The hills overlooking Fish Lake. Sky High Wilderness Ranch.
No misnomer, that. We’re maybe forty kilometres outside of Whitehorse in the Yukon, at the end of a road we climb steadily and sometimes precipitously through snow-laden valleys and slopes the minute we turn off the Alaska Highway.
Sky high. Wilderness.
Vista’s a black-and-white landscape photograph: sometimes voluptuous, sometimes harsh and jagged, statuesque lodge-pole pines, even more statuesque mountains. Oft-coquettish poplar and aspen, sun-glittering leaves in summer, huddled and shivering now in air so cold and crisp if you could grab your condensed breath in your hand you could snap it in two like a long-dead branch.
I’m about to become a Yukon musher.
Feels like it should be silent but it’s not.
Think B-horror movies: stage coach rushing up a mountainside to a Gothic monstrosity well after dark, wailing, howling devil-possessed wolves for a sound track.
That’s what it sounds like this morning – accompanying the instructions of your guide, the arthritic creak of frigid wood in the sled that, along with four of these cavorting, leaping, howling, screeching, overactive dogs, will be, for the next hour or so, at my beck and call, a vehicle that transports me through history in this place of history.
Twelve decades ago the heroes of Canada’s police force plied these very expanses the very same way (memories of “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon and his dog, King” flood my consciousness as I stand here on the shores of the lake waiting for the rest of my party to move out in front of me). Prospectors during the Klondike gold rush once carted gear and dreams in similar conveyances; the empty space on the sled before me, reserved for supplies, for gear, mayhaps for riches, once guarded mailbags.
This is a hands’-on introduction to the elements and a hands’-on lesson in history.
Though it’s not history that rushes to the front of my brain right now. I’m thinking anticipation, anxiety, fear, maybe a touch of muscle tension.
A brake is attached to a line dug into the snow – no surprise they call it an anchor, and a steel contraption on the stern of the sled that looks like half a conibear trap, that you step on with all your weight to make sure the dogs don’t leave home until you leave home.
But the dogs aren’t all that convinced; every once in a while the sled lurches forward. They howl in dismay and impatience, their breath forming little puffs of cloud. They’re ready for a run.
Our guide endeth the lesson, weighs anchor.
Her sled first struggles with inertia then begins to move across the snow, climbing down a gentle hill onto a lake spotlighted by a lonely sun shrouded in cloud, as if too afraid of the cold to step outside – happy merely to gaze at the scene of our party and our dogs traversing the alabaster surface of the lake through a frost-encrusted window.
The next sled moves, the third, now mine in a Domino of dogs.
I am filled with a sense of history, exhilaration, a sense of being at one with nature though I am neither “nature boy” nor any particular friend of winter. For me, snow that doesn’t festoon a Hallmark card is too lifelike, ice outside a highball glass downright rude.
But this is really, really neat.
The wind blows in my face. The runners assault the snow – first the perfect ruler-edge of the lake then the rolling hills in the bush when we go backcountry. There is a constant slithering sound like a snake might make on gravel, the occasional crunch of unbroken snow, an errant thud. The impatient howl and call of the dogs who turn to look at me in disgust whenever I slow down too much or don’t sufficiently assist them climb a hill.
The air is needle-sharp in my lungs, my shoulders tensed and throbbing, like that feeling you get when you water-ski for the very first time. My thighs and quads ache as I try to keep my balance, as I duck beneath that branch I almost didn’t see.
Today, on an February Friday on the shores of Fish Lake in the Yukon Territory, I have pushed myself, I have stretched my own envelops physically and psychically. I have negotiated the frozen surface of a lake, mountain slopes and forest glades in company with a team of dogs who live for this sort of thing. I have become – in the space of an hour, in the distance of somewhere around four miles – a Yukon musher.
Tomorrow I will cheer on my spiritual comrades for the start of the Yukon Quest.
Sure, it’s the coldest day of the entire century – onlookers sporting lacy white frills of frost on their eyelashes, moustaches, parka fringes. Sure they have fourteen dogs and not just four. I’ll admit that mushing through the night, not sleeping for sometimes days at a time, is marginally more taxing than my hour-long exploit, that, in the big scheme of things one more thing that a journey of a thousand miles is more demanding than one of four miles.
But still and all, today I have become one with these twenty-six men and women who have crossed the start line making for Fairbanks, Alaska.
I too, share in the glorious exploits of a Yukon musher.
- Okay, maybe it’s a bit of a stretch to compare my exploits with those who challenge the quest. But I DID say on a “spiritual level!” To check out their exploits and all things Yukon Quest, go to www.yukonquest.com
- To book your own mushing trip in a Yukon winter (or pursue others that might even include some back-country ‘winter camping’) log on to http://www.skyhighwilderness.com/html/winter_tours.php
- For a complete overview of winter Yukon activities check out http://travelyukon.com/Explore/Things-to-do/Winter