Canada: in the tracks of
The Yukon Quest
It is a cold winter night when three Dutchmen step out of the airplane in Whitehorse. At that point, the temperature in the capital of the Yukon Territories in Canada’s extreme north has dropped to minus 35C. They realise this is going to be a very cold adventure.
The Yukon Quest has got Whitehorse in its grip. In the centre, everything is cordoned off and it is fairly busy. Frits, WideOyster’s photographer, and me get a pass with “photographer” on it. I am not, but nobody cares. The pass turns out to be some sort of open sesame, I get to walk around everywhere, take pictures and ask questions. All at once, the tension rises, and we hear the starting signal for the first team. Every team starts with a three-minute interval. The sun is right behind the start, meaning full backlight. Too bad, I think, but when I look around, I see a beaming Frits. He says this is his favourite light. When I see the pictures afterwards, I understand: the images are amazing!
All at once, the tension rises, and we hear the starting signal for the first team. Every team starts with a three-minute interval.
When the first five teams have left, I start to walk, going “backstage” at the teams that still have to depart and defrost myself a little at the refreshment stall. The atmosphere is incredibly amiable, and the speakers broadcast a constant stream of background talk. When a Japanese contestant appears at the start, the commentary goes a bit like this: “Well John, what do you reckon she’s got playin’ on her iPod? Hell Brian, it sure ain’t Neil Young!” After which we hear in great detail about the times “Miss Honda” has done the Quest and in what place she finished. I buy a Yukon Quest fridge magnet (it is a sport at home to, when going abroad, bring back a fridge magnet as ugly as possible) and then go to find Karin and Frits. Time for coffee.
Before we start our own three-day Yukon Quest, we stop in Carcross. Here, we find the workshop of Keith Wolfe, carver of totem poles, trapper and storyteller. I am in my element, because Keith’s workshop is full of tools, wood shavings, machines and a giant totem pole. This is his fourteenth piece, and considering that Keith has been doing this work for over thirty year, you understand a totem pole is a long-term process. He talks non-stop about his work and his ancestors. He says everyone thinks his last name Wolfe is a reference to his mystical Indian roots. In fact, he has a German great-grandfather who was named Wolfgang.
The special suit we are given is a blessing, seeing as the cold goes right through my five layers of clothing
A little further, our huskies are ready to go. Today we leave for the Tagish Wilderness Lodge, crossing the frozen lakes of the Yukon. The weather is beautiful, clear blue sky and a chilly minus 25 on the thermometer. The special suit we are given is a blessing, seeing as the cold goes right through my five layers of clothing. The route across the ice is absolutely stunning. Huge mountains in the distance, the creaking snow under the sled and the dogs that seem to be running on cruise control after a while. When the sun sets, we reach Tagish.
The lodge is completely isolated and not accessible via de road. The cabins are beautiful, with a separate woodstove for each one. The toilet is outside, but if you walk fast enough, you won’t feel the cold, or so the Swiss owner says with a straight face.
At ten o’clock, our huskies are eager to leave. My huskies are called Rosie, Indy, Summit and Pirate, who appropriately only has one eye. Rosie is the smallest and most photogenic of the bunch. But she is extremely fanatical and clearly the leader. Ever since the start yesterday, I am convinced she is the husky version of Max Verstappen. She likes to creep up to the sled ahead of us, looking for the ideal line right and left (one-eyed Pirate is softly pushed the right way for that) and then, at the exact right moment, she puts her foot (or feet) down. And when I do break at that moment, Max looks back accusingly. Only to cheerfully try again. At some moment, I lose focus for a second and Max pushes Frits’ whole span professionally out of the track, as if it were Sebastian Vettel. “He pushed me of the track!”.
Rosie is the smallest and most photogenic of the bunch. But she is extremely fanatical and clearly the leader.
The trip starts again across a lake, but soon we go through the forest. Frits takes the most insane pictures, and I am just happy Max isn’t taking over here. We have lunch in the sun, at a camp fire. Our guide knows what to do: a chain saw and axe are part of his standard equipment. The fire also brings some warmth, and our company slowly but surely starts to heat up. We eat spareribs, blueberry muffins and are served fresh coffee. What do you mean, endurance? The afternoon is possibly even more beautiful. The sun is higher now and the temperature rises to a point I can go without gloves for a while. Better enjoy it now, because tonight, we camp. The nights here are around minus 30.
Our two guides (Marie Claude is the musher and Niall has a snow scooter with all the gear on it and behind it) had already put up our tents. First, we unyoke the animals. (Rule No 1: dogs first!) After that, Niall throws himself with clear eagerness at a few trees that are sawed into pieces with a chainsaw in no-time. Marie Claude carelessly waves around an enormous axe, splitting the wood into manageable pieces. The stoves in the tents are glowing red, and the US army sleeping bags (up to minus 40!) are rolled out on a stretcher. Karin enters the tent, worryingly looking at the snow, because that same snow is the tent’s floor. But Niall ensures us that snow is an excellent isolator and that the tent will be nice and warm later. Karin doesn’t seem convinced…
We eat steak with jacket potatoes and are served a Yukon Gold, kept in the cooler. To keep it warm!
Outside, the camp fire is burning intensely. We eat steak with jacket potatoes and are served a Yukon Gold, kept in the cooler. To keep it warm! Tonight’s mission is the Northern Lights. Up to now, we haven’t seen anything close to the Aurora Borealis. Our luck should change this night. It is fortunate that the stove requires new wood regularly; that way we can check whether or not there’s something to see. Getting out is easier said than done. Getting in and out of a sleeping bag with all your clothes on isn’t uncomplicated. Frits is even wearing his thick skiing pants, I can’t seem to figure out how that fits. The night progresses and the stove eagerly devours log after log. The temperature drops to below minus thirty and Karin has to conclude that Niall was a tad optimistic. The Northern Lights don’t show their beauty. But this won’t spoil the fun. What an adventure!
Sander van Opstal
Director Askja Reizen
“My father worked for KLM (Royal Dutch Airlines), my granddad was a sea captain for Shell. Travelling was an essential part of my upbringing, I love every country I visit. I have a special place in my heart for Egypt, Terschelling and sailing in Friesland.”
Space, silence and splendid nature have been the basis for Askja’s Reizen for over twenty years. It is a concept that appeals to many people. Not surprising, because as counterbalance to all the rush and frenzy of daily live, an active nature holiday is a relief.
Winter adventure in the Yukon Territories
The Canadian Yukon is a destination for true adventurers. Askja has mapped out the perfect trip over there. During this wintery trip, you experience the true nature of the vast North-western-Canada: amidst the calm, vast and untouched landscape. And all that in the historical tracks of the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898.