Dogsledding in the Yukon, March 2012

The next day brought a bit of a surprise - an inaccurate weather forecast.

The prediction for the five days of the camping trip was that it would be mostly overcast (with maybe a bit of sun visible on the third day), with day temperatures rising slowly from -11°C to -4°C (12°F to 25°F), with night temperatures about 5° lower.

And while weather forecasts aren't that reliable for five days in advance, usually they are reasonably accurate for the next day or two. So it was a bit unexpected that it turned out to be wrong from the very first day. (The only bit that was slightly accurate was that it got a bit warmer during the week, but given that spring was beginning, that wasn't hard to guess. And the rate of temperature change was quite a bit larger than predicted.)

Though, obviously, having much better weather than expected is something nobody objects to. And we started out on the trip with clear blue skies and sunshine.

Ready to go Me on dog sled

We headed out along the Takhini River for about 15 km and then went almost the same distance along the Dawson Trail. Or Klondike Trail or Trans Canada Trail - this bit of the track is part of a number of trails. It is also part of the Yukon Quest trail, as evidenced by the blue 'YQ' signs along the way.

Dawson trail Yukon Quest Trail

We made our camp by the side of the trail, at a place with a good view of the surrounding landscape.

Campsite view Campsite view

Time to take care of the dogs.

Putting out the 'nightlines' (where the dogs spend the night), getting the harnesses off, getting the food ready, feeding the dogs and putting their night coats on took some time, Especially on the first evening, where the routine hadn't set in. (Although that part of the evening routine can't be speeded up much. The critical factor is the time it takes to melt enough snow and make hot water to mix with the meat and dry dog food to create dinner for the dogs.)

Derek and his lead dogs Close up of Mars (or Snickers) Dogs resting
Dog being alert Frank checking the dogs Dogs in coats
Dogs in coats Dog being alert

Once the dogs had been taken care of, we came to the part of the routine that got significantly faster during the next days - setting up camp.

On previous tours, there was always one main 'community tent' for cooking, drying stuff, having breakfast and dinner and as a sleeping place for the guide, and smaller expedition tents for the clients to sleep in. This time there were two fairly large tents for three people each, with one being a bit larger than the other. In a pinch (if everyone is very lazy or tired), it would be sufficient to just set up the larger one and have all six in there, but we preferred to set up both.

First, there was some snow shoveling to be done to have a reasonable flat and stable surface for the tents.

Preparing the tent site

The construction of the tents was somewhat unusual. It had one element attached to the center of the top of inner tent and then massive poles with a bent in them (six for the large tent, four for the smaller one) were attached to that element, creating a spider-like form, to which the inner tent was clipped and then the outer tent was thrown over it.

Initially we put some plastic sheets on the snow and erected the tent on top of it, but found out later that it was much more efficient to build the tent a couple of meters away and then just carry it over and set it down on those sheets.

Tent construction Tent construction (smaller tent)
These two pictures were taken on other days of the trip, so the camp site looks different.

Finally, the tents were set up and the camp was ready for the night.

Camp site finished Camp site finished

While the dogs had their food some time ago, it was now time to take care of human hunger. This time there would be no cooking in the tents, but we had an outside fireplace/grill.

Which was barely huge enough to handle the massive steaks... One thing was obvious - we wouldn't lose any weight on this trip.

Steaks for dinner Massive steak

Finally it was time to retire to the tents.

Not quite the sunset

I had a bit of an uncomfortable night, since I had believed the weather report. According to that it would be about -16°C (3°F) and since we had been provided with quite well padded sleeping bags, I just rolled my padded pants together as a headrest, slipped my body into the sleeping bag and went to sleep. Which would have been fine if the forecast had been right. But due to the clear skies (as opposed to overcast skies) it was a bit colder during the night (not exactly sure, but my thermometer had -24°C (-11°F) in the morning, so I assume it was probably around -28°C (-18°F) at night.

