Canada Snowmobiling and Dogsledding, March/April 2010

The plan was pretty straightforward. Mush upstream the Yukon River for three days, then do a day trip from there and then head back to Dawson City in two days, leaving one extra day in Dawson City for further trips, sightseeing or in case of delays. (There were three 'outward bound' days planned and only two 'homeward bound' days, since we started fairly late on the first day and it was also expected that we would be more experienced and moving faster on the way back.)

As usual, Tim Tam was very excited about the trip.

Tim Tam is the dog in the second row. (Well, Tim Tam is the second row...) And Tim Tam starts going when put in front of the sled, whether it's time to go or not. While the other dogs are reasonably calm at first (though they do get a bit hectic when all other sleds are ready and starting to go as well - but they have a reasonable feeling on when it's almost time to go), Tim Tam gets will jump up and down and start to run and pull. It didn't make much of an impression on the old and packed snow on the Yukon River, but the previous year, on places where there was a somewhat deeper snow layer, by the time we were actually going, Tim Tam would be starting out of a little trench in the snow.

Dogsled ready to go Tim Tam

And then it was really time to head out.

Dogs running on Yukon River Dogs running on Yukon River Dogs running on Yukon River

As a nice bonus, Roo was one of the lead dogs (besides Jasper) on the sled behind me. Roo belongs to the same litter as Tim Tam (the 'Australian' litter, which also includes Tucker, Tassie, Kanga and Jedda). And Roo, especially with the tongue hanging out, has this 'happy dog' look after a run. And with the high contrast markings in the face, Roo also is pretty photogenic. So every time there was a stop, I could just turn around and look at Roo looking cute.

Jasper and Roo Jasper and Roo Jasper and Roo Jasper and Roo

At the end of the day, the procedure was pretty much the same as the previous year. Steel cables were stretched out and attached on both ends with ice screws, the dogs were taken off the sleds, their harness was taken off and they were attached to short cables branching off from the main ones.

Then we (the clients) set up our small tents and the guides set up the big 'kitchen tent'.

Client tents Kitchen tent

And after some feeding of the dogs and the humans, it was time to call it a day.

Yukon River sunset

During the night, the sky cleared up a bit (it had been changing between cloudy and sunny all day) and there were even northern lights to be seen. (Though I only noticed that when I needed to leave the tent during the night, so I didn't watch them for long. It's cold outside if you're only wearing your underwear.)

Next morning, after a leisurely breakfast, it was time to pack everything on the sleds (and the heavy gear on the skimmers, which are pulled behind the snowmobiles), get the dogs ready and head on.

Packing the skimmer

Some of the dogs clearly aren't morning personalities...

Thistle yawning Dog yawning Herschel bored Dog looking alert

Spirit looked kind of cool in his superhero-cape, though.
(Some of the dogs got those capes during the night when it got windy.)

Spirit with cape

Though not all dogs liked being dressed up. Since the snow on the Yukon River was pretty old and quite harsh in some places, most of the days the dogs had to wear booties. A lot of the dogs don't mind, but Lady did and tried to get them off every chance she got. So her booties had to be secured with adhesive tape.

Lady taking booties off Lady taking booties off

While we were mushing our dogs teams most of the way, there were a couple of places were we needed to cross jumbled ice. At those places, we were usually driven across on the snowmobile by Colleen or Melinda. Then Kris would take the dog team and mush across the critical section, before being driven back with the snowmobile to fetch the next team.

Crossing jumbled ice Crossing jumbled ice

Since that usually took some time until all five teams were across, that was always a good time for a quick snack.

During such a trip it's tricky to get pictures of the dogs actually moving. Since everyone moves as a group, any time the other teams are moving, yours is moving as well. So the only time when you are on solid ground while the other teams are moving is towards the end of the day when your dogs are already off the sled and the next teams are coming in. (Which is also the reason why I don't have a picture of John coming in. Since his sled was directly behind mine, I usually was still attending to my sled while he came in.)

Veronica mushing Lindsey mushing Bo mushing

Camp was again on the Yukon River, close to the shore. While the river was mostly frozen, there were sections were the winter ice had already gone and there was either open water or just a small layer of ice on top of it.

Yukon camp Thin ice Camp near open water

While I wasn't involved much with feeding the dogs the previous year, it took me less time to set up my tent and tidy up my sled (and we also sledded for fewer hours, so I wasn't that tired). During this trip, I tried to assist feeding the dogs.

