“Why in God’s name would you do that?”
The Peace Arch border agent stared at me like I’d lost my mind. I just told him that I was traveling to the Yukon. It was January 7th.
“Do you how cold it gets? They don’t call it the Great White North for nothing.” Then he looked at my car. “Tell me you’re not driving there.”
It all started last October over coffee with my friend, Brenda. I was lamenting having never seen the Northern Lights. “I want to try dog mushing, too,” I added. “And I want to see a moose.”
“You could see a moose in Yellowstone,” she said.
“Canadian Moose, Brenda.”
She smiled. “Well, I’m staying in Skagway, Alaska, for three months this winter. Why don’t you come see me for a week? Go through Whitehorse.”
Two months later I was landing at Whitehorse International Airport, excited about being in “real” winter, going mushing, seeing moose, and maybe catching some Northern Lights. The car rental agent warned me that the Great White North wasn’t white yet. Temps had been unseasonably warm she explained. Then she assured me a drop was expected. “We’ll get snow,” she said. “Don’t you worry, eh?”
As a native West Coaster, I romanticize winter. I love skiing and snowshoeing, white trees and snowflakes, puffy jackets and hot toddys. My brother Bob lives in Fargo, North Dakota. His point of view is much more…um, sober. “Get real,” he says. “You can’t go driving around the Yukon in the middle of January. It’s not some pansy should-I-wear-extra-socks kind of winter. It’s serious freeze-your-eyeballs-in-a-matter-of-seconds winter. People die out there. And don’t get me started about the bears!” I didn’t bother to mention that bears hibernate.
By the time I reached my Airbnb, it was 25 degrees Fahrenheit and dropping. I unloaded my suitcase and huffed through the side yard gate where my friendly host waited. We stepped inside to warm up.
“Welcome to Whitehorse,” she said pulling off her mittens and touk. “It’s going to be a cold one tonight. You got a block heater?”
“Block heater?” I said.
“Ah, so you don’t know about block heaters then.” She spoke with a cheery lilt, ending most sentences on a characteristically Canadian up note.
“We use ‘em to keep the cars from freezing you know. So. I’ll plug you into ours tonight. Remember to unplug it before you leave.” Then she added, “Mind the gate, eh? We lock it so take the key with you.”
The next morning I bundled up and grabbed my backpack, ready to head for Sky High Wilderness Ranch and do some mushing. I stepped outside only to reel backwards, body slammed by -17 degrees Fahrenheit cold. Didn’t Bob say something about freezing eyeballs? No matter. I turtled down into my thick neck scarf, clutched the lock key for fast insertion, and stomped toward the gate. I stuck the gate key between my teeth to free up my hand and instantly regretted the decision. In a microsecond my tongue froze to the key blade and my bottom lip to the bow.
I tugged lightly. Ow.
This is stupid, I thought. That’s when I yanked. Hard.
You don’t know misery until you come to the realization that it is impossible to sip that delicious first cup of coffee because you froze your mouth on frozen metal.
Sky High Wilderness Ranch was located five minutes down the highway, then 15 miles up Fish Lake Road. Clean white snow sparkled through acres of wilderness pines rolling in every direction. I passed maybe one other car. This was serious middle-of-nowhere territory, so the absence of moose sightings was a little disappointing.
The isolation ended at Sky High Ranch. There were already two large groups of Japanese tourists returning on their skidoos. Apparently, Yukon winter tourism booms with Japanese nationals. The Japanese enjoy guided, somewhat cushy wilderness adventures and Whitehorse isn’t far from Japan by air. My two companions, Brenda and Becky, were also there, waiting for me with more delicious coffee that I couldn’t sip.
Bad news greeted us. Our full day excursion had been cancelled because of the biting temps. I questioned the decision, explaining how I liked pushing myself and enjoyed physical challenge. Our guide, a sturdy, bearded fellow named Joe who looked every inch the musher, helped me understand.
“It’s negative 20, Dawn. A shorter mush will still give you plenty of challenge and—bonus points—you won’t freeze to death.”
The ranch offered cold weather fun in profusion: skidoos, ice fishing, cross country skiing, snowshoeing, mushing, and other winter activities. However, the one constant throughout the area were the dogs. No matter where you were, you either saw them, heard them, or both.
Sky High has up to 200 dogs in residence, each chained to a doghouse with a flat roof and the dog’s name painted over the door. The dogs enjoy standing on top of their roofs like goats. The barking is a way of saying, ME! ME! ME! PICK ME! whenever a sled is being provisioned. They all get plenty of exercise and love to mush but live separately to prevent hooliganism.
Sky High also serves as a husky retirement center, sheltering older racing dogs and giving them opportunities to continue mushing for fun. Everyone there loves the dogs. Joe has a personal favorite who keeps him warm at night (so he says). His dog ran alongside us during our outing, barking encouragement.
