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The Yukon will leave you spellbound

Travels with Deb

Deborah Stone | Feb 27, 2017, 6 a.m.
Whitehorse is the gateway to the Yukon, where adventure awaits. Photo by Deborah Stone

To most folks, the idea of taking a vacation in the Yukon during the winter seems absurd. The geographically-challenged might first wonder where the Yukon is actually located. Then when they find out it’s in the far northwest corner of Canada, they immediately imagine enduring howling winds, thirty below temps and unfathomable amounts of snow and ice amid miles of forbidding wilderness, and emphatically say, “Thanks, but no thanks!” But, to those in the know, this remote Canadian Territory is a region of dramatic beauty with a rich history, vibrant culture, incredible natural wonders and limitless landscape that’s ripe for adventure. And of course then there are the people. Yukoners welcome visitors with open arms, delighted that you’ve made the effort to travel to their home. They’re eager to show you around and share some of the secrets of this magical place. And I guarantee you’ll find these hearty and resilient souls to be as colorful as the tales they tell!

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The Yukon Quest attracts mushers and aficionados of the sport from all over the world. Photo by Deborah Stone

It was the 2017 Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race that brought me to this distant locale in February. Known as one of the most arduous races of its kind, the Quest is known for excellence in canine care and fostering the age old traditions of dog sled travel in the north. This epic winter sports event, which began in 1984, covers a span of 1,000 miles between the cities of Whitehorse in the Yukon and Fairbanks in Alaska. Every other year, the race swaps the start and finish cities, but the route always remains the same. This year, it began in Whitehorse, the capital city.

The trail follows historical Gold Rush and mail delivery dog sled routes from the turn of the 20th Century. These were once the “highways” of the northern frontier. During the race, intrepid mushers and their heroic dogs wind their way through mountain passes and icy river valleys, as they deal with the harsh conditions of a frozen wilderness. It’s not uncommon for teams to experience blizzards and minus forty below temperatures, along with the lengthy winter nights and hours of darkness typical during this time of year. Those who embark on the journey understand that preparation is key in the ability to contend with both the expected and unexpected scenarios they will encounter.

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Crowds line the start of the Quest and cheer on the mushers and their teams. Photo by Deborah Stone

The Quest is a true test of the capacity of both mushers and their canines, as well as a tribute to the strength of the bond that unites them and the mutual respect they have for each other. Anyone who competes in such a race will tell you that the dogs are the true champions. They are akin to elite marathoners, bred for endurance, dedication and the ability to survive in the extreme environment of the north. The mushers, on the other hand, serve as coaches, cooks, caretakers and most of all, trusty companions to their dogs, who are viewed not as mere animals, but rather as close family members.

At this year’s Quest, there were twenty-one mushers at the start line. They came from Canada, the U.S., France and Sweden. Many were veterans of the race, having completed it numerous times in the past. A number of the rookies who entered, though new to the Quest, were veterans of other races such as the Iditarod and Kuskokwim 300. If you get a chance to talk to these fearless competitors, the conversations will most often revolve around their love for the sport and their dogs. For many, the trail is their home and they’d rather be out in the wilderness with their teams than almost anywhere else. They all uniformly crave adventure, as well as relish challenge.

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