Not a problem if you use the sleeping bag properly (get the area around your neck properly 'sealed' and use the 'hood' part of the bag instead of leaving it openly hanging by the side), but it is a bit uncomfortable if you just use it as a simple bag. (The next night had similar temperatures, but I used the sleeping bag properly, so no problem.)

Next morning it was bright and sunny again. After some heavy breakfast for us as well as the dogs, we were ready to go.

can0070.jpg can0071.jpg

The track itself was a bit harder on us, since it went slightly uphill, so there were a couple of places where we needed to get off the sled and run along. (Not in any serious manner - we had only about a 200 meter ascent over a travel distance of 30 kilometers. On the other hand, it is the equivalent of running up the stairs to the 50th floor of a building.)

It was a sunny day again and, since we got a bit farther up, the views from the trail were great.

Just in case the first image is confusing: I'm sprinkling some snow on Gandalf to rub it in, so the dog can cool down a bit.

Snow on Gandalf Petting Gandalf Spring is not far away
Sled dogs Kathrina and Sas Sledding trail Sledding trail
Chuck and his dog team Sled dog: Sas Beaver tree

The destination for the day was a picnic place overlooking a lake.

Once again a place with great scenery. And, as a bonus, it had a table with benches and an outhouse, making the 'harsh' outdoor life a bit more civilized.

And it was one of these 'historical' sites of the Yukon.

There was a dead dog buried there.

Not recently, but back in 1910.

Dooley's grave Dooley's grave

It's a bit weird. From an European point of view. The attraction of the Yukon is its remoteness, emptiness and wilderness. (Well, from my point of view the attraction is that they have dogsledding there, but that's not the point there.) But it seems that, at least as far as the tourist office is concerned, there are not enough distinctive sites, so they put up markers for even the smallest attractions, such as a dead dog.

And I am not talking about the grave itself, which is fine. Someone had once a dog they liked; it died, buried it at a beautiful place and erected a grave that looks neater than some of the graves in cemeteries from the same area. All nice and touching.

But next to it, there's an official info sign about the site (named Dooley's Lookout), which states:
"The dog buried in the little grave behind this lookout may have belonged to Mr. and Mrs. Ernie Burwash. Burwash worked for 20 years for WP&RY on the Overland Trail and was one of their most reliable and skillful drivers."
(Note: WP&YR is the White Pass & Yukon Route)

May have belonged? There is a sign to inform people who might have been the owner of a dog that died more than a hundred years ago? I could understand if it was a famous dog (I have to admit that I actually visited Hachiko's grave when I was in Tokyo). It if there would be some speculation about a dog belonging to someone famous ("The dog may have been the one belonging to Jack London and may well have been the inspiration for 'Call of the Wild'." - unlikely and difficult to prove, but at least I could see the reason behind the tourist office putting up a sign like this.) But a dog that may have been owned by (by the standards of that time) a glorified truck driver?

Similarly, further along the trail, there is a marker concerning the "Little River Roadhouse", essentially a guest house for travelers along the Overland Trail. Which was built in 1902 and burned down in 1958.

So here's a sign commemorating a place where, more than half a century ago, a house stood. If you'd apply the same criteria for 'historic' signs for Europe, the continent would sink from the weight of all the signs...

On the other hand, maybe the tourist office (or whoever puts up those signs) deserves a lot more credit than I am willing to give it. The attraction of the Yukon is its remoteness, emptiness and wilderness. And putting up markers for houses that have vanished half a century ago and dogs that died more than a century ago, pretty much supports the impression that this is a place where not much is happening.

But regardless of its historic significance, Dooley's Lookout is a beautiful place.

Dooley's Lookout view

I also went down to the lake to take a couple of pictures across its surface (and one of the lookout site and the outhouse).


I doubt that I'll ever be tempted to do some 'top ten' ranking here, but as far as outhouses go, this was the second best view I ever had when 'using the facilities'. (I don't think the view from this one will ever get beaten.)

