It’s a vista so broad and deep that it feels we can look into the future. Spread out before us is a vast expanse of wild country torn up by ancient glaciers and backed by unnamed mountain range stacked-up against unnamed mountain range.
“Look – there’s a team approaching the check-point,” exclaims our balaclava-clad guide Jeremy Lancaster, jumping off his Arctic Cat snowmobile, and pointing down toward the horizon to a dog sled and musher slowly making their way along the frozen Yukon River toward Dawson City.
The Yukon Quest
The Yukon Quest, or simply ‘the quest,’ as it is affectionately referred to by the close-knit dog mushing fraternity, is a 1651km marathon dog-sled race along old fur trading routes from Fairbanks in Alaska, through remote and god-forsaken country and finishing up in the Yukon’s capital – Whitehorse.
The race includes a 36-hour compulsory layover in the northern outpost of Dawson and although we’d arrived into town a day too late to see the leading team collect their welcome bounty of 4-ounces of gold, straight from the pans at nearby Bonanza Creek (where gold was first discovered in 1896), Jeremy explains that there’s an unwritten code that when a ‘quest’ team arrives, everyone dashes to the check-point to offer them a warm welcome.
Not wanting to disappoint, like James Bond wannabes, we scorch back down the trail, and dart across Dawson’s ice bridge (in summer the bridge melts and you have to wait for the punt!), and pull up in a gust of icy air, just as 48 year-old Agata Franczak and her team of fourteen Alaskan huskies cross the Dawson check-point.
Agata’s dishevelled figure hunches over her dogs, their mouths covered in crystallised drool. Kindly, she lets us have a closer look at her champion four-footed athletes, but clearly emotionally and physically distressed from her epic journey across the some of the most inhospitable country on the planet, we leave Agata and her team to bed-down on bales of hay, crudely covered with a blue tarpaulin.
With the thermometers on our snowmobiles hovering at almost forty below, we scoot back to enjoy a drink in the warmth of our hotel.
Sour Toe Cocktail
It’s no secret that a Yukoner’s favourite beverages are beer and hot coffee, so we’re not surprised to discover that one innovative local brewer has concocted a coffee-flavoured beer.
While Jeremy pulls up a bar stool and orders a pint of this truly Yukon ale, I settle for something a little more sinister, the Sour Toe Cocktail – a glass containing the alcohol of your choice topped off with a genuine mummified human toe. If you let the pickled digit touch your lips, you are justly awarded with a certificate.
“Let’s just say that a lot of Yukoner’s lose toes to frostbite, and when they do, some decide to donate them to the club,” explains the cowboy hat-wearing barman as I eyeball-off five of the preserved digits crammed into my glass.
I’ll spare you the gruesome details, but suffice to say – I’m now a lifetime member of the ‘Sour Toe Cocktail Club.’
Next morning, still nursing a queasy tummy and hoping to catch up to the leading mushers, we hit the Klondike Highway, a riptide in an enveloped sea of 2000m-high snow-capped peaks, that leads 600km from Dawson to Whitehorse, Yukon.
While the mushers and their teams brave minus 50-degree temperatures and charging moose, we motor off in a tri-zone heated Pickup truck, appropriately called a Yukon.
Just out of Dawson, an unscheduled sun beats down, transforming the sprawling expanses of snow into fields of dazzling diamonds.
We soon pass a couple of forests of stunted black spruce, which, because of permafrost, lean in all directions, giving them a comical, drunken appearance.
This same frozen soil also preserves a treasure trove of creatures, such as the woolly mammoth, that roamed here during the last Ice Age.
Eventually, after a couple of hours on the deserted highway, where the only sign of human habitation is a float plane stuck in a frozen river, we notice smoke lazily wafting out of the chimney of a log cabin – it must be one of the remote check-points.
Our tyres crunch along the icy driveway, and we waddle (you ever tried wearing eight layers of clothes?) inside. Unfortunately, “the leading teams have come and gone and the next mushers aren’t due for 12-hours,” explains the lonely race official who invites us to stay awhile. We chop some wood, stoke the fire and tuck into some leftover moose stew.
Two days later in Whitehorse, we gather amongst the expectant throng to welcome ice-encrusted musher, Hans Gatt, victoriously lead his team of huskies across the finish line and as we leave the Yukon, the other teams, including Agata’s, are still braving unimaginable cold and lethal rivers of jumble ice somewhere out there in the great white north.
Remote places with tough terrain and hostile climates seem to trigger otherwise ordinary people to attempt extraordinary feats, whether it be racing a dog-sled for ten days through inhospitable back-country; or even sucking on mummified human toes. The Yukon is that sort of place.
Tim The Yowieman travelled with the assistance of Canadian Tourism Commission.
Yukon Quest: For travel information on this remarkable dog-sled race: www.yukonquest.org
What to do in the Yukon
Sour Toe Cocktail Club: Check-out the facts behind this grisly drink
Don’t miss: The Carcross Desert – located just out of Whitehorse Yukon, this sandy bed of an ancient glacial lake is recognised as the world’s smallest desert and the amazing Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis.