British travel writer Polly Evans’s latest book, Mad Dogs and an Englishwoman, tells of her journey to Canada’s Yukon Territory to learn to drive sled dogs
I’ve never been good with the cold, so it was with some nervousness that I set off for three months in Canada’s Yukon Territory, where winter temperatures drop to forty below and the sun rises for just a few hours each day. My mission was to learn to drive sled dogs.
“When you’re in a room of ten people, are you among the five who are too hot, or the five who are too cold,” Frank Turner asked me on my first morning. I was staying at his kennels, Muktuk (it’s the Inuit word for whale blubber), just outside Whitehorse. Frank is experienced with chilly weather; he’s competed in the thousand-mile Yukon Quest dogsledding race more than twenty times. I told him that I would be among the five who were cold. I didn’t like to add that, where nine of those people were perspiring, I would be the one reaching for an extra sweater.
Frank handed me thick bibbed pants, a down parka, a pair of mitts, and a pair of enormous white-rubber “bunny boots”.
“The most important thing is that you’re not too hot,” he went on. “If you get hot you sweat, and then when you cool down you freeze. You should never sweat!” He paused then added, “In any case, it’s warm today.” Outside a thermometer recorded a balmy minus 15C.
That first morning, I fell off my sled within a minute of leaving of the dog yard. But, day by day, as I helped to feed the dogs and “scoop poop”, I began to learn the names and personalities of the hundred-plus animals. Vanek was blond, beautiful and shy. Natasha was a busybody who liked to know her neighbors’ business. Stanley and Livingstone were brothers. They were both pure white and looked identical except for their ears: Livingstone’s were both floppy, but Stanley had one that perked up. Their personalities, however, were wildly opposed. Stanley was an exuberant extrovert, while Livingstone was quiet and sensible.
As I began to know the dogs, so my mushing skills improved. After a couple of weeks the dogs would turn left when I shouted “haw” and right if I shrieked “gee”. Very occasionally, they even stopped when I told them, “whoa”.
More extraordinary still was the fact that I was starting to enjoy the weather. The Yukon light was mesmerizing with its late blue dawns and the buttery glow of noon. One morning as I stood in the dog yard in temperatures of 30 below, I noticed that the snowflakes falling on my fleece were single, intricate crystals, breathtakingly perfect in their formation. Above my head, jagged gems of hoar frost glistened on the boughs of the spruce. And then, sometimes, at night, the northern lights weaved green and red across the starry skies.
In February, I followed the Yukon Quest race. Frank was not running this year but his son Saul took his place. We followed from checkpoint to checkpoint in a truck until, one night, a blizzard battered the course’s highest peak. Saul, with a group of fellow rookies, went missing. We waited in anguish until the race authorities called the state troopers—and they called the military who, with a Hercules and a Black Hawk, scoured the mountain till they found them.
A few weeks later, I mushed along a section of the Yukon Quest trail myself. The weather that week was bitter: Our thermometer recorded temperatures to thirty below but, at night, the mercury slunk well below its bottommost marker.
“Don’t try to be comfortable,” said Stefan, our guide, as we lay close together in our tent in an attempt to benefit from each other’s warmth. “In these temperatures it’s impossible to be comfortable. The most you can hope for is a couple of hours’ sleep.”
But in the daytime, once the sun climbed past the hilltops and the sky shifted in colour from pale cornflower to a deep, vibrant blue, the temperatures rose and we could look forward to eight hours of undiluted joy. At times the snow was virgin powder and only the dogs’ powerful noses could find the packed trail beneath. Sometimes they’d lose their footing and plunge into the depths to the side. For a moment they’d disappear into the whiteness before they emerged, shaking their heads and wagging their tails with delight at the adventure.
One day, as evening fell, we mushed along the frozen surface of a river. Small, snow-covered mounds peaked and dipped where, months earlier, the freezing ice had jammed one nugget against the next. The moon was full that night and it cast a silvery light across this austere but beautiful world, silent except for the rhythmic patter of dogs’ paws and the gentle creak of the sled.
At last, I understood. I realized why the Quest mushers might subject themselves to the race’s hardships; I saw that the bliss of running dogs on a remote trail outweighed the many challenges. I was struck by the tremendous emotional bond that develops between musher and dogs, and by the dogs’ boisterous enthusiasm and noisy desire to run. And then, I was jerked out of my reverie. My team, having sniffed our camp for the night, had started to gallop. As they charged, I tumbled from the sled onto the snow. The dogs turned their heads and seemed to grin. Their wagging tails and laughing mouths told me loud and clear that, despite my dreaming, I still had a long way to go.
“Polly Evans writes travel lit at ground level: noisy, colourful and entirely delightful. Comparisons to Bill Bryson, Thomas Cahill, and Paul Theroux…would not be unwarranted.” Booklist
“Unlike that terrifying breed of die-hard travel writers, Evans is one of us…Makes for a refreshing change.” Sunday Times (UK)