Becky and I were each assigned four Alaskan Huskies. (Siberian Huskies are less common for mushing, thought to be somewhat wussier.) It was just the two of us with Joe. Brenda opted for a different experience.
Joe was a kind, tolerant man of few words who’d clearly done this a million times. As the dogs were being selected and leashed up, he offered us sage advice. “Hang on tight when we first get started because the dogs are excited and can jerk you off the back. If your sled tips over, don’t let go of the handlebar no matter what. It slows the sled and keeps the dogs from plowing into the person in front of you. Then tip the sled upright, jump back on, and get going again.”
I was a little anxious but hanging on to a sled seemed pretty simple in comparison with surfing, rough water kayaking, and other skills I’d acquired. Maybe I’d even see a moose. It was only later that I learned how multifaceted dog mushing can be. It requires a strong sense of balance as well as great strength and endurance. The sled has two brakes: the claw brake for hard stops and the soft brake for controlling speed. Its steering is nuanced by leaning on different parts of the left and right skis as well as the middle. Results vary depending on snow and weather conditions. Add in the complexities of dog training, leash management, first aid (animal and human), the ability to read terrain as well as weather patterns, and a rich indigenous tradition, and you have an utterly fascinating, compelling, completely unique sport.
We lined up single file with Joe in front, me in the middle, and Becky bringing up the rear. As Joe took off, I leaned heavy on my claw brake to prevent the dogs from lurching. Then he signaled me to step off and the dogs practically leaped into the air. With no shock absorbers, I held tight and tried to keep my knees soft as the sled clattered and bounced down the trail.
It wasn’t long before we reached the flat of lake. That was when the dogs really took off. The exhilaration made me laugh out loud only to have the cold suck the sound away. Sky High made sure to properly outfit us with parkas, goggles, scarves, gloves, winter pants and warm boots but the cold still managed to burn my face.
As we flew across the ice, I was hanging on with one hand while pushing my neck gaiter up with the other. My lips were already numb. Then we hit land (I do mean hit). Due to the area’s unusual lack of snow, our track was rutted and deeply U shaped. Whenever the dogs made turns, they tended to bank off the side, tilting the sled with bushes hitting me in the face. This led to my first crash.
I crashed twice more. My first two collisions were with bushes, but I consoled myself by effectively hanging on with both hands while sliding sideways through the snow. Once everything stopped, I righted the sled, shouted “I’m okay!” and continued the run.
The third crash was uglier. As usual, the dogs banked hard, I tipped over and slid sideways, but this time I couldn’t grip the handlebar. The sled banged away from me, dragged up to the front team with much canoodling as a result. Joe quietly untangled us, asked me if I wanted to go back yet, and we carried on without much ado.
I racked my brain trying to figure out what I did wrong. Even worse, I knew I’d go down again if I didn’t improve. Sadly, Joe wasn’t the greatest at detailed correction.
“You gotta lean more,” he said.
“Yes, Joe, but which way do I lean? I tried both directions and still capsized the sled.”
“It depends on which way you’re going.”
Becky couldn’t explain it either. She had more experience than I but not enough to articulate how she remained upright while I kept crashing.
During lunch I pondered my dilemma. Then a light bulb blinked in my brain. Mimicking! I always shadowed my instructors in their kayaks and copied their movements. It was how I learned.
After the break, I stayed close enough to Joe to watch his body on the sled. I transferred weight when he did, moved my feet between the claw brake, the soft brake and the skis when he did, hopped off and on like he did, even bent at the waist or stood up straight just like him. It took a lot of concentration, but I was staying upright and getting a feel for the sport.
Toward the end of the tour, we were hitting a lot of roots and obstructions, so I pondered other aspects of my kayak training. For example, I let the dogs run faster to glide over obstructions instead of colliding with them, as in a river. I kept my grip solid on the handlebar but not tense, similar to holding a paddle. I let my hips bounce and roll with the sled while my upper body stayed centered, as in choppy seas. And whenever I could give the dogs their head, it was breathtaking. Like surfing.
When we finally returned to the ranch, I was physically and emotionally spent. Joe was right, a half-day was plenty. For the next 48 hours I contended with sore muscles and raw peeling skin, but it wasn’t any worse than my tongue. Everything heals eventually.
I’d like to return in a year or so for a two- or three-day trek. I’ll be able to better prepare myself with proper conditioning. I’ll also carry lots of extra face protection and I won’t bite into stray keys or other metal objects. I might even see a Canadian moose.
By the way, they really do say “Mush!” It’s thought to originate with “Marchons!” a word French trappers used, meaning “Let’s Go! Hurry up!” English speakers heard it as “Mush on!” and later shortened it to “Mush!”
Dawn Groves is a writer who lives in Bellingham, teaches WordPress at Whatcom Community College, and finds peace in paddling the Salish Sea. Visit her at www.dawngroves.com