Feeding the dogs turned out to be more complicated than just filling some dog bowls and putting them down in front of the dogs. There are two kinds of food, horse meat and kibble (which looks like normal dry dog food, but contains a lot more fat). And, depending on the dog, the amounts they get of each varies. And some dogs are much leaner than they look. I was a bit surprised when Herschel, who looks like a fairly well fed dog, got an extra portion of horse meat. But Colleen instructed me to put my fingers through the deep fur and feel the ribcage of the actual dog. And I could pretty easily feel the ribs, so there wasn't any noticeable fat layer on the dog. So no wonder that that dog needed some extra energy.

And the amount of calories they need is amazing, especially for the wheel dogs, which do most of the work. It's not even close to racing conditions (where dogs need to eat up to 12000 kcals a day), but even on a rather leisurely trip, it's probably around half that amount.

Which makes feeding the dogs a tricky business, since the dogs have only two meals a day and they need to eat their food in a couple of minutes. (There aren't enough bowls for all the dogs, so when about a dozen dogs have got their food, the bowls from the first dog should already be empty to be used for the next in line.)

So, translated to human terms, their eating feat is quite impressive. A typical hamburger is around 500 kcals, so the dogs need to eat the equivalent of about a dozen of them. And while I could probably eat a dozen hamburgers a day, I would be hard pressed to eat them in two sessions of five minutes each. So, just to get the necessary calories in, the kibble needs to be mostly fat, But even then, they need to gobble down the equivalent of two pounds of butter a day.

Colleen feeding the dogs Colleen feeding the dogs Preparing horse meat

After feeding the dogs, it was time for our dinner, done as usual in the big kitchen tent.

Kitchen tent interior Kitchen tent view

The third day started out with fairly nice weather (and some more northern lights during the night), and the few clouds that were there dissipated fairly quickly. So we packed our tents and got ready to go.

Early morning camp Kris folding up tent poles Dogs harnesses laid out
Yukon River scenery Yukon River scenery

But then we started to run into problems.

One of the snowmobiles didn't start properly (even though it had been recently serviced) and the other one wasn't running that well either. (I was strongly reminded of the remark about snowmobiles I heard less than a week earlier: "They are all junk. They fall apart all the time.")

Since Kris, Colleen and Melinda were trying to get the snowmobile started (while Bo, John and me just stood around uselessly), it also reminded me of the old quite about the North: "Alaska - Where men are men and women win the Iditarod". The Yukon seems to be pretty much in the same tradition.

Snowmobile repair Explaining the situation

But after a while the snowmobile started and we were ready to go. It was a warm day, so it was the first day were I was mushing while wearing just a t-shirt.

Dogs ready to go

But the joy of dogsledding was short-lived that day.

We only had a short distance to go until we had to cross an area of jumbled ice.

Kris took my dog team across while Colleen gave me a lift on the snowmobile and then both of them returned to fetch the next team, while I was standing there with my lead dogs.

Since the ice was tricky, Lady and Tim Tam had been unhooked and were running free and the wheel dogs were only on their necklines, not their tug lines, so that there was 'less power' on the sled, making the trip more controllable.

Waiting for the next dog team Waiting for the next dog team

And while standing there, waiting for the next team, Legolas and Frodo (my wheel dogs) decided that they didn't like Jeremy and started to attack him. And when they dashed forward the snow hook didn't hold, the sled moved and they were able to reach him. And I suddenly had a dog fight in the team with nobody else around. (Which is, doubtlessly, the reason why the dogs attacked at that specific time.)

I didn't quite know what to do. While, last year, Dan had been very successful in dealing with a dog fight in his team by stepping in and taking control, I had asked Martha (one of the owners) about such a case in the preparation meeting and her advice was "Keep out of it. We don't want clients to get hurt."

Shouting at the dogs didn't help much, pulling at the gang line didn't help much either (partly since the sled wasn't attached to anything anyway and partly because the dogs are much, much better at pulling on that line than I am - after all, that's what they do for a living). An additional problem was that it was a nice, sunny day and I was just wearing a t-shirt and no gloves - not the perfect protective gear to deal with fighting dogs.

Later there are of course lots of ideas what I could have done (like picking up some snow and throwing snowballs at them - because anything that startles them might keep them from biting their colleague), but at that time, all I did do was shout at them and tried to keep with the lead dogs and the line stretched out, so that at least it wouldn't turn into a free-for-all dog fight of the whole team.

After a two or three very long minutes, Colleen came up with the snowmobile and went for the dogs and a moment later Kris came in with the next team and I ran up to that team to watch it (together with John), so that Kris would be free to run forward to my team and deal with the dogs.

Even for both of them, it took a moment to get the dogs apart (and it got a bit scary when Colleen slipped and was on the ground next to the dogs and out of sight for a moment, with the situation being unclear).

