For the month of February 2015, Ryan traveled to Yukon Territory in Northwestern Canada. Yes it was cold, with temperatures spiking high enough on a nice day to freeze your beard, and on colder days to a low of -42°C with out wind chill. Ryan’s mom (a globetrekker in her own rite) lived in Whitehorse, Yukon and this was one of those extremely rare opportunities to visit her. Not too long ago she lived in Cambodia, so traveling to the other side of our country, be it 10 hours of flight time was an easy choice. While Northern Canada is stunning in the summer months, if you can brave it, there is something eerily wonderful about the calmness of the Klondike in winter. Layered in a white thickness, that covers every sign, mountain top, roof, and lake, Yukon seems to be so quintessentially Canadian. Steeped in literary history from Jack London who famously wrote The Call of the Wild, to the poet Robert Service, and a national treasure, and a personal favorite of mine; writer Pierre Berton. All of whom wrote some of their best works from tiny cabins in Dawson City. The home of the Klondike Gold Rush of the 19th century, the famous yet sordidly hilarious Sourtoe Cocktail, and of the last 30 years the Yukon Quest international dog sled race. Yukon has so much to offer as a travel destination, its remoteness makes it appealing to the nature lover. Its why Ryan loved it so much.
Yukon Quest is a 1,000 mile international dog sled race that begins in Whitehorse, Yukon and ends in Fairbanks, Alaska, and alternating start and finish each year. Lasting between 10-12 days usually, with the longest ever finish time being 20 days. Mushers and dogs travel through some of Yukon’s more difficult landscapes. With Yukon Quest being called the world’s most difficult race, Wikipedia’s breakdown provides some excellent comparisons.
The route follows the Yukon River for much of its course and travels over four mountains: King Solomon’s Dome, Eagle Summit, American Summit, and Rosebud Summit.Its length is equivalent to the distance between England and Africa, and the distance between some checkpoints is the breadth of Ireland. Racers endure ice, snow, and extreme cold. Wildlife is common on the trail, and participants sometimes face challenges from moose and wolves. Because of the harsh conditions, the Yukon Quest has been called the “most difficult sled dog race in the world”
Anything that challenging comes with a lists of rules and regulations. Mushers and dogs are required to takes rests at specific stops along the trail, ranging from 6-24 hour breaks. During this time dogs are vet checked, fed and left alone to sleep. Mushers can be ejected from the race at any point if the vets and officials feel that the dogs have been mistreated in any way and dogs must be in top shape in order to race. Its important to remember that these dogs are bred for racing, and the long trek. They are not your average dog. Just like any animal, if they are treated well and taken care of properly they can live a long life, and many sled dogs retire from racing and become great companions. Ryan had the chance to meet a few retired dogs who visited the Yukon Quest headquarters to take local kids on short dog sled rides around Whitehorse.
The starting line was a sea of people on race day, and Ryan was part of the press covering the event, independently as a photographer. But what is even more exciting than photographing the event is being part of it. Ryan had the rare opportunity to ride along in a sled and take part in the 1st km of the race. He was in the tag sled lead by musher Rolland Trowbridge, and after that 1st km the musher lets go of the tag sled and leaves it behind. Its an honor usually given to the Mayor of Whitehorse, kids who win contests and dignitaries. Ryan’s chance was simply the result of being in the right place at the right time. Dog sleds typically travel about 13-20 km per hour, and at -40 that can be wildly cold, even for just a short ride of 1km. Staying warm is not easy, actually Ryan froze his knees which were temporarily exposed during the race. Even with the proper gear on the cold can be a dangerous beast. Its understandable why mushers wear mitts that are two times the size of oven mitts and jackets and hats that make them virtually unrecognizable.
After the 1km ride, Ryan packed up his gear and headed 3 hours north to catch the teams coming in along the trail towards their first mandatory stop. For 2 days he tracked the mushers until their positions were so remote you could no longer safely see them, he visited multiple stops along the trail including; Carmacks, Fox Lake, Braeburn, Pelly Crossing and Dawson City. The 2015 winner of Yukon Quest was Brent Sass who arrived at Fairbanks, Alaska in 9 days 12 hours and 49 mins. A 10 hour lead over 2nd place, Sass arrived safely, with 12 dogs, and went home with $24,000 and 4 ounces of gold. He was the heavy favorite going into the race and it was his 2nd win in a row at Yukon Quest.
Later that week Ryan flew from Whitehorse to Dawson City to do a little site seeing, and capture one of the last visible stops along the Yukon Quest trail. Dawson City is like an old saloon town. Its made for tourism, and the home to the gold rush here in Canada. Its a tiny town with lots of colorful buildings, well kept to the style of the late 19th century. Its kitschy, and scenic, and famous for its panorama views from the Top of the World Highway, and for its Sourtoe Cocktail. Guarded by Captain Terry Lee, the Sourtoe Cocktail is actually an old toe that people pay to drop into a drink. Its like a right of passage, similar to Newfoundland’s kissing the cod. You buy a drink from the bar, pay the Captain, he drops the toe into your cup. You “Man the Feck up!” drink your drink and must allow the toe to touch your lips, and thats it! You’re in the proverbial Sourtoe club. After a few days in Dawson City Ryan decided to make the 8 hour trip driving through the mountains back to Whitehorse. The images he was able to capture are stunning. Only missing out on seeing a really good show by the Northern Lights. We hope you enjoy this super long post of the best moments from his adventure.
Erika & Ryan
P.S. All the images in this post were photographed with two Fuji X-T1 cameras, and I just found out that they say on their website they are good for use down to -10°C. You will see below, that the time spent above -10°C was sparse at best, with an average of -30°C.