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Western Arctic Spring, March 2006 Photo Gallery and Report

Part 2: Yukon Dogsled

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The first part of the trip took place in southeast Alaska. Two weeks later we were in the Yukon, leaving Whitehorse with Cathers Wilderness Adventures for ten days on dog sleds. We drove to the west side of Lake Lebarge and got ourselves and gear onto some dog sleds plus a skidoo trailer. Normally, we'd have all been given a team and let loose for the trip across the lake but the wind was so bad and the temperature so low that they kept the sleds hooked together and to the skidoo. This made for a slower trip than normal but it did keep things under control.

The two photos below show our first meeting with the dogs and a stop on the way across the lake.

It was after 2 when we arrived straight to lunch, a modest one as dinner was only a couple of hours later. They put the three men on one cabin and the women in another. We then got a bit of a lesson in handling the sleds (without dogs attached). The photo t right shows the men's cabin.

After breakfast we hitched the teams up. Each of the six teams had five dogs. With only two people to show us what to do, hitching up took a long time, but eventually it was done. It was even more of a hands on experience than I'd expected -- absolutely outstanding from that point of view.

And then we were off. The two photos below show us getting the dogs ready and just after the first sled went. The women's cabin is at left in that photo.

We headed up a hill and through the forest. There were some sharpishish turns, a few interesting rises and drops. Taking photos was easier done when we'd stopped, but sometimes possible on straight sections while driving the sled. The photo at left shows us at a hillside stop, Lake Laberge to the left. The second shows a turn.
We kept going for about 8 km, then stopped for lunch in the woods where we made a fire. We had thermoses of hot water and a variety of drinks cider, chocolate, soup, various teas. Hot dogs or toasted cheese for the vegetarian, brownies or other cakey things for dessert. Good food for fuel to keep warm. After lunch we turned for home, relatively uneventful coming back. We were told that we were doing very well for first timers.
Day 3. This time we were aiming for a 30 km return, double the day before. The day was nice and clear. Hitching up took a lot less time as we now had an idea what to do.
Once again it was up the hill but then we dropped down onto a lake. Driving along the lake was easy, just follow the sled in front. If you could get a camera out, you could take a photo.
Our learning continued. The dogs love what they do. They want to run. When we had to stop for whatever reason, we had to turn the sleds onto their sides and anchor them as shown at right. Otherwise, the dogs would take off and keep going until the sled snagged on something. We got this right from the start, so we never lost a sled at a stop.
The dogs are fed twice a day, morning and night. Lunch was for people only. While we ate, the dogs enjoyed a rest.

Day 4, 17 March. A beautiful sunny, very cold day -37C in the morning was 8C lower than the previous low for 17 March in Whitehorse.

We'd learned the basics, now it was time to put them to the test. We were about to head off on a five day expedition. Packing for a trip of that length took extra time so we didn't set off until after lunch. The photo at right was taken not long before we left and shows a bit more of the main Cathers camp than the earlier photos.

We did a long run of about 35 km (four hours) down to the north end of Lake Laberge. This was as easy as it gets. I could turn around to take a photo of the sled behind. The person in front could turn around to see how those behind were doing.

We got to camp with plenty of light to set up and feed the dogs. They got warm water and fish meal followed by frozen chicken mince (mince made of whole chickens, bones and all, run through the mincer twice to completely destroy the pieces of bone).

It was going to be a cozy night, five of us plus Jennine Cathers in a 9' x 12' tent. The contained a wood stove for heat which kept it much warmer than outside. The photos below show the tent when first set up.

Although the temperature was about -30C, yhe Yukon River was open and flowing well at the end of the lake where we had our camp. (The river never freezes over here.) This made getting water relatively easy. Relatively.

The ice near the edge might have been easy to break so Jennine was roped up as a preventative measure before she went to the edge where she chopped out a section of ice to allow her to dip closer to the safe ice.