Things got sorted out, but Jeremy was hurt and bleeding, so we set up camp immediately. Kris got on the sat phone to inform Rod and Martha in Whitehorse and contact the vet in Dawson City.

After setting up camp, Kris and Colleen got on the snowmobile, packed Jeremy (who was surprisingly calm about the whole thing and seemed to wonder what all the fuss was about) in a bag between them an drove back to Dawson City to get hum patched up.

Luckily 'only' the skin was torn, but nothing underneath was damaged, so while Jeremy needed stitches in five places, there wasn't any serious or lasting damage.

In the meantime, with an early stop of today's dogsledding (all in all we had moved less than a mile from the previous camp), nice sunny weather and nothing much to do, it was time to relax.

Which is a strange thing to do in such an environment.

After all, we were right on the frozen Yukon River, an place immortalized by Jack London and Robert Service as a harsh and dangerous place, where "surely the weak shall perish", where people are "Staggering blind through the storm-whirl, stumbling mad through the snow, Frozen stiff in the ice-pack, brittle and bent like a bow; Featureless, formless, forsaken, scented by wolves in their flight, left for the wind to make music through ribs that are glittering white" (and where quotes can be used, since the copyright has long run out...)

An environment, where wolf tracks had been seen the previous day and where Kris also had spotted bear tracks not that far from our camp.

A wilderness probably 50 kilometers away from the next human being.

A site of desolation covered by snow like a white shroud.

Somehow Bo and Lindsey didn't see it that way...

Relaxing on the Yukon River Relaxing on the Yukon River

Getting out a bottle of wine and converting their sleds into deck chairs, they turned the trip into a kind of beach holiday.

And then Bo commented that a pool would be needed to complete the experience.

"Pool? No problem. I can make you one." said Melinda and grabbed her axe.

Making a pool

After a margarita or two (yes, every reasonable mushing tour has margaritas - after all, crushed ice is easy to get hold of) I decided to take a quick dip.

Yukon River pool

A nearby crow wasn't impressed, though.

Crow near Yukon River

Since the weather was turning from fairly sunny to quite cloudy, Veronica and John rather preferred to remain more appropriately dressed for the environment.

Yukon River clouds Yukon River clouds Yukon River camp Yukon River camp evening

Later in the evening, Kris and Colleen returned from Dawson City with good news. Jeremy was fine and there were no complications. And Rod and Martha were driving up the 600 km from Whitehorse to bring the dog home and also to bring two snowmobiles to replace the unreliable ones.

The next day was another easy day. Since we had to wait for the snowmobiles coming in, we had a late start anyway, so we could sleep in and have a late and leisurely breakfast.

And since this was our 'farthest camp' and we would head back the next day, we didn't need to strike camp and pack our tents and gear. Just a fun day ride with empty sleds, so it was a bit of an easy day for the dogs as well.

Cracked ice near the shore Dog smiling Lunch break
Back at the camp Sunset at Yukon River camp

Though there was some longing for the trees...

While there was still ice and snow on the river, the river banks were already free of snow. And at one point we had a break rather close to the snowless area. And there were a couple of very wistful looks on the dogs and some pulling towards the trees.

Longing for the trees

By that point of the trip, some tents got rather crowded.

We were encouraged to take some dogs into the tent at night, since "a bit of socialisation is good for them".

My first attempt was a bit of a failure. Since Tim Tam seemed the liveliest of the dogs (and since I got a tent of my own, I got space to share), I took Tim Tam to the tent one evening and was very surprised by the change of behaviour. Tim Tam was utterly frightened of being in the tent, standing there shaking, tail between the legs, as if there would be some sort of punishment waiting.

The dog relaxed after a while, found some empty space on the floor and settled there, very carefully not touching anything and being obviously worried of doing something wrong.

Which seemed quite strange for Tim Tam and the change between happy outdoor dog and unhappy tent dog was extreme.

But at least Tim Tam didn't try to bark, which was a bonus. (That needs a quick explanation: Tim Tam is a nice dog, but can't really bark. The sound is more like the yelp of some puppy dog, which gets a bit tiresome. I had hoped that this might have changed after a year (the same yelp was quite noticeable a year ago - we even joked of sending Tim Tam to a barking school, should such a thing exist), but the bark doesn't seem to change with age.

Next night I took Arwen into the tent and the reaction was quite different. Arwen took immediately to the tent, plunked down on my sleeping bag and seemed to think "Nice dog house you made me. And now get out of here. This is mine."

Though Arwen wouldn't have liked it if I actually had gone out. Arwen seems to be some sort of anti-solipsistic dog, possibly being afraid she would vanish if she's not noticed.