I had been wondering whether we would do some sledding across the lake on the next day, but quickly realized that this would be unlikely. Even though I followed the trail where a snowmobile had passed (so the snow was a bit compacted and I didn't sink in quite as much), the snow was quite deep and I was sinking in up to my knees. And below the snow wasn't ice, but water (well, there obviously was an ice layer below that, but there was some overflow, turning the snow directly above the ice in slush). Hardly good conditions for dogsledding.

Trail on lake Trail on lake Slushy footprints

So I just took some pictures and returned to the camp.

Frozen lake in the Yukon Frozen lake in the Yukon

Anyway, it was time for dinner (huge chunks of salmon this time).

Dinner at Dooley's Lookout Chuck at Dooley's Lookout Five tourists at Dooley's Lookout

The dogs had comfortably settled down by then and were ready for the night. As Elsa hadn't eaten much (and was a quite skinny as well), she got two coats to wear and a sleeping place on the sled, so she wouldn't get cold during the night.

Elsa on sled Sled dogs camping Sled dog with cape

After misjudging the temperature the previous night, I closed my sleeping bag properly this time and felt quite warm in it (with roughly the same temperature as the night before).

Yukon sunrise

The next day already marked the halfway point of the trip, so the plan was to leave the camp standing and do a daytour with near-empty sleds. (The Yukon Quest Trail isn't well suited to be part of a circle, so either you got two and a half days down the trail, turn around and go back. Or you go five days and arrange some transport back.) So it would be an easier run for the dogs and a semi-rest day for them.

Early morning, Yukon Early morning, Yukon

By then the routine was fairly well established and everyone knew what to do. But having a morning coffee is a great tool to speed things up...

Nancy and Derek having a coffee

In the meantime, the snacks for the dogs were prepared (they got their main food for breakfast and dinner, but a meat snack at lunchtime)

Dog's lunch being prepared

Time for the dogs to get up and going as well.

Dogs waking up Dogs waking up Dog being friendly

Usually, we didn't have any long stops during the day. In most cases, the actual time spent dogsledding was a little more than three hours per day, so we just had some five to fifteen minute breaks.

This time the idea was to go down the trail, have a proper lunch break and turn back.

As the weather was turning out nicely, the sun was shining and the temperature was rising quite a bit, lunch hour was combined with a bit of lying down and catching some sun.

Catching some sun Catching some sun

In the meantime Frank had cut some logs and started a fire, so we had a barbeque in the snow and heated up some sausages.

Firepit in the snow Sausages in the Yukon

After a leisurely ride back (and some wood gathering on the way, to re-fill the stack at Dooley's Lookout) it was time for another large dinner - this time of pork chops. We were quite definitely not in the risk of coming back from the trip with weight loss. (Even though we were sharing with Elsa. She had, once again, not eaten much. Neither her normal food, nor some dry food, nor some snacks, so everyone had put aside some bits of their dinner for Elsa. Who at least did eat the pork chops. The same happened the next evening, where she got some nice bits of steak - causing a bit of resentment with the other dogs. If you walk along the line of dogs with some pieces of steak on your plate, you quite clearly have their whole attention.)

Pork chops

This bit might be a bit self-serving, but I'm oddly proud of it, so I'll mention it here: I managed to catch a sled. When coming back to the tents, I had just secured my sled and the sled behind me was supposed to move into position for the night, when the sled lost its driver (or the other way round) and the dog ran down the trail (which was empty, since our sleds were parked on the side of it). And when the sled rushed by me, I managed to grab the handle, hold onto it and flip the sled on its side, making the dogs stop. Admittedly, the idea was to jump on the sled and use the brake, instead of flipping it over - that was just the result of me stumbling when grabbing the sled - but still, it was a satisfying feeling to have been able to stop a runaway dog sled.