Water which didn't need melting made feeding the dogs and ourselves much easier than it might have been. We had dinner sitting around a largish campfire outside at about -30C. Even bundled up near the fire, it was cold so we didn't last too long. There was a small bit of aurora visible to the north when we went to bed. It was too much for Kathy to resist. While the rest of us enjoyed the warmth of the tent, she slept outside at -36C so she could enjoy the light show. Amazing what you can do with a good sleeping bag. (Kathy is at the left in the left photo below. Ned Cathers at right.)
Another lovely day. The steam from our cooking had left lovely patterns of frost on the trees. After feeding the dogs and then ourselves, we were off.
The trail wound around through the woods for about 20 km before hitting Coughlan Lake. We had lunch in the woods. The photos at left show the dogs resting and sled dog footwear. If the dogs begin to develop foot problems, they get special booties. Some of the dogs never had a hassle, others needed new footwear daily. The Cathers family has won awards for the care they give their dogs.
Once we hit the lake, we still had about 10 km to go. Not long before reaching the cabins where we spent the next two nights, we met two Swiss German hikers pulling heavy sleds. Look at the photo at right below -- I much preferred our way of travelling.
Although it was fairly late when we arrived, we still had a bit of work to do. The only water was under a metre of ice so we had to drill. Then it was into the warm cabin for dinner.
A few days does not make you an expert. The trail down the hill from the cabin was so steep that Jennine had to drive all the sleds down the hill (far left). And then we were off, across Coughlan Lake, through the forest and over to another lake.
Cooking lunch in the snow can be a bit of a challenge, easily overcome with the right gear. The right gear was a metal pan for the fire so that melting snow didn't put it out.
Through the forest and across the lake. We were getting reasonably good by now. No way could anyone have taken a photo like the one at far left while driving a sled a few days earlier.
Back at the cabin, we enjoyed a beautiful sunset before dinner. Three of us then went down to the sauna shown at right below. It felt pleasant at first, then got a bit hot. We got out to cool down. Two of us contented ourselves with a quick snow rubdown, but one tried rolling in the snow. Bit of a contrast to the humid 46C inside the sauna!

Day 7, 20 March. Three days earlier, Whitehorse had had a record low. This was the day that set a record high for 20 March, +11C.

The dogs were incredibly eager to get going in the mornings, howling, barking and pulling, trying to get going until finally they were off. Once we were on the trail, it was almost quiet with noise from only a couple of dogs. It was like that every day. The two photos below show us travelling back across Coughlan Lake toward Lake Laberge. In the one at left, you can see the cabin where we spent two nights.

Back in the forest, we stopped for lunch and a rest. Pity we couldn't all be as comfortable and relaxed in the snow.

We got back to our first campsite, set up the tent and fed the dogs.

With six teams of six dogs each, feeding the dogs took a bit of time. They had to be chained up so that they'd wait their turn. Once the food was in front of them, it was gone in a flash.

Another day in a winter wonderland. We headed down the lake, stopping for lunch after a couple of hours. By this time it was warm enough for the snow to be melting.
After lunch, it was back onto the sleds and heading for home. With all her experience, Jennine was able to climb off the runners and onto her sled. The rest of us were content to relax on the runners and enjoy the scenery.
Back at the Cathers camp, we unloaded the sleds, fed the dogs and went into the main house (shown at right) for dinner.
For our final full day, we went out on a new trail. We went through some forest, then down a steeper hill than any we'd done before.
As strong as the dogs were, they did have their limits. The dogs needed help to get up the steepest hill of the trip. Look closely at the photos below and you'll see why it was so slow. Some people had to do the climb more than once.
What goes up, must come down. Soon we were back on the lake for the run home. Once the dogs were fed, it was time for our own dinner.
Day 10, 23 March. We didn't want to hasten the end, so we had a really slow start before crossing the the lake back to where we had begun. Then it was time for a final farewell.
Our dog sledding was over, but there was one final amazing sight as Ned Cathers hooked up five dog teams to a ski mobile and set off for home.

The words and photos here tell only a part of the story.

Words and photos are no substitute for the real thing. Why not join us and see for yourself?