When all dogs are on the gang line outside at night and you happen to go past that line, most dogs will just look up (at best), notice that you are just passing by and go back to sleep. Arwen will be up on all fours, looking and lolling and insisting on being petted. It's also the one dog that tries to stop you when you finish scratching her ears. (All other dogs seem to be reasonably glad if you stroke their fur, but when you stop, they just lie down and go back to sleep again. If you stop stroking Arwen, you get a paw on your arm or leg and a pleading "don't go away" kind of look. Arwen really likes attention.)

So in the tent, it was a fairly long process to actually get some sleep, since Arwen would stand beside the sleeping bag, stub me with the nose and demand to be petted.

And if I got my arm out of the sleeping back to scratch her behind the ears, I'd immediately have one paw on my elbow, one on my shoulder and the head across my chest (or across the neck - I can truthfully say that I had one of the sledge dogs at my throat during the trips, though in a friendly way...) just to make sure that I couldn't just withdraw my hand again.

Cute dog. At least until your arm starts to get seriously cold...


But at least I had enough room to spare in the tent. It must have been a bit tougher for Veronica and John, who were not only sharing a tent the same size as mine (so it was cosier for them anyway), but Veronica also took two dogs in, so it must have been quite crowded in there.

But, on the other hand, they had a sports champion in their tent.

Veronica and her team

Fleece, the white dog in the picture above, used to belong to Hans Gatt and was part of the team that had won the Yukon Quest three consecutive times.

Next morning it was time to pack up and head back downstream again,

Turns out not everyone is a morning person.

Melinda and Kris, breakfast Bo and Lindsey, breakfast

But the day started out nice and sunny and everyone was experienced by now, so packing and getting ready to didn't take long. (And there was no trouble with the snowmobiles either.)

Morning camp Laying out the harnesses Sledge packed and ready to go

And going back over the bit of jumbled ice (where we had dog trouble two days before) didn't cause any problem. (And, just to be on the safe side, the procedure was slightly changed, so that, while I was out there alone, the lead dogs were tied to the skimmer and I stayed on the sled, so in case the dogs tried to get the snow hooks out, I could still use the brake to keep them from going forward.)

Kris mushing over jumbled ice Kris mushing over jumbled ice Kris mushing over jumbled ice
Kris mushing over jumbled ice Kris mushing over jumbled ice

And after another successful day, it was time for another round of margaritas and more dog visits in the tent.

Melinda nad Colleen Kris, Bo and Lindsey Arwen in tent

Though this did turn out to be a bit uncomfortable.

On the trip, a system that used two sleeping bags was used. Which is great when it gets really cold, but at -15°C, it's not really needed. So I removed the outer sleeping bag and used it as a dog blanket. Which was fine until I needed to go out at night, returned to the tent, pushed Arwen away from my sleeping bag (I never assumed that giving the dog its own sleeping bag would really work...), got into it and managed to get some of the bag caught in the zipper and couldn't get it out easily (and I didn't want to rip the sleeping bag). So at that time Arwen had the working sleeping bag (and I was too tired to try to get that) and mine had essentially changed from a sleeping bag to a down blanket - which is not quite warm enough. (It wasn't that bad, but somehow more uncomfortable than most nights.

The next morning started out sunny again.

An obscure side effect of the sunny days were a lot of sunken leaves. They get blown onto the ice and since they are darker than it, they absorb more sunlight, get warmer and melt slowly through the ice, until they reach a point where the sun no longer reaches them and they sink no farther.

Sunken leaf

We were already on the last stretch back to Dawson City. And we had another sunny day for sledding.

So for one last time, we took down the tents, loaded our gear on the sledges and headed out.

Packing the skimmers Packing the skimmers Frozen Yukon
Yukon river bank Snowmobile and skimmer on Yukon River Short rest stop on a Yukon River side arm
Dog tagging along Kris covering a tricky bit

Something that had confused me at the beginning were little bits of blood on the snow. I had assumed that this came from the dogs paws, but on inspecting the paws, they looked unharmed (and lots of effort went into putting booties on the dogs whenever there was harsh snow or ice, so it would have been unusual if the dogs still hurt their paws).

It turned out that the blood came from biting into the snow.

When the dogs run and get warm (and on sunny days with temperatures above freezing, they get warm - if I can go all day with just long underwear and a t-shirt, then the dogs are doubtlessly overdressed in all that fur), they try to cool down by eating a bit of snow. But if the snow is rather harsh, that hurts their gums and hence the blood. Nothing critical (and the dogs don't seem to mind or even notice), but a bit irritating if you don't know where the blood comes from.