Morning fog, Yukon Morning fog, Yukon Morning fog, Yukon

The night had already been quite warm (I usually looked at the thermometer around the time we fed the dog for breakfast, which was about 7:30 am). The previous day it was at -24°C (-11&def;F) and now it was at -14°C (7&def;F), so that meant goodbye to the leather jacket and dogsledding in a sweatshirt.

Feeding the dogs Dressed for the weather

It also meant that the dog booties had a chance to dry out a little bit.

Dog booty chain

Time to pull the tents down, pack the gear on the transport sleds (two of them, being pulled by Frank with a snowmobile - we only had our personal gear, sleeping bags and the dogsledding equipment on our sleds)

Feeding the dogs Transport sleds Dogs waking up Half-awake dogs
Heating the tent poles to separate them Collective morning howl Sled dog

During that day's trip, Frank stopped a number of times and stood next to the trail while we drove by, and took a number of "action shots" of us. Which was highly appreciated - usually the only time to take pictures is when you're stopped and standing next to your dogs.

Or, if you're lucky, the person on the sled in front of you takes out the camera while on the sled and turns around and takes some pictures of you. But since the camera needs to be operated with only one hand, the photographer is in motion, there's no way to frame the picture properly, it's usually just a wide-angle shot in the general direction of the sled and it's a head-on picture due to the sleds being in one line, this at best looks like this:

Sled in motion

So it's great to have some pictures like these:

Me mushing Me mushing (detail)
Me mushing Me mushing (detail)
Me mushing Me mushing (detail)
As a tourist, you normally shouldn't go like on the second line of pictures - that's way too fast, with all the dogs loping. But it looks great on a photograph and I only let the dogs run freely when I saw Frank next to the trail, ready to take pictures, and stopped them right after that. Still got (justifiably) a remark from Frank that I have been to fast.

It was a nice and easy run - we went downhill a lot of the time (descending the 200 meters we had gained two days earlier) and the weather was great, so it was fun for humans and the dogs.

Trail under construction Dog cooling down in snow Dog sled on the move
Dog sled on the move Yukon scenery Happy sled dogs

We set up camp in the place we spent our first night out. Only this time setting up camp went much faster. Experience helped, but also that it was much warmer (when we arrived in the last afternoon, it was 7°C (45°F), more than 20 degrees warmer than it had been in the morning.

It was the usual routine.

Get the harnesses off the dogs, hang the harnesses to the trees for drying and put coats on the dogs.

Well dressed dogs Well dressed dogs Well dressed dogs

Since we were reasonably adept by now, we managed to get the tents set up in the time when the snow was heated to make some warm water for the dog food.

Tent being ready Tent exterior

Then the dogs were fed.

Dogs feeding

And Elsa was put on her position on the sled to sleep there.

Elsa on the sled Elsa on the sled

Some pictures of the scenery and the trail.

Harnesses hanging to dry Yukon Quest Trail

Then dinner (big, juicy stakes again), an evening visit to the dogs, followed by watching the sunset.

Dogs at dusk Yukon Sunset

While it's nice on the trip when you're at the point where everything is running smoothly, routine has settled in and you relax, it's a bit inconvenient for this web site, since the narrative quickly breaks down to 'and the next day it was basically the same all over'.

Thought there was a lot more 'hands on' experience with the dogs. Or, more precisely, 'paws on'. On previous trips, the taking care of the dogs' feet had always been the job of the guide. While clients were strongly encouraged to pay attention to the dogs' behaviour and gait and make sure that their paws didn't ice up, but it was the guides who actually checked the dogs. On this trip, we got a (very basic) introduction on possible feet problems and then had to check the feet a couple of times each day to see whether there were any 'splits' or other injuries of the soft parts. (The tricky area isn't on the black pads on the bottom of the feet (the 'soles'), but the soft area between them (whatever that is called).)

It was also the first time where I did perform 'medical maintenance' on my dogs, rubbing zinc oxide into their paws. Luckily none of them didn't mind that much.

