dogsledding is good old-fashioned adventure in a modern world.

"Whoohoo!"

The writer was a guest of Tourism Yukon and Canadian Tourism Commission.

GETTING THERE

Fly to Vancouver and then to Whitehorse (2hr 35min; see aircanada.com). Air North flies from Whitehorse to Dawson from around CA$450 (NZ$480) return for the 75-minute flight; see flyairnorth.com.

SEE + DO

The Yukon Quest starts in Whitehorse on February 7, 2015. See yukonquest.com.

Fishwheel Charter Services offers snowmobile excursions from Dawson during winter. Email fishwheel007@northwestel.net.

Alpine Aviation offers charter flights year round. See alpineaviationyukon.com.

Muktuk's Run the Quest Trail tour costs about CA$3150 (NZ$3340). Some dog-sledding experience is recommended. See muktuk.com.

Cathers offers a similar Quest trail tour with sled school and heated tent accommodation. See cathersadventures.com.

MORE INFORMATION travelyukon.comcanada.travel.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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