This was my second trip to the Yukon in the dead of winter. The first trip was a grand adventure, but I also froze my lip to a metal key. Ouch.
“You’re going BACK?” asked my daughter, Holly.
“Yup. I’m trying for another dog sled excursion.”
“You spent two hours mushing the last time and about froze your ears off.”
“This time, I’m better prepared,” I said. “I have fleece underwear, an arctic coat, insulated socks, extreme weather mitts, a windproof tactical balaclava, a thermal neck gaiter, and a warm snow hat that protects my ears.”
“Mom.” She furrowed her brows. “Not the hat with giant tassels.”
“The very same,” I replied. “My ears will laugh in the face of frostbite.”
“If frostbite doesn’t laugh first.”
I had scheduled a multi-day mushing adventure led by Iditarod veteran Michelle Phillips. Together with her partner, Ed Hopkins, they run Tagish Lake Kennel, a ranch located in the southern Yukon mountains about halfway between Whitehorse and Skagway. The plan was for five of us (four friends from Skagway and me) to hole up in a cushy cabin at Southern Lakes Resort, a short gravel drive from the Phillips-Hopkins ranch. Under Michelle’s watchful eye, we’d prep our gear, outfit our sleds, harness our dogs, and then head out for several days of extreme camping and mushing (weather dependent). Our group would Gee! and Haw! across the frozen surface of Tagish Lake and then weave through braided trails of white spruce, lodgepole pine, and aspen. At night we’d share dog responsibilities, making sure everyone was warm and fed before settling into wood-heated, “Arctic Oven” tents for good food and conversation.
It was going to be fahhhhhbulous.
I flew out of Seattle on January 8th in 55-degree weather. Four hours later, I landed at Erik Neilsen Whitehorse International Airport where the outside temperature hovered at -13. The Budget rental agent offered her weather assessment. “A bit chilly out there. Get ‘cher coat on while I print the paperwork, eh?”
I donned my cold-weather armor and tugged my tassels into place as she slid the printout across the counter. “You must be from the States.”
“Am I that obvious?” I said, tossing my head.
She laughed. “Only from the neck up.”
At first breath, the -13 temperature constricted my airways so hard and fast that I wheezed, dropping my suitcase and covering my nose and mouth with both hands.
A young woman stepped up. “You okay, Ma’am?” she said, gently patting my back.
I nodded a hasty yes and spoke through my mitts. “Surprised by the cold,” I said. “That’s all.”
An elderly man waved a silver flask from a few feet away. “Gotta have a mickey in these parts!” he called. “Good fer what ails ya!”
I smiled and nodded, breathing slowly through my nose. My two good Samaritans watched me slip-slide across the parking lot, stumble over my suitcase, and finally drop into the driver’s seat of the rental SUV. We all waved cheery good-byes as I sank behind the steering wheel and drove away with what little remained of my dignity.
My wheels caught and spun on the descent into Whitehorse. Several vehicles drifted awkwardly through intersections. The downtown area was a flat checkerboard of contemporary shops and offices juxtaposed with aging buildings that looked deserted and unloved. Strings of bright, colored lights tempered the city’s drab midwinter palate. Pedestrians wrapped themselves in beefy parkas, boots, scarves, hoods, and hats, indistinguishable from each other in their bulk.
I bundled up and braved the walk along the mighty Yukon River. Tongues of ice covered broad sections of the river’s surface, forming channels and constrictions. The resulting rush of water eroded and fractured the weaker ice, shoving it into chaotic piles downriver. I loved the drama but had to duck repeatedly into a nearby Tim Hortons to warm my face and ears. My tassels were getting a run for their money.
One of my mushing buddies, Becky, called from Skagway. “Michelle is worried about the weather,” she said. “The ranch may get down to -45 over the next few days.”
“Is that -45 Celsius or Fahrenheit?” I asked.
“-45 is the same in both temperature scales. They merge at -40. Really, really cold. Why don’t you think about heading down to Skagway sooner rather than later? It’s only about zero here.”
At this point, zero was sounding pretty good. I took Becky’s advice and left town for the 110-mile drive south into Skagway. The Klondike Highway is famous for its spectacular scenery, but black ice kept me fixated on the road ahead as I navigated 3025-foot White Pass. Finally, over two and a half hours later, I pulled into Becky’s AirBnB. It was good to be home.
Skagway is my favorite repository of Alaskan charm. The town sits at the confluence of the Skagway River and Taiya Inlet, at the end of a massive gorge surrounded by 6000-foot peaks and hanging glaciers. Becky jokes about tourists who arrive by cruise ship. “What’s the elevation here?” they ask. “Sea level,” she replies, pointing at the waterfront. “That’s the ocean.”
Skagway boasts maybe 1000 residents who remain throughout the year. These are truly iconic individuals, many of them having relocated from the lower 48. My friend, Carla, describes her neighbors as diehard Alaskans, unpretentious and opinionated, with a solid stable of make-do skills. “They have the ability to separate friendship from politics,” she says. “Everyone knows who’s elderly, who’s alone, and who’s sick. When it snows, everyone shovels.”