But that had been the previous evening. Now the dogs were fine (except for Elsa, who didn't eat much until we fed her some leftover steak), so we could just sit back and enjoy the evening.

The evening was a bit longer than most - for one thing, it was much warmer, so everyone was happy to sit outside for longer and it was our last night 'out there', so nobody wanted to go to sleep 'just yet'.

<> Next morning it was fairly warm again (about 5°C (41°F), nearly 30 degrees warmer than just two days earlier).

So, time for another big breakfast (bagels and smokies (sausages)) and heading back to the kennel.

Outdoor breakfast Dogs ready to go Me on the trail
Dogsled on trail Dogsled on trail Dogsled on trail

When leaving the trail on solid ground and being back on the Takhini river, it became obvious that springtime had nearly arrived and open water was visible in some places.

On the Takhini river On the Takhini river On the Takhini river

We also spotted some elk at a hillside (the only wildlife we saw, except for a couple of Whiskeyjack birds). Though it turned out later that these weren't really 'wildlife', since they were 'farmed' at the place we did see them and in some fenced enclosure.


On the way back, we met another group, which was just heading out for their five day trip. The effort of having two groups of dogs (almost sixty dogs in total) pass each other without any incidents is non-trivial. Luckily we met them on the river, where there's a bit more room than on the trail in the woods. Still, it requires a lot of grabbing and holding of excited dogs, so I don't have any pictures of it - I just didn't have a hand free, especially since Gandalf managed to slip his collar in the excitement and I needed to make sure that he wouldn't run onto the trail.

When the other team passed, it was quite noticeable how much our temperature perception had changed the previous days. The team going out was dressed in 'proper' Arctic gear, with padded parkas, mittens and everything. While, once we got started, none of us was wearing their heavy stuff anymore and most were just wearing a thick sweater or a light jacket.

This was especially noticeable when we arrived at the kennel. While we were getting uncomfortably hot when handling the dogs (the first thing I did when we stopped was to take off the fleece shirt and work wearing only my base layer), a group was just getting ready for their day trip, wearing a full set of cold weather gear, including mittens and face protectors...

While we were away, there had been a change in the number of dogs in the yard. Four puppies had been born the previous day. (Not a fully happy occasion - originally there were six of them, but there were complications, a caesarean section was made and two puppies didn't make it.)

Day old puppies

The next day was another day without dog sledding (and Nancy and Derek needed to be leaving), so it was time for another day in the dog yard and some dog pictures, this time in mostly sunny weather.

Sled dog: Sas Sled dog: Kathrina Sled dog: Ravel
Sled dog: Yahtsee Sled dog: Gandalf Sled dog: Elsa
Sled dog relaxing Sled dog relaxing Sled dog relaxing
Quiet dog yard Ravens on dog yard Young dog close-up
Dogs and cabin Kathrina sniffing my ear Sunset over dog yard

After mentioning something I was a bit proud of (catching a runaway sled), I now have to confess something I'm a bit embarrassed about: Letting a dog get away. A couple of people on a day tour were getting ready to leave and I was helping to get the dogs hooked up in front of the sled. I clipped the short neckline to the dog's collar, handed it to the person opposite to me, who had just brought the other lead dog, to clip it into the other collar and was trying to grab the tugline to clip it into the harness. At that point Whiskey (the dog) realized that it wasn't really clipped in to anything and took off, making me lose the grip on the harness loop and the other guys grip on the neckline. (Lesson here: Clip in the tugline for your lead dogs first, the neckline can wait.) At least I managed to run far enough after it to see whether it went along the river to the left before it rounded a corner and went out of sight. Luckily, that was the way the day trip was going anyway and the found it sitting next to the trail a bit later. Still, letting one of the dogs get away is something that shouldn't have happened.

The next day started out surprisingly cold again. I woke up a bit late, so I just had the base layer and a fleece shirt (and just some liner gloves), since that was warm enough the previous days, but then went back for a leather jacket and some proper gloves, since the temperature had dropped to -21°C (-6°F).

