Mushing  with Uncommon Journeys, Yukon Territory, Canada.

March 2008 I found myself working off and on in Alaska and got absolutely fascinated with this incredible state. Truly the last American frontier. While in Alaska you can not escape its national sport: Dog Sledding aka Mushing specifically The Iditarod. The Iditarod?? Isn't that some kind of endurance event with dogs? The locals describe it as "the last great race" on earth. Of course we know better. The last great race is  RAAM ( 3000 mile coast to coast non stop solo bicycle race ) which yours truly finished twice. Standing on a sled for 1000 miles, how difficult can that be? The dogs are doing all the work, aren't they? So its cold, so what? Just wear some long underwear and a heavy coat. Oh, I nearly forgot you may want to bring some mittens too. Rummaging through the local Barnes and Nobles, i.e. Fred Mayer book department, I could not believe the number of books on the rack about mushing, Iditarod, Yukon Quest and how to "handle" the occasional Alaskan moose or bear encounter on the trail. I bought them all and then some , I even subscribed to Mushing Magazine and ordered all its back issues. After digesting it all, I considered it was time to get qualified for the 2009 Iditarod. Of course I had not as yet even encountered a sled dog or  seen a dogsled. I "just" had to stay with a sled for the two qualifying races: a 200 and a 300 miler .Taking care of the dogs during the race, no problem ( I used to have a dog once ). I was making arrangements to lease a dog team when (un)fortunately the subprime mortgage meltdown occurred . So much for my nest egg! Forget about selling my house! Back to work!!  

Towards the end of 2008,I just could not ignore the " call of the wild" and decided on a more prudent way to get started by booking a trip with Uncommon Journeys in Whitehorse,YT, Canada. The Sunday to Sunday trip fitted perfectly in my work schedule. After working over New Years in Fairbanks, I took the bus  to Whitehorse via Tok with the Alaska Direct Busline Co. Very courteous and helpful drivers but it took forever to get to Whitehorse.

The road to "nowhere"

Finally I arrived at the homestead  at about 1 am Monday. Rod Taylor welcomed me  and set me up with the necessary equipment. There was one another guest, also a first time musher, a young woman from New Zealand. Uncommon Journeys has a beautiful homestead with showers and bathrooms to be used by the guests. The guests sleep in separate cottages without bathroom facilities but with a bucket for night's nature calls. A visit to the nearby outhouse in -45 degree temperatures is definitely not  appealing. There is a very well appointed guest loft above the dogsled/ snow machine barn with a fridge stocked with drinks and snacks, TV, DVD player, etc.and more books and movies you can possibly have time for.

After a great breakfast we were ready to meet the wonderful and friendly dogs and get some basic dogsled instruction. Everything is geared to make this experience as safe as possible without taking away some of the challenges. My team consists of Paila and Schrek as the lead dogs, Blue and Dina in the middle  and the big black dogs Zoot and Coleman in the back near the sled (wheel dogs ).The wheel dogs get to experience the most abuse ( jerking movements ) generated by an inexperienced person like me. They also help the sled to stay on track. They are generally the larger dogs on the team. Harnessing the team results in an earsplitting cacophony of howling , shrieking and barking dogs. Jumping up and down, ready to hurl themselves and me down the trail. Off we go following Rod Taylor , everyone standing on the brakes to slow the whole circus down. I could not believe how fast we are going, we must be doing 20 miles/ hour and I am holding on for dear life! In reality of course we are going very slow, probably less than 10 miles/hour. Anything faster than that a rookie like me would not be able to handle. I can't even imagine how anyone can control  a 16 dog team like they do in the Iditarod. Mushing on the trails through the woods and over the hills is like entering a fairytale world. The trail is whiter than white and the trees are completely covered in snow, like the whitest cotton candy. There is no color except for the dark trees and the incredible blue sky. The extreme cold adds another surreal element. It is sooo quiet, the cold and the snow seem to suck up all sound. The only sounds are the sound of the dogs feet hitting the snow and the sound of the runners sliding. 


Turns are tricky though. Controlling the sled while it is being pulled around a turn, is somewhat counterintuitive as compared to skiing since the runners of a sled are flat and do not edge like ski's. I quickly find myself cutting the corners , getting stuck in the deep snow and loosing the sled. The idea is to put all the weight on the outside runner and maybe even drag an outside leg to force the sled to make the necessary wider turn. Of course downhill blind turns are another bane to the existence of a rookie musher. In that respect running dogs is like skiing, sooner or later you are going to fall and loose your sled and team. The faster you go , the harder you hit. Fortunately on this trip there is always someone  immediately catching the team and usually, with all the precautions Rod and his assistants take, only your pride gets hurt. Back at the dog yard we unharness the dogs, spend some time with them, give them snacks and then totally exhausted make it to the main cabin for a gourmet dinner prepared by Martha and Rod.

Next day the speed is a little faster and the terrain a bit more challenging to prepare us for the trek to the yurts. A longer trip with more up and downs and one nasty turn where my pride takes another tumble. I swear the dogs look back and seem to grin at you while you doing a face plant in the snow. Since this is the seasons first trip to the yurts, Rod and his assistants work their tail off to get everything ready i.e. warm up the yurt from -45 to +70 , drill a hole in the ice to get water for the dogs and us and get dinner ready. Drilling the first hole in the ice, the auger hits a rock and needs to be sharpened. The second hole does the trick, but now numerous buckets of water have to be hauled from the river to the yurts. Nothing is easy in this temperature. At about 1 am finally all is organized. Next day is a rest day for the dogs and the idea is to snow shoe except the weather is miserable and we forgot to bring the snow shoes. The guest stay in small yurts which all have diesel oil heaters which make them very comfortable to stay in. One can regulate the temperature by opening the top of the yurt, very ingenious. Friday morning back to the homestead. By this time the going is much easier and I enjoy the scenery more. Saturday is "graduation day" and as far as I can recall I did not loose my team. In the afternoon, before leaving for the hotel in Whitehorse,  we mush to a nearby frozen lake to take some pictures. Scenery is incredible,  probably the best run of the week.

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This week was a great introduction to running dogs. It  might to too tame for the experienced, but I am sure Rod can provide more challenging trails for those who are able. I found out that it takes obviously much more than just standing on the runners and I  even did not have to actually take care of the well-being of my fantastic dog team. I can recommend this trip to anybody. I know I will be back. I will take my wife for the perfect couples vacation. 

Next trip February 2009 to Eagle, Alaska, with Bush Alaska Expeditions.  To be continued......

Uncommon Journeys












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