I spent four days noodling around town with my dog mushing travel buddies Becky, Carla, Rain, and Brenda. Although Skagway’s weather remained somewhat balmy, conditions inland continued to deteriorate. By the time the five of us were packed and heading back up the Klondike Highway for Southern Lakes Resort at Tagish Lake, we’d pretty much accepted the cold, hard fact that we weren’t going to mush. At the Canadian border, we ran headfirst into blowing snow. Customs agents warned us to drive slowly because the plows had been out all night building walls of compressed snow taller than our car. Just when I’d given up hope of driving faster than 20 miles per hour, the skies magically cleared. The snow sparkle was almost blinding. (Snow sparkle is the intense reflection of light bouncing off ice crystals.) I dropped my sun visor and pulled over, speechless. A deep blue firmament stretched from one horizon to the other. The topography was blanketed with clean new snow. Sparse clusters of snow pyramids dotted the countryside, slumping into pillowy shapes that made it seem like we were driving through freshly whipped frosting.
We turned off the highway at historic Carcross, famous for its world-class Tagish First Nation artists. The needle on the exterior thermometer read -45. Michelle had already called to commiserate about canceling the trip. She invited us to drop by the ranch on our way to the resort.
The ranch was in the middle of forested nowhere at the end of a very long unmarked gravel drive. It had the scruffy, no-nonsense ambiance of a working farm run by creative people who care more about function than appearance—typical of Yukoners in general. A rowdy gang of bouncing huskies greeted our car. Across the driveway sat a field of mostly empty, bright blue doghouses.
The four of us followed Becky over to a sturdy, weathered, one-story house. The interior was warm and active with dogs as well as people. Every surface was stacked with drop bags, bins of supplies, buckets of frozen dog food, papers, snacks, drinks, boxes, notes, photos, dishes, clothes, etc. Two young women sat cross-legged on the floor clad in basic farm-hand clothes that matched the environment, laps draped in sleeping dogs. These were apprentice mushers. They flashed us cordial smiles then returned to their tasks, measuring chunks of frozen fish, beef, and pork into containers. Apprenticeships can be lengthy and demanding. Those who stick it out are rewarded by membership in a tight-knit community, bonding over a collective passion for animals, indigenous culture, hard work, and the wilderness lifestyle.
Michelle greeted us like we were old friends. She was likely in her mid-fifties, lean and fit with a ready smile, laughing eyes crinkled at the corners, and a mop of unruly chestnut hair stuffed under a winter toque. Graced with natural confidence and a complete lack of pretense, Michelle made me feel good to be in her company. Our arrival had interrupted preparations for the upcoming Yukon Quest, so she invited us to sit down and participate. Our job was to match and pack hundreds of pairs of dog booties by size (S, M, L) and color (red, green). It was an important job because booties prevented snow from abrading the dogs’ feet as they ran. Mushers often packed up to 3000 sets of booties for a single race.
We stayed and helped for several hours. A variety of people and animals whooshed in and out of the cold. The dogs were fussed over and fretted about just like any other member of the family. Michelle and Ed bred their own champion line of race dogs but weren’t elitist about it, making room for desperate critters that needed homes or just showed up hungry.
After a long and interesting day, we checked into our cabin and went right to bed. We knew the front window had a wide southern view across Tagish Lake, but it was too dark to see much, and we were too tired to try. The next morning was a different story. I watched the sun outlining everything in shimmers of gold, evolving into a buttery yellow that filled the sky and cast long blue shadows in the snow. The sunset was equally impressive, awash in pink, orange, and purple reflecting as alpenglow on the surrounding peaks. At night the stars sparkled so brightly that I thought they might shatter.
The bitter cold remained during most of the trip, but I got used to dealing with it. It was all about minimizing direct exposure. The colder the air, the faster exposed skin would burn. At -45, any skin exposed for 10 seconds felt like it had been pressed against a hot griddle. As the pain increased, so did the urgency to escape it. If I stayed outside long enough, the urgency became a need to survive, like fighting for air underwater.
I decided that I liked living at -45 not because I found it physically comfortable but because it emptied the environment of people. Without people around, the wilderness seemed to intensify. It felt unconstrained, vibrant, dangerous, even holy. The only thing I’d change is my beloved winter hat. Minus 45 rendered the tassels useless. My ears suffered, and as Holly predicted, frostbite did indeed get the last laugh.
Massive Territory, Tiny Population
Yukon is 295,000 square miles of primeval wilderness with British Columbia at the bottom, the Bering Sea at the top, Alaska to the west, and the Northwest Territories to the east. It’s a showcase of mountain ranges rimmed by glaciers with some of the highest peaks in North America. The headwaters of the mighty Yukon River—one of the largest water drainages on the North American continent—begin just south of the capital city of Whitehorse. Forty-two thousand hardy souls (the same population as the city of Bremerton, WA) call this vast expanse their home. Two-thirds of them reside in the territory’s only city, Whitehorse.
Dawn Groves is a writer who lives in Bellingham, teaches WordPress at Whatcom Community College, and finds peace in paddling the Salish Sea. Her new novel, Restraint, publishes in January 2022. Visit her at: www.dawngroves.com