But the more interesting part than the temperature was how the perception of "things to do" had changed during the trip. "I woke a bit late" meant that I was up at 7:30 am, so I was too late to help feeding the dogs and just managed to be out in the yard in time to help shoveling the dogs excrements away. (Not really a fun task, but not as bad as it sounds, since the stuff is frozen solid and thus not that 'yucky'.)

To put that in context: This was my vacation and I was out at at 7:30 in the morning in the freezing cold to shovel dog droppings, not having had a coffee, breakfast or shower yet. And feeling slightly guilty about not being ready half an hour earlier.

But then, the dogs had been incredibly friendly and hard-working and pulled us and the sleds for about 180 km so far, so they deserved a bit of service and support from our side.

Then it was time for one last sled trip - a day tour down the Takhini River and onwards along the Yukon River and back again. Basically a fun run for the dogs and us. Empty sleds, no ascents or descents, just a flat trail on the river (and yes, this meant that Yahtsee essentially was useless again - I took him along anyway, he had earned that). And since Nancy and Derek had left already, their dog teams were taken by Bob and Barb, who where there for a camping trip (or anything else that might come up) the following days and had this day trip as their 'refresher course' (not that they needed it). So, at least as far as the dogs were concerned, the old gang was on the trail again once more.

Dog yard Sled ready to go Walking a dog to the sled

The ride was as sunny, easy and fun as expected and everyone (including the dogs, as far as I can tell) was enjoying it.

Sled trail Takhini River Sled on Takhini River Happy sled dogs

As this was a 'day tour', we even had another barbeque with mega-hot dogs (like normal hot-dogs, but with bagels and smokies instead of buns and wieners) - as already mentioned, we were not about to starve on this trip. Or the weeks after it...

Outdoor grill Yukon Lunchtime Praising the dogs

And the dogs got their snacks. Which some of them (Elsa) ate someone daintily (but at least she was eating at all), while others (Yahtsee) were wolfing it down. (And Sas and Kathrina had their bits down so fast that it was all gone in the timespan between me giving the snack to them and me having my camera out and ready, so no pictures of them eating...)

Elsa eating a snack Yahtsee eating a snack

And even though the day had started out a bit cold, by the time we were on the way back, it was fairly warm, so when it was time for another 'drive-by action photo', I was dogsledding in a t-shirt. (Admittedly, I had just taken my sweater off right before the picture, but then found that, with the sun shining, it was quite ok with just the t-shirt and kept going like this all the way back to the kennel, which was only half an hour away anyway.)

Dogsledding on the Yukon - in a t-shirt Dogsledding on the Yukon - in a t-shirt Dogsledding on the Yukon - in a t-shirt

One last picture of 'my' dog team (the tug lines already unclipped). Sas and Kathrina in the foreground, Yahtsee, the large white dog, Gandalf, the smaller white dog, Ravel, the dark dog in the back and Elsa hiding behind Gandalf.

Dog team off duty

Then it was time to bring the dogs back to their boxes, take their harnesses and booties off, give them a final hug and head back to town. (Constanze had an early evening flight and my was leaving very early the next morning, so I was staying at a place near the airport, so we both needed to get to Whitehorse right after the end of the tour.)

And that was the end of the dog sledding tour along (parts of) the Yukon Quest Trail.

Here are some statistics and related stuff:

Distances covered:
Half-day tour  17.325 km
Day 128.260 km
Day 230.902 km
Day 336.069 km
Day 430.862 km
Day 529.729 km
Day tour32.938 km
Total206.085 km

This is the route as an overly on a satellite image of the area.

Route on map

The route of the trip (as a Google Earth KML file) is here.

But the vacation wasn't quite over yet. I wasn't heading home directly, but taking a detour via Quebec.

Continue to the third (and last) part of the Canada 2012 trip.

Back to other travels