by Mara Baudais
“Let’s go!” I call out. Five dogs lurch forward with shocking fierceness, without one second of hesitation, throwing my city-soft body into shock. Frantically I grab for the crossbar with my mittened hands, raise one foot off the brake — a small spiked platform of snowmobile track — to a small, icy runner. The other foot tests the brake. A 61 year old woman…what was I doing?
Four kilometers of a snow lined driveway had brought me to ‘Muktuk Adventures’, a sled-dog outfitters and ranch 24 kilometres out of Whitehorse, Yukon on the bank of the Takhini River. As I had wound the magical winter road, not for one second did I know what was waiting for me — mushing my very own dog team!
Rounding the last curve of the drive 127 dogs welcomed me with wild abandonment. The sound was intense, the sight filled with chaotic energy. Dogs pulled on chains, jumped on and off their kennels. 28 lucky dogs would be chosen for the five sleds. I carefully picked my way through this fascinating scene, patting as I went.
After being outfitted with sub-zero clothes my four fellow mushers and I were taught ‘the reins’ in about three minutes. The guide told us that we each would have our own team of dogs. My own team! Not share? I’d had visions of me covered with furs, sitting on the sled, taking pictures, sharing the mushing!
The guide must have seen my shocked face. “Are you ok with that?” she asked. “Yes!” I heard myself say with excitement. Somehow, deep in my core, I knew that this was going to be an opportunity that relatively few ever had.
“Keep the main cable taut; otherwise the dogs will get tangled. Mara, I want you to take the lead! Follow me; the others after you!” our guide said. Me, the lead position?
After a check of the brakes, runners and the bar to hang onto, it was my turn to follow our guide who had already disappeared down the icy path to the frozen river.
So, here I am hanging on…cruising the corners, one foot tentatively testing the brake, laughing into the sun and cold air as I am being drawn towards …the steep trail, dropping 25 degrees to the frozen Takhini River! The team is going full-tilt, the downward momentum exciting them beyond their own expectations. Three bumps in the path lift the sled and me off my feet and back down onto the runners with a loud clang and shake. I hang on even harder. It is wild crazy fun! I don’t know whether to scream in fear or laugh with excitement. Then, I hear a voice, barely human…wild with abandonment, laughing into the wind. It is me! I have chosen to laugh, to embrace the demands and to become one with the adventure!
Turning a sharp right onto the snowmobile path my team and I run hard onto the iced river. The stark expanse of the Takhini River opens up like a crystal fan. What words can describe the undisturbed purity of this place which overflows my senses and takes my breath away with each river bend?
Amazingly, I begin to feel confident and began to bond with the five dogs in my team, all cross-breeds. Sharing the lead is a slim female, Bellini. Frequently, she turns with dark eyes as if to ask, “How are you doing?” Also leading is Spot, a powerful male with eyes sky blue. He‘s boss of the team, alert to commands and quick to assess the trail’s turns. In the middle is Smeagel, a white beauty keeping the lines untangled. Ravel and Norman, like anchors, keep the sled upright on the steep bends. Ravel has a stiff rear leg but it doesn’t interfere with urinating en route.
Before long, within the world of soft ‘shoshing’ of the sled’s runners, the quiet panting of the dogs and the ice creaking as we as a team slide over it, I find my own pace. I relax more and more and breathe deeply into the experience and know, without a second’s doubt, that this is a highlight of my life. I am exhilarated! I have connected to a core part of myself that I’d never experienced before. I feel fully alive! I know without question that without my new exercise program of the previous three months, I would not have been able to have had this experience.
The day is perfect! Dazzling sunshine transforms snow and ice into shards of sparkling rainbow colors in a bright blue sky. The huge silver sun, shimmers through the trees and billowy white clouds. The tops of snow-covered mountains are caught in splashes of pink. The River embankments is 40 metres high. Sedimentary layers form the river banks with clusters of shrubs, pine and spruce. Ancient eroded hillocks like hoodoos drop to the river and the wind shirris along its body. The purest, untouched snow is blown onto the ice at the curves of the river. The intricate patterns of blue, purple and pink shadowing hold within it countless groupings of dark green lodgepole pines and spruce leaning towards the river as if for a drink.
A pair of huge ravens dip and caw along the high embankment adding to the wind’s muted humming. They soar beside me, caught on the wind and sun’s rays. The yelping and howling of the dogs is intense each time we stop to adjust harnesses and replace the leather booties worn by the dogs. And always, the constant shurring sound of the runners on and on like a mother shushing her child.
We glide through the portals of trees leaning over the ice path and through the open river curves. What did I look like from the top of the embankment? What did the ancient ones look like as they, too, moved across the Bering Strait on their rivers of ice? Nineteen kilometers we meander – criss-crosssing and running down the centre. I am continuously over-whelmed with waves of pure joy which never disappear. I laugh and laugh until my facial muscles ache. I feel alive like I’ve rarely felt before. The river and I are one—flowing forever.
Our guide disappears further and further ahead. There is no other person in front. I revel in my sense of being alone with no other in sight, alone in the power of this winter world.
We stop for lunch at an island where the Takhini and Yukon Rivers meet. It had once been a gathering and fishing spot for nomadic people. Today it’s an informal camping and resting area for mushers. I eat lunch, relishing the deep quietness that myself, as a city dweller, had lost long ago. I reflect on all those who have come before me, to stand where I am standing.
The silence is broken only by the dogs growling over food and their howling and yelping to be on the trail once again. Their wild cries repeatedly echo up the rivers. My own voice rang with theirs , ‘Let’s go!’
As we turn homeward we barely stop, each musher alone in ones own thoughts. I had been the only musher to not get the harnesses tangled. Quite an accomplishment! The shadows and colors deepen as the light drops lower into the day. The mountains ahead are ablaze with the purples, pinks and golds of the setting sun. Tears of joy and appreciation run down my face!
All day my camera had been snug against my body so that the batteries wouldn’t freeze. I am now confident enough to take videos on the move. I soak in each moment of magic, promising myself that I will be back someday.
Instinctively the team turns left off the river, up the trail at a fast pace. The sled and I careen and bounce. The dogs are running full on for kennels and their friends who are barking a welcome. Up a steep slope their lithe bodies pull in one coordinated effort! We are up and going for home stretch!
Into the yard we race. The yard dogs are wild with joy! Slowly but confidently I put on the main brake and safely glide back to the very spot I had left that morning. I am grinning from ear to ear! I am a musher!
If You Go (Other Than By Car):
By Bus: Greyhound Bus provides a very scenic route from Vancouver; under two days; about $140 one way; reserved seats available
By Air: Air North; just over two hours to Vancouver; about $250 one way; unbeatable views of the mountain ranges in winter .
For a unique experience visit Whitehorse, Yukon in the winter. It will be cold, in the minuses, with vibrant blue skies. Winter will offer you a variety of outdoor activities that will expand your mind and challenge your body. At this time of year the frozen rivers and lakes defy the boundary between land and water making access to nature expansive.
Update August, 2020: Greyhound bus service is no longer available.
About the author:
Mara writes creative non-fiction, travelogues, short philosophical essays and poetry. These are mainly based on traveling and/or a deeply insightful experience, often associated with traveling and meditation. Besides extensively traveling in Europe, she has visited north Africa, Thailand, Israel, Turkey, China, Inner Mongolia, Tibet, Sri Lanka after the tsunami, Guatemala, Canada (coast to coast), local areas of the B.C. coast and the Yukon. She is presently on a six month trip that will stretch from Great Britain to the eastern Mediterranean.
All photographs are by Mara Baudais.