Doggy Days In The Yukon (March 2024)

There hadn't been much of a winter in Vancouver this season so, to get a little ice and snow, we decided to head up North where it's practically guaranteed, and booked a mini holiday in Whitehorse, the capital of Yukon. Passing over the snow covered peaks of the Coast Mountians we knew we had made the right choice, and sure enough there were some ice sculptures on display to greet us on arrival after passing the wood caribou display at the airport. 

But even up here the winter had also been mild and, after a late freeze-up, the mighty Yukon River was already now starting to thaw. It was still cold enough however to require toques, gloves, thermal underwear and a warm coat, especially when the wind picked up.

The Yukon will always be remembered for the Klondike Gold Rush it spawned in 1896 when an estimated 100,000 would-be prospectors stampeded into the territory in search of fame and fortune. A statue celebrating the struggle of the prospectors is located on Main Street and fittingly it also includes the prospector's loyal dog, an indispensible companion for survival in the North.

And with that we were off to check out the dogs at Muktuk Adventures, a local recreation outfitter  specializing in all things dogs including canoeing, hiking, and of course dogsledding. The first thing you see when you enter their yard is the multicoloured collection of doghouses in neat rows and each one with a dog's name painted on the outside. There are over 100 dogs living here, most of them working dogs, but some are retired and non working as well. Most have been rescued and all of them are lovingly cared for by the owners.

If there was any doubt about whether or not the dogs liked being hitched to a dog sled all you have to do is watch and listen to the cacophony of barking and howling when the sleds are brought out. Seems like everyone is shouting "pick me, pick me" while they are all straining on their chains hoping to get selected for the day's excursion. It's not easy for the handlers either as they have to match up dogs based on who they get along with, who is better in the lead, and who is better in the middle as a team dog. They also have to follow a rotation of the dogs based on how many days rest they've had. It's a lot to remember and keep track of, never mind knowing each dog's name.

Eventually it all gets sorted out and, while that's going on, we get ourselves fitted up with thermal clothing that is capable of keeping us warm down to minus 35 degrees. A short lesson on the rules of the road and how to work the sled's brakes and it's time to hitch up the dogs, load up, and head out. We have five dogs on our team and they are more than eager to get started so, without any further ado, we are off. Our dogs names are; Flicker, Coco, Bad Water, Nimbus, and Barkley. 

The dogs quickly settle into a well established pace that looks effortless as they trot along in perfect rhythm along the groomed pathway. The path is actually on the frozen Takhini River which also forms part of the famous Yukon Quest dogsled race. The Yukon Quest is an annual 1,000 mile race between Fairbanks, Alaska and Whitehorse, Yukon that takes place every February and follows the historic mail and transportation route of the gold rush era. While not as famous as the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, the Yukon Quest Sled Dog Race is considered to be more difficult with fewer checkpoints, rest stops and support services.

While the sunny skies, mild winter temperature, and well groomed trail made for perfect sledding conditions, our 40-60 km journey wasn't long enough to even get halfway to the first checkpoint of the Yukon Quest. I couldn't imagine going non-stop for the 10 days it typically takes to complete the race, which isn't all just riding on the back of the sled. In spite of the dogs making it all look so easy and moving at a 20 km/hr pace, we stopped every 20 minutes or so to give them a few minutes break. At lunch time we also stopped to get a fire going and grill some hot dogs.

The lunch break also gave the dogs a chance to get a little mushy with the mushers. They are an extremely friendly and loveable bunch who are convinced life doesn't get any better than being out on a cold, sunny day and showing off the wilderness to visitors from the city. They are always happy to pose for a picture and of course the obligatory selfie.

As we travelled over the river we could see the footprints of all sorts of wildlife crossing our path and our guide was happy to point out which was which. Rabbits, coyotes, wolves, elk, and moose appeared to be in abundance though, for the most part, they kept safely out of sight. 

Dog teams have always been essential partners for anyone living in the North, and it was a real pleasure getting the opportunity to experience a taste of what it must have been like living in that bygone time.  Unfortunately all good things have to come to an end and, after five hours in the beautiful wilderness, it was time to put away our cameras and give our travelling companions a final hug and kiss goodbye. A perfect winter getaway.

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