Blood on the snow

In the days we had been away from Dawson City, the Yukon River had shed some more ice. We couldn't get back to the camping site that we started from (which was essentially just across the river from Dawson City, just a couple of hundred meters downstream), since the ice road across the river already had been declared unsafe, so the trucks couldn't go over to the other shore.

So we stopped the dogs a bit upstream from Dawson City and Kris went off with a snowmobile to check the situation and find out whether we could camp on the shore right in front of the town or whether we would need to load the dogs onto the trucks and drive to some camping site further inland.

Dawson City seen from Yukon River Yukon River, Colleen, dogs and Dawson City

Not much to do except for some quick lunch, telling the dogs what a good job they had done (not really needed, but it feels right anyway) and snap some photographs.

(And notice later just how row we were looking after a week.)

Me after a week on the Yukon Arwen, Maracas and me.

It turned out that we could just camp in front of the town, so we headed there and set up camp.

Dawson City dog camp Dawson City dog camp

Since it was (basically) the end of the trip and the trucks were nearby, the dogs got a 'straw nest' as a bonus.

Most of them seemed to like that, with some of them sitting there like hens, breeding on an egg.

Dog resting on straw Dog resting on straw Dog resting on straw

Though Tim Tam seemed to have a bit of a problem with the concept and looked at it more along the lines of someone having put some prickly, yellowish stuff on the ground, and now being forced to lie down uncomfortably to have the usual roll and rest in the snow.

Tim Tam not resting on snow

Since we were 'back at civilisation', staying in the tent and eating in camp was optional, and while some went to a hotel and some put up tents, all decided to have dinner in camp.

Camp outside Dawson City Camp outside Dawson City Camp outside Dawson City

It was a sunny day and still early, so dinner was outdoors this time (or out-tent-flap, to be precise).

Last dinner on the ice Last dinner on the ice

After that is was time to join civilization for some after-dinner-drinks, Yukon style.

It's a kind of tradition: The Sour-Toe Cocktail.

It's not that old a tradition and most of it seem to stem from a conscious attempt to create a tradition as some sort of early marketing effort (or, essentially, for the age-old reason of "Why not? It's a silly, a bit odd, slightly grotesque and fun. And it involves drinking.", which probably was the thinking behind any old tradition, whether it's Stonehenge, Egyptian Pyramids, sneaking out into fields and making crop-cycles or boot throwing competitions).

Specifically, a Sour-Toe Cocktail is a cocktail with a toe in it.

It's a real toe, but pretty much shrivelled and mummified and looks more like some weird pickle than a piece of human anatomy.

The history of the toe is shrouded in mystery. There is a sort of official saga (well, as with any good tradition, there are actually multiple conflicting sagas about the origin), but it seems like someone just found an old toe in a house he moved in and wondered what to do with it.

And decided to start a tradition. Which is probably not quite what the phrase "making your own entertainment" usually means, but this is the Yukon after all...

But be that as it may, after a week on the Yukon River, it seemed like a good idea (and in mid-April there is not much else to do in Dawson City anyway).

Colleen men tally preparing for the sour-toe Bo detecting the camera Lindsey having a sour-toe cocktail
Lindsey having a sour-toe cocktail Me having a sour-toe cocktail Me having a sour-toe cocktail

The next day we had a bit of a split in the group, since there were two options.

Since we were already at Dawson City and had one full day before moving into the hotel and flying back the following day, we had a choice of either driving with the truck up to the Tombstone Mountains (were the trip originally was planned to take place) and and least have a look at them. Or spend another day dogsledding.

Although dogsledding mostly meant going back the way we had just come. We couldn't go further downstream, since the ice was too unsafe or already gone (and it is dog sledding, not dog-assisted water-skiing) and there wasn't somewhere else to go on land. So there wasn't anywhere to go where we hadn't already been.

It didn't matter to me, since I wasn't here for the scenery anyway, as far as I was concerned, we might as well be doing circles in the local ice stadion (had there been one) and I would still have been happy.

But Bo, Lindsey and John went for the truck ride to the Tombstone Mountains and since I had a spare camera, I gave it to them, so they could take a couple of pictures for me as well, so that I at least knew what the area looked like.

Travel advice (and I don't usually do those): Do not give your camera to other people on the trip, they will just fool around with it and act silly. (Though I don't know whether this generally applies or just for groups from the southern hemisphere. Might be worth testing some time.)

Bo and Lindsey mugging for the camera Melinda mugging for the camera John mugging for the camera

To be fair, they also did take pictures of the mountain range.

Tombstone Mountain area Tombstone Mountain area Tombstone Mountain area
Tombstone Mountain area Tombstone Mountain area

Continue to the next part of the Canada 2